CHICAGO — Princess Mhoon knows a thing or two about how Black dance influences global movement styles.
Mhoon has toured the world, mastering forms like ballet, jazz, modern and tap as a choreographer, director, scholar and founder of the Princess Mhoon Dance Institute in Washington D.C. At the heart of all styles, you can find traces of the free-flowing movements she learned from her first love: African dance.
In “The Big Bang: Movement Theory and The Black Dancing Body,” a new 2.5-acre ART on THE Mart display, Mhoon, 10 dance companies and new media artist Liviu Pasare explore the significance of Black dance forms dating back to the Big Bang and traveling to the Afro-modern styles of today. The projection premieres 8:15 p.m. Thursday on the Riverwalk between Wells and Franklin streets.
Dancers illustrate how African movement styles “connect through all aspects of time and different dance genres,” Mhoon said. The display is a three-part series set to an original House music score from DJ Duane Powell, Sam Thousand and Steve “Miggedy” Maestro.
The projection is the latest work from the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, launched in 2019 by the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts and the Joyce Foundation to provide resources and support to Chicago-based Black dance companies. Mhoon directs the program.
“The idea I’ve been trying to push through the continuum of this project is that Black dance is American dance, and it’s not anything that is just one category,” Mhoon said. “We’re here in this country, and we created this together. We took the cultural retentions from Africa taken away from us and created new ideas.
“With this projection, I wanted to take it back even farther to a global idea that Black people are everywhere, and we’ve been here from the beginning of time.”
‘Dance Roots’ In Chicago
The world of dance has always been central in Mhoon’s story, she said.
Her mother was a dancer and her father was a musician and visual artist during the Black Arts movement in the ‘70s, Mhoon said. They were founding members of the Muntu Dance Theatre and the Najwa Dance Corps, two dance companies featured in the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project.
Growing up in Chatham, Mhoon learned to footwork and juke at the Rink Fitness Factory on 87th Street, she said. When the 1984 dance film “Beat Street” dropped, she and her friends learned how to breakdance in garages.
Mhoon started her career with African dance, she said. She quickly “spread her wings” to learn other styles like jazz, ballet and tap to give her a better shot at a professional career in dance, Mhoon said.
“One thing that’s known about being a Black dancer in America is that you want to be well-versed in as many styles as possible if you want to pursue a career,” Mhoon said. “Historically, Black people have been shut out of many areas and career paths for dance. To be successful, we’ve always had to learn many dance styles.”
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Mhoon majored in dance at Howard University. While teaching dance at her alma mater, Mhoon pursued a Master of Arts in Public History, she said. In her dance and history courses, she noticed a glaring omission: Chicago’s influence in Black dance.
“All of the books I looked at had all of the icons from New York, California and other places around the world, but all of my teachers that had a significant impact on my life weren’t documented, archived or memorialized in any way,” Mhoon said.
Mhoon based her master’s thesis on Black dance in Chicago, she said.
“My background ranges so much because of my love for dance and exposure, but also because of everything that Chicago gave me and still offers,” Mhoon said. “My dance roots run deep in Chicago.”
After college, Mhoon danced in New York, and choreographed for herself and other performers. She opened an acclaimed dance studio and was invited to the White House by former First Lady Michelle Obama as part of the 2016 celebration of Black women in dance.
“It was such a full circle moment of coming out of Chicago, a little Black girl on the South Side, following my dreams, using my passion, turning it into a career and becoming a businesswoman,” Mhoon said. “Being at the White House with the First Lady, who’s also from the South Side, was a huge moment for me.”
Her research on the legacy of Black dance in Chicago stayed in the back of her mind, Mhoon said. For years, she envisioned how she would “get back to Chicago to finish this work,” Mhoon said.
The answer came in the middle of the pandemic when she got a call from the Logan Center for the Arts, Mhoon said. They were looking for a director to lead their newly formed Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project.
It was a natural fit, Mhoon said.
“I love this community, this work, and I’m on a mission to make sure that we amplify these voices, and we also get to preserve and make sure history is not lost,” Mhoon said.
An ‘Immersive’ Story Of Black Dance
Mhoon began conceptualizing “The Big Bang: Movement Theory and The Black Dancing Body” nearly two years ago, she said. During the pandemic, she began using documentary filmmaking to tell stories about dance roots in Chicago, which informed her approach to the project.
Mhoon knew she wanted House music, “the heartbeat of Chicago,” as the soundtrack to the movement, she said. Each dance company received an assignment to “take us through this year of dance,” Mhoon said.
“The plan was all about how do we share the story of Black dance from the beginning of time?” Mhoon said. “How do we create an experience for the city of Chicago and anyone traveling here that is completely immersive? Like they could see something beautiful and maybe even dance along with it.”
The projection is broken into three parts, Mhoon said.
The first looks at the origin of man. The second illustrates the early United States and “what movement looked like once the Transatlantic slave trade began,” Mhoon said. The third brings viewers to the current day.
The movement styles connect through time, Mhoon said. The linear image of an Egyptian hieroglyph might pop up again in a different period of dance when a hip-hop dancer is popping and locking or “Tutting,” a street style where someone dances in angular movements that refers to King Tut.
“I’m hoping this can be a universal experience for all viewers, no matter how deep they want to go into history or if they just want to enjoy the movement,” Mhoon said. “I hope no matter what vantage point they’re watching this from, there will be an appreciation for what Chicago offers its city through digital media art.”
The project also aligns with the four pillars of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project: capacity building, advocacy, archiving and presenting, Mhoon said.
One of the project’s main goals is to increase funding for the dance studios and expose donors and a new audience to the importance of Black dance, Mhoon said.
Many still don’t consider African dance a “viable art form,” Mhoon said. “The Big Bang: Movement Theory and The Black Dancing Body” is one way the Black dance community in Chicago hopes to shatter that barrier, Mhoon said.
“We’re pushing against the misconceptions about Black people and what Black dance is,” Mhoon said. “Once people learn those art forms and connect them, we can [debunk] and deconstruct stereotypes that Black people are only shucking and jiving or twerking, and realize the pelvis is the center and heartbeat of humanity. That’s where life force is born, and you’ll see that movement in African dance forms and others around the world.”
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