North Texas audience swipes right on Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s new piece ‘Swipe Left’
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As Bianca Melidor danced “to the left, to the left” on stage to Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable”, the audience at AT&T’s Wyly Theatre roared with laughter and applause at opening night of Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Cultural Awareness show in mid-February.
The performance marked the premiere of Dallas Black Dance Theatre dancer-choreographer-writer Sean J. Smith’s piece “Swipe Left”, a reflection on the challenges of modern dating told through the narrative of Serena Davis, a fictional 32-year-old Black woman from North Texas who “[identifies] as 24.”
The standing ovation, bursts of laughter and shoutouts made it clear that the piece resonated with many audience members. Smith, who first came up with the idea for the piece, says he works to make his dances relatable.
“A lot of dance is for a dance audience, and I think that's a mistake,” he said. “I hate to use this word as it sounds so high brow, but I'm air quoting here … regular people. If we're not engaging [an audience that doesn’t have a background in dance] or relating to them, we're not doing our job.”
After the two shows on Feb. 17 and 18, Dallas Black Dance Theatre (DBDT) posted on Instagram about “Swipe Left” and two people commented “the whole world needs to see this performance” and “this was one of my favorites that night! Please keep this in rotation!”
At the post-show talkback session with DBDT dancers on opening night, the first question was directed towards Smith about “Swipe Left.” Other people in Smith’s life have also been reaching out about the piece, including some of his students, their parents and DBDT founder Ann Williams. And Melidor said a man with a comedy background came up after the show to ask how she and Smith put the piece together.
While “Swipe Left” is filled with moments of levity like when Melidor or “Serena” dances to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Body” or another dancer interjects as Carrie Underwood singing “Jesus, Take the Wheel”, it’s also clear there’s a deeper meaning.
“I wasn't out there trying to make political statements,” Smith said. “But when I watch it back, you can see there's lots of little messages throughout and very bold statements and a lot of revealing of different sides of people and culture that we often suppress and hide.”
The piece is refreshingly specific in its locale and honest as it delves into what it’s like to be a single Black woman in North Texas, one who thinks DeSoto is out-of-town and goes to NorthPark Mall for retail therapy.
Within that storyline, “Swipe Left” is able to unpack topics like interracial dating as Serena grapples with the idea of dating a white man who dances to M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”: “I couldn’t believe I had to consider the possibility of dating a white man — during Black history month.” Also issues like homophobia in Christian culture: “One time Pastor James told me homosexuality causes hurricanes.” And the piece also playfully comments on consumerist culture and beauty standards for women: “I looked like a Kardashian fresh out of surgery.”
It even talks about the financial inaccessibility of culture that makes us feel seen: “I hadn’t been this depressed since Beyoncé told me to quit my job and then turned around and charged $5,000 dollars for tickets to her Renaissance tour.”
“Swipe Left” also didn’t shy away from uncomfortable situations Black women experience. Take the scene where dancer Daniel Palladino plays the love interest Smith describes as the “token white man.” Serena recoils as he asks the fatal question: “Can I touch your hair?” As the stage’s digital backdrop turns an alarming blood red, Melidor’s character Serena rages against Palladino’s character.
Melidor said audience members seemed to really be invested in the performance.
“I feel like for the first time in a long time, we actually went out into the lobby and genuinely got smiles versus you guys just danced so beautifully,” Melidor said.
How Dallas Black Dance Theatre swiped ‘to the left, to the left’
Melidor and Smith worked closely together as writers and choreographers to put together the storyline, rehearse and record the narration, select pieces of music and develop choreography.
When navigating complicated issues about identity and belonging, Smith said his primary goal was to make sure all of the dancers involved in the piece were comfortable — especially Melidor who played the lead role and voiced the narration.
Smith also checked in with Palladino to see how he felt about the character, so that the dancer could reclaim the narrative rather than being the butt of the joke.
“Every time he did that scene, he got a little crazier with it. He was in charge of the joke,” Smith said. “That was important to me that we had that autonomy and in a way that control over it beyond what the audience might think.”
Melidor said the role challenged her to step out of her comfort zone. One aspect of that was the fact that she had to wear just a Black bra and underwear for much of the performance.
But she says she eventually got past the discomfort when she realized the costume was another part of the storytelling. Serena Davis first meets the audience in just her undergarments, not overtly sexualized but stripped down to her most authentic self. She eventually takes on different identities — and pieces of clothing — throughout the piece.
“I feel like it takes a certain level of maturity and a certain level of self-confidence to maneuver beyond just, ‘I'm in a bra and underwear,’” Melidor said. “Like I went from this is a bra and underwear to this is just the canvas that I will be painting throughout this dance.”
Melidor said most of the feedback she’s received on the performance were comments admiring her body. Women on stage often have to deal with people’s obsession with their bodies. The most recent example is the viral discourse surrounding Rihanna’s pregnancy announcement during the Super Bowl Halftime Show. While grateful for the positive feedback, Melidor hopes audiences get the larger message of her performance.
With Melidor playing the role of Serena, it brings up a challenging issue: what are the boundaries between her and her character? Not only did she voice the entire narration that plays with the dance, certain elements of her own dating life were incorporated into the “Swipe Left” plot.
“I think as dancers, we're always playing that game of how much of myself should I show, how much I hold back, how much do I want to give and take?,” she said. “I think with Serena Davis, I feel like I had full control of me just putting my entire self into that character.
Ultimately, Melidor said the experience of doing the work “opened us up to this new world of the kind of art we can create.”
“So being able to express and execute in this kind of way was exciting for me and I feel like it kind of put us on the next level of what we're able to do and what people are willing to see from us,” she said.
Serena Davis’ storyline ends by finding love, not in a man, but in herself. She realizes “that the love of my life was me.” After “God herself” or Kamala Harris helps guide her to this revelation, Serena walks down the stage in a white leotard, blazer and veil.
The curtain closes as dancer Hana Delong lip-synchs Vanessa Williams’ “Saved the Best for Last.” But just when you think the show is over, Cardi B’s “Money” plays as fake dollar bills rain down.
Audiences are left to assume that Serena is living her best life, ever-evolving and relatable.
You can watch "Swipe Left" on demand here.
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