by Aiano Nakagawa
Josslyn Mathis Reed is a feminist dancer, teacher, and choreographer. She founded her own dance company in 2014. They often perform politically charged productions. She also teaches hip hop workshops to help give a better understanding for the history of hip hop and to encourage young dancers.
Aiano Nakagawa: What is your connection to feminism and do you consider yourself a feminist?
Josslyn Mathis Reed: I do consider myself a feminist because I want equality for women and I see how women work so hard, and strive so hard to do things that men are doing. When a man does something he’s automatically glorified, but a woman has to… I feel in my heart, women have to go through a lot more hurdles to get the justification of even being close to equal to a man.
[There’s] a lot that goes with being a feminist, there’s pockets, being black, being white, being Asian, being whatever you are included in that. Sometimes that’s difficult being black and being feminist because you want everyone to say [feminism] is “for [all] women” but then people look at color too and it’s really hard to want to be part of a feminist circle when people are staring at the color of your skin. But I am feminist and I’m very supportive of women – women of all colors, women of all ages, women of everything, and once people start to get that through their head, I feel like people will look at the feminist circle in a different light.
AN: Why did you choose the medium of dance and when did you start dancing?
JMR: I started dancing late. I actually started doing street dance, like hip-hop, popping and locking, and you know, just going through my own style of movement. I’m from Detroit and techno [music] originated from Detroit, so just going to underground parties and clubs in my youth, and being part of that circle got me interested in dancing.
I used to dance in my basement but my family couldn’t afford to send me to classes. They would say, “that girl can DANCE,” you know what I mean? I am a dancer! Then one day in my 9th grade year, I was battling in the circle, just dancing, and my teacher, pulled me [aside] and said “You have to apply for the arts academy so you can dance.” I was like “Ugh, what do you mean? I do dance.” But [the arts academy] opened up a new beginning for me because I didn’t know that side of dance at all; the ballet, the modern, the contemporary aspect of dance – I was like “I can do this too!”
I had a hard time in ballet because of my body and my frame being really muscular, being stocky, and having an ass. When I was in college [instructors] were like “tuck, tuck tuck” and I’m like “Dude, don’t push on me and tell me to tuck – it is tucked and it’s nothing I can do about this voluptuous booty and you’re just gonna have to live with it.” You know what I mean? It really kind of damaged my soul. I knew ballet was out [since] it gave me too many body issues. Then I found modern dance. You can incorporate ballet with modern and I was like “Ugh! Yes, honey!” I can go on the floor, I can express myself without feeling trapped, because that’s how I felt [in ballet]. I know nowadays ballet is changing and things have grown in that community, which I am very happy for. [Now] I see Kids of Color, kids of every kind of kid – big or small – in ballet and it’s [become] about learning and growing, not about how tiny you are.
AN: When did you begin to identify as an artist and how did that identification begin?
JMR: You’re asking me that question? Girl, I felt like I was an artist when I was dancing in my basement.
I knew I could come up with movement without thinking about it – or just being free. So at a very young age I just let the music just move me. But learning how to remember what you’ve done and holding onto it, that was later in life. A lot of people, when I was young we like “well don’t you want to do something else?” it’s like “No! I’m an artist” at seven years old I knew “this is what I plan on doing. I don’t know where it’s gonna take me but dance and being an artist is going to be a part of my life forever.”
AN: As a choreographer what is your process consist of or usually look like?
JMR: My process when I was younger was, “It has to be the right music, because I have to be able to feel it.” Now in my process I don’t listen to music that much. I don’t tend to think about it, I just do it. A lot of people overthink it; is it right is it wrong? If your body does it, it’s right. That’s the most important. It doesn’t matter if people like it or not either. For me, it’s not about pleasing other people, it’s about me doing what I enjoy doing.
AFO: What are some risks you’ve taken in your art that worked out well or didn’t work out?
JMR: When I was at Mills College working on my MFA, I was dealing with what happened at the Fruitvale [BART] Station, the whole shooting of black men, and being black in society. I had to do something with that and I got with Venus Jones, who's a writer, poet, artist, and just a magnificent soul. She was telling me about some of the poems she wrote, there’s one in particular that talks about People of Color – not just Black people, because people tend to think of People of Color as being Black, no, I mean everybody of color in America and the things they have to deal with on a regular basis in this community. Whether it’s in California, which is very liberal and chill but still has issues or in Detroit where I am from, where everything is pretty segregated. [The poem] deals with the hardships of everyday life as a Person of Color.
People were saying “Joslynn, you called it out. You called it out!” I was like “I’m not trying to call out anything. It’s just part of my reality." Being a black woman I have dealt with my own trials and tribulations [including] beening seen as a threat. I’ve also seen the [hardship] of my brother and the things he's had to go through. It just hit home that you don’t have to do anything to be killed. You could just be in a church, minding your own business and get shot up and killed. So… I wasn’t calling out anything, it was just my [dance] piece happened right before everything came out to the light. Witnesses [began] recording [police brutality] and sharing it, and people said “Joslynn, this is insane, right after we saw your piece, [we see] black men just dying in handfuls”. I strive to always just bring reality into my dancing, even when it's tough.
AN: As a dance educator what are some things you focus on teaching your dancers about? And what do you want them walking away from your classes feeling and knowing?
JMR: When I’m teaching dance, unless it’s a course, what I want to them to take away from it is that you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to get every single step. Dance is just a growing tool because you’re not perfect. You’re just not. Mistakes do happen and that is okay – embrace those mistakes. I’m helping them realize that perfect is not a reality. And that we strive to be better everyday – better, not perfect.
I teach a lot of hip-hop work shops and I want them to know the history. [It] is really important because you see the media and what it brings to hip-hop and it’s supposed to just be this really cool thing. It is cool, but I need [people] to learn where it came from, what it’s about, and what it represents. If I don’t do that, I’m not doing my job. I make sure we watch videos, write things down, and I do everything within my power to know – so they know – what hip-hop truly is about and what it represents.
AN: So to you, what is hip-hop dance about and what does it represent?
JMR: For me hip-hop dance represents freedom within oneself in a community; it is a community dance. Hip hop dance has given inner city youth the ability to express themselves and explore their creativity through movement. Hip-hop dance is an example of experimental movement that keeps evolving. I want people to remember that Hip-hop was born in New York and the history behind it. They should not be blinded by commercialism and how hip hop dance is portrayed in the mainstream media.
AN: Within teaching hip-hop what are some of the styles you know a lot about and have studied?
JMR: [I teach] my own style of hip-hop but I intertwine popping & locking, tutting, jitting and a little but of modern – which throws people off. [We] can be tutting and then I’ll add a pique turn into a grand jete (leap). It’s a style that I came up with, but I don’t forget where I was taught or the things I was taught. I did a lot of popping and locking growing up and just a lot of [free] movement, which I feel doesn’t have a name to it. It’s just something that I grew up doing. Jitting played a big part in my dancing because it’s a Detroit style of movement. I actually did my [written] thesis on jitting. I talked to The Jitterbugs (Johnny, James, and Tracy McGhee) and did interviews back home in Detroit. I started jitting first and then everything else kind of wove into that. I’m currently trying to figure out how to teach it. I have elements of jitting in my company’s modern pieces but I’m working with a couple people to try to get it to where I’m able to bring in guest artists or somebody who can teach me how to teach it.
AN: What are some things you're looking forward to doing with your art in the near future?
JMR: I’m excited for all the projects that are coming up with my company [Mathis Reed Dance Company]. I’m in a "work-in-progress" state right now; seeing the work progress and change is really fun for me. I'm working on seeing where movement takes me and how it molds itself. Our brains are always so intertwined in it all but I want to take that part out and let the movement mold what comes next. I'm not saying I don't care [about the intellectual part] but I'm seeing what happens through this process [of being guided by movement]. It’s new for me. When we're in school we always thinking about what’s next, how it should look, how to analyze it, and now I'm not analyzing anything and I don’t want to. Someone asked "wouldn’t it be better if you a meaning behind your piece?" and I thought to myself “Haaaa, no!" How about I don’t have a specific meaning to this this time around? Now it’s about the freedom of movement and the freedom we have within space we're moving through. If you can get down with that good, and if you can't, well... then I feel bad for you. We need to expand ourselves to the unknown.
Note: This interview has been condensed for length and some paragraphs have been rearranged for a more linear reading experience. Joslynn spoke highly of, and would like to give a special thanks to, Cid Pearlman, David King, Nina Haft, Hakeen Rasul, Raissa Simpson and Joe Landini.
Thank you Joslynn for the tea and inspiring conversation. To learn more about Joslynn, her company, and upcoming events, please visit her website: mathisreeddance.com