Named for the sun and needing to be in constant motion, Surya Swilley paces between the living room and kitchen of her North Philadelphia studio apartment. With the exception of an occasional passing bus, no sounds can be heard.
Surya is a dancer, and she affectionately refers to Charlotte as her home. Sipping water from a thermos while dressed comfortably in a long-sleeved black tunic and blousy grey pants, she’s been busy preparing to share her journey as a mentor with the QUEER|ART|MENTORSHIP Program, a non-profit arts organization serving a diverse and vibrant community of LGBTQ+ artists across generations and disciplines.
The mentorship supports a year-long exchange between emerging and established artists in five different creative fields: film, literature, performance, visual art and curatorial practice.
What led you to get into dancing?
My mama, she would take me to her rehearsals with her.
Your mother’s a dancer?
Yes, she is. I think once a dancer, always a dancer.
What’s your primary style of dance?
I’d say it’s mostly a West African adjacent Post-Modern blending.
Is that your favorite style of dance?
That’s always been a hard question for me to answer, because when people ask that I’m not sure what they want to know. I overthink it. I like different forms of Afro-Modern.
What have you found most difficult about being a dancer?
There are a few things, one difficult thing for me is that it puts you in an arena where you are constantly comparing yourself. Not comparing my body, the range it can reach, it’s been difficult not to compare those things. Like the scope of my experience, it’s that space that measures one’s career. The richer your experiences it seems, [the more likely they’ll serve as] the gateway to get you to the high places of dance. So, unless you’re born with immense self-esteem, it can be a toxic environment in the classroom or the studio. That’s because it’s a performance-based genre, so [you’re] being seen and presented in your greatest and weakest ways. If we’re not careful about those things, it can do some damaging things to dancers.
Who is on your top three list of dancers or dance troupes who inspire you?
Urban Bush Women, Lela Aisha Jones of Fly Grounds and Pearl Primus.
Do you watch any televised dance shows?
I do not. Oftentimes I find them corny.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your ability to share or showcase your work as a dancer?
Oh, it shut down a lot of gigs I had lined up. Theaters and performance gigs were cancelled. My house had to become my studio. I was an adjunct professor at Temple University, so my studio apartment became a teaching space. I didn’t enjoy teaching from home. The fact that I made home my workspace was hard.
How’d you come to be involved with the QUEER|ART|MENTORSHIP Program?
I got an email one day from Rio, the Programs and Operations Director. She said that someone had selected me to apply for it. They’d done it anonymously so I wasn’t able to thank them.
Have there been any challenges for you as a program mentee?
It’s been hard to land how I want the texture of the movement for this [culminating project] dance to be. Different phrases are coming to my mind and body. I’ll share them with my mentor, but then it doesn’t feel like it’s translated. My creative process hasn’t fully presented itself it seems. Ugh, that’s been difficult.
Can you share with qnotes readers a little bit about the culminating performance piece you’re working on for the QAM Annual showcase in October?
Right now, I’m looking at this concept of flirting with death. It will be in a black box space to be presented in person or live streamed. Where sex and death intersect is amazing. There are so many ways to look at those intersections. I started looking at death deities and why death is taboo in conversations, like in circles of Christianity. In thinking about these things, I’ve questioned what it is to truly transition from this realm to another. What’s on the other side.
I’ve always been fascinated with death, and the more visible Black death became during the pandemic, the more I began to ask questions surrounding what ways death could be liberatory for Black folks. I started interrogating the history and the chronology of death for Black people since we were trafficked here to the U.S.
When Black folks are memorialized, when we see caskets, especially [those] of the young, there’s almost a sweetness — almost a sensual tone towards death. The conversations surrounding a young person in comparison to an elderly person. The language is more endearing, surrounding the promising youthful life and how that had so much to come, so much more to do and look forward to.
Why are programs like these important?
I can speak to why QAM is important. Queer liberation is queer folk feeling free. When queer folk are sought out to be in their purpose, which is as an artist and activist, that is a kind of empowerment that is very sacred because it allows every artist to know that they are important, supported and loved.
What’s next for Surya Swilley?
I will be relocating to a full-time position at a university and will keep working on my art. I am still going to keep creating, I’m still gonna’ keep dancing.
If you would, please share some thoughts with up-and-coming dancers who are interested in a professional dance career. What do you want them to know?
It just seems like there are more possibilities now to be accepted and celebrated in your bodies and your own style. It’s so much different than it was even a decade ago. So, use what is at your touch, social media. Not necessarily to create a viral sensation for yourself, but to use your gifts and talent to create a vocation for yourself. It’s abundant. Capitalize on your gifts to secure generational wealth.
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