In the world I grew up in, there were always people moving — a Black universe in motion.
by Emma Robinson
My first memories of organized exercise came courtesy of women like Mari Winsor, Callan Pinckney, and my mom. Like them, my mom was active, feminine, and capable of strength that her body didn’t always betray. She’d come home in a whirlwind of soft scarves and red lipstick, disappear into her bedroom to change, and re-emerge like a vision in cotton and spandex. My mom has been wearing athleisure forever. On a towel or blanket, she would perform these strange movements as my sister and I watched from the couch and, eventually, joined in as if it were a game. Movement was still about leisure for us; the joy I got seeing my mom pop in a tape after work is a high I’ve been chasing ever since. Outside, my neighbourhood was a smorgasbord of Black bodies on roller skates, long bronzed legs on bikes maintained by the rider — a Black universe in motion. In the world I grew up in there were always people moving. But I couldn’t remain in my neighborhood forever. What of the world outside?
Movement is so intimate, yet for a long time we didn’t do it in public — at least not to the degree that we do now. When Black women began taking charge of their own path to equality in the post-Reconstruction era, respectability was one of our tools — opting to present the most polished, buttoned-up versions of our public selves at all times as a means for combatting gendered and racialized violence. We found power and pride in conjuring a new vision for “negro womanhood”. But effective as respectability may have been then, it also imposed standards on being Black, being women, being Black women, and being Black women in movement — many of which still carry lasting aftereffects.
Going to a gym could be misinterpreted as vanity. Misogynoir and sizeism consider leggings or workout gear to be inappropriate on our bodies. That’s just scratching the surface. As Black and Brown women, we don’t walk into movement or wellness spaces without those lived experiences — all of which can make group fitness classes or your local gym uncomfortable. This sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, or Double Consciousness as coined by W.E.B. Dubois, has shaped the idea of respectability across the boundaries of time, gender, sexuality, class, and color. Basically, it’s complicated.
All of this to say, Black history matters to Black folks — and has informed every step of my own experience with movement. That’s why Black History Month can’t be fully celebrated without context. Seeing Black folks in movement, using their beautiful bodies for joy instead of labor, tells us what is possible. The importance of a month dedicated to remembering our contributions goes without saying. We need to see ourselves in these spaces. This need for our history is especially true for those of us tracing our movement lineage through Blackness. And these are only some of the women who impacted mine.
1. Janet Collins
Janet Collins broke ground as one of the few Black ballerinas that were classically trained in the 1950s. She reminds me of the first dance classes I took as a child — the emphasis on grace and calm, making difficult things look easy. These things kept with me. There are so many Black ballerinas who never got to dance; poverty has killed more geniuses than any assassin. But seeing the few women who looked like me articulating limbs as if unfolding delicate paper, legs as anchors, faces placid and aloof, changed my orientation toward my own body. I learned softness here.
There are so many Black ballerinas who never got to dance; poverty has killed more geniuses than any assassin. But seeing the few women who looked like me … changed my orientation toward my own body.
2. Carmen De Lavallade
Carmen De Lavallade is the rebellious dancer’s Dreamgirl. Her life story reads like a Black woman’s bohemian fairytale: growing up in Los Angeles, taking Alvin Ailey to his first dance class, ending up with dozens of Carl Van Vechten photographs to document a life lived fully. Carmen’s left her fingerprints on the art world in a way all of her own. And a revolutionary streak that led her to reject an invitation to the White House when her politics were at odds with the administration. Every image of her dancing is full of long lines, a reminder of the Lester Horton training she used so eloquently.
Seeing Carmen in repose or movement — not for work but for joy — is a reminder that I need not be performing to have value. They are also reminders that the women who came before me prioritized themselves, and that I can do so too.
3. Freda Payne
When I saw Freda Payne, a multi-hyphenate TV host, recording artist, and Broadway performer, in the second edition of a 1970’s Bikram yoga book in my own very white Bikram studio one day, I immediately began to think of my utility outside of labor. The room she was practicing in was much more diverse than the one I was in, but we were both in the same class. As I thought of us doing the same asanas, both sweaty, I realized she and I were forever connected by 26 postures, conceived in a place far away. Freda is a reminder that the path I walk was laid by giants.
These women moved and bent the world, bit by bit, carving out a loving mirror of Blackness for us to see ourselves clearly.
4. Audre Lorde, June Jordan, and Angela Davis
Audre Lorde — feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist — said that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” This was never clearer to me than when I happened upon a video clip of June Jordan and Angela Davis on a run. These women in their activewear, with their hair flying free, was a blessing. Both of them brilliant and known for their minds, not their bodies, still choosing to address their physical selves. Both experiencing freedom, briefly, in their bodies, made me think of a video that Movement 4 Black Lives released at the top of Black History Month. The standout quote: “Know that we loved you in advance and anticipated your brilliance and broke what chains that we could to build the world that you deserve.”
These women moved and bent the world, bit by bit, carving out a loving mirror of Blackness for us to see ourselves clearly. Every class was a doorway. Every run was an invitation. Every posture was a reminder that creating a world compatible with our highest visions is not only an option, but a mandate also. These examples of womanhood left breadcrumbs for us to expand on over time. These women are my lineage of movement.