Christal Brown: Directed by dance
When’s the last time you let your body express something through dance? Or does the mere thought of “dance” bring you back to the terror of some middle school dance that left you staring hard at the gym floor, palms sweating, wishing desperately no one would ask you to coordinate your awkwardly clunky feet?
Ya, we understand. And, guess what? You’re not alone.
Christal Brown, the dance program chair at Middlebury College and new dance director for Middlebury’s Parks and Rec Center, has good news.
“Everybody has their own dance language,” she explained. “We just get trained out of it.”
That means even if you’ve been suffering with two left feet for years (or decades), there’s still hope!
Students (youth and adult, of all abilities) started classes at the Rec Center on Monday this week, and will continue through Dec. 1. The classes are part of Brown’s new program, “Dance Xplorations,” featuring ballet, hip hop, tap, jazz, contemporary and dance for adults.
“Dance and gymnastics are the two most popular programs we offer,” said Terri Arnold, director of the Middlebury Parks and Recreation Department. So it was less than great news when the department got word that former dance director Chris Giorgio could no longer lead the program. “First we took a deep breath,” Arnold said. “Then I contacted Christal Brown to ask her if she could help us find someone to replace Chris or if she were interested in leading the program for the Rec Department. She was extraordinarily open to helping us continue the dance program.”
“When you really want to be a member of the community you put your gift on the line,” said Brown, who rarely says “no” even though she has little time to spare.
The Middlebury resident describes herself first as a mother, then an artist, educator and disciple. Here’s how it breaks down:
Mother: Brown is the single-mom of her 7-year-old son.
Artist: Starting at the tender age of 9, Brown took her first ballet class. Then moved on to tap, jazz, acrobatics and modern dance. By the time she was attending the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Brown was mainly focused on modern dance.
Wondering what “modern” means? “It’s as if jazz and ballet had a baby,” Brown explained.
After graduating with her BFA in dance and minor in business, Brown went on tour nationally with Chuck Davis’ African-American Dance Ensemble and internationally with Andrea E. Woods/Souloworks. She settled in the Bronx section of New York City for 10 years. There she spent three seasons as principal performer, community specialist and apprentice program coordinator with Urban Bush Women.
Educator: Brown not only teaches and directs the dance programs at Middlebury College and now the Rec Center, she is also the faculty director of MiddCORE (a mentor-driven, experiential-learning program), newly appointed member of the New England Foundation for the Arts board of directors and founder of INSPIRIT.
Brown built INSPIRIT — a dance company “with the sole purpose of bringing together and showcasing emerging African-American female artists and choreographers” — in 2000 while living in New York. INSPIRIT also has a specific youth branch called Project BECOMING, which Brown also founded, that focuses on “cultivating young girls into strong, competent individuals by identifying, supporting and developing a holistic perception of self through the use of creative modalities and life coaching.”
Through INSPIRIT and a close connection with the late jazz musician Fred Ho, Brown choreographed and directed “The Opulence of Integrity” — a theatrical, multimedia performance inspired by Muhammad Ali that “explores the homogeneous inner struggle for identity as it pertains to men of color in the United States.”
“My son was about 1 year old,” Brown said. That was 2011, when Ho first asked Brown to choreograph the piece. “It’s about black male greatness … We try to look at the whole man and tell his story authentically.”
Disciple: “We’re a faith-based family,” Brown said. She grew up in a Christian family in the small town of Kinston, N.C., but in adulthood, Brown studied Buddhism and Taoism. That is until 2011, when she rededicated her life to Christ.
“How people find God has always been interesting to me,” she said. “When my son was born in 2010 I had done a lot of life.” Her father passed away the next year and she was “done being Christal Brown the dancer.”
“That made me ‘normal’ for about two years,” Brown remembered. “It was the worst two years of my life. It was mundane. I was working three jobs — it wasn’t living, it was survival.”
One day, Christal decided to go to church with a dancer-friend. “It was the first time I’d seen Christianity being lived out fully,” she said. “The practicality of understanding the Bible is what gave me the courage to re-establish myself as a mother, artist, educator and disciple — and take it all to the highest level.”
By 2012, the refocused Brown, took a full-time position at Middlebury College and moved with her son to Middlebury.
FINDING THE TIME
As you can see, Brown is busy. If you’re wondering how on earth she’s going to manage the dance program for the Middlebury Parks and Rec Department on top of it all, it’s a good question.
“I have a good network,” Brown explained. “I want to use it to leverage my interest and ability in dance into a communal partnership.”
So, Brown is calling on Deborah Leedy and Haley Roe, two Middlebury College dance students; Karima Borni, a fellow faculty member in the dance department; and Josie Abbot, a high school dancer. Together with Brown they will teach the 11 classes offered in the multi-purpose room at the Middlebury Rec Center this fall.
“Dance is a galvanizing tool that strengthens us as a community,” Brown said, explaining why she took on the Rec Center job. “I hope to lay the methodology of dance for communicating. We’re building a scaffolding so people can have tools to grow together in a space that has lower risk of cultural development.”
So, don’t be afraid, wipe off those sweaty palms, lift up those heavy feet and learn how to, as Brown says, “use your body as a catalyst of understanding and communication.”
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