Tuesday
Mar292016

Donna Mejia: Dancing Through it All

Donna Mejia is the first professor of tribal/transnational fusion globally. Photo: Steve Balderamma.A mom’s response to bullying tactics against her child has no bounds. It can be vengeful or it can be graceful.

One day at a Boys & Girls Club in Colorado Springs, 12-year-old Donna Mejia was cornered by other girls, being berated because of her mixed heritage. It was not the first time, but this time her mother walked in and witnessed the harassment. She pulled her out of the hornets’ nest, so to speak, when other adults did nothing to intervene. 

Following this incident, “She put me into ballet to improve my self-esteem,” says Mejia, who has since danced her way around the globe, and currently holds an assistant professorship in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

When recalling life before ballet or “structured training,” she describes herself as an introvert, yet physically expressive child, finding all kinds of ways to use her body: roller skating, running track, skiing and back flipping off things in the yard. “But all of those activities fell away,” she says, once dance was introduced into her life, becoming her sole extra-curricular activity. 

It wasn’t until 1996 that the business administration graduate of CU-Boulder realized that she could make dancing a career.

“I was in an education-corporate type job, but spending discretionary income and vacation time on dance opportunities,” says Mejia, who has been teaching dance at private and public institutions of higher education for nearly 20 years, including Colorado College in Colorado Springs and Smith College in Massachusetts, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree on fellowship. “It was pretty obvious all of my energy was going into dance. The most honorable thing to do was to get out of the way so that someone less distracted, than I, could fulfill the job.”

Though she found her career path, traveling it has not been without challenges. At various times in her career, congenital health issues have threatened to bench her. “It was difficult to maintain a dance career. I had to learn self-care at an extreme level. I had to become my strongest advocate with the doctor. But all of the hard work has paid off. I’ve now been pain free for years.”

Confusion about her mixed heritage has also followed her throughout her career. “It has been difficult to get casting in both white and non-white communities. Producers always wanted to know my heritage,” she says. “It is this overlapping identity and cultural ambiguity that stalled my professional career for so long.”

Mejia, whose heritage, for the record, includes Ghanaian, Spanish, French, Jewish, Native American and Scottish, adds, “I think my mixed heritage can be disruptive to people who’ve not workshopped their own assumptions about (and reliance on) social categories.” 

A Self-Defining Moment

Donna Mejia, a professor, dancer and scholar, has taught in higher education for nearly 20 years. Photo: Steve Balderamma.At the age of 35, she realized that she was “banging on doors that were not going to open for me. It had nothing to do with my talent. I was nailing it. I knew it,” she says, noting one particular audition. “My appearance was not what they were looking for.”

They actually said it to her at the same time they were telling her that the performance was perfect.  

She did not mask her disappointment and said, “Screw this!” to the choreographer’s face. At that point, she “stopped trying to fit the mold and started self-defining by cultivating an inner dialog between the collective dance genres in my years of study. Ultimately I landed comfortably in my art-making as a transnational fusion artist.”

Today, she is the first professor of tribal/transnational fusion globally. One promotion for her transnational dance immersion program in New York last year stated: “Donna has galvanized a personal practice that defies categorization but aesthetically highlights common denominators between North African/Arab rural dances, yoga, ballet, American hip hop, and Brazilian Silvestre Contemporary technique.”

These words validate her choice to blaze her own path. But more importantly, she wants to be recognized for empowering her students and helping to guide them as they refine their own skillset. “Some institutions can be toxic, hierarchical systems that abuse their authority, leaving broken souls instead of developing artists. I try to inspire students’ hunger for self-improvement and perpetual learning.”
She credits Letitia Williams, CU dance instructor emerita, for this approach to teaching. 
CU Assistant Professor of Dance Donna Mejia leading a class. Photo: Salwa/Art2Action“She became my reference point for what good education should look like when approached with integrity,” says the dance scholar, who early in her career served for 12 years as managing director of the award-winning Harambee African Dance Ensemble of CU-Boulder under the leadership of Williams. The ensemble performed for President Bill Clinton and Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. 

Overall, she enjoyed stable success in her dance career, but catapulted to international status in 2006 when an anonymous audience member bootleg filmed and uploaded one of her recital performances to YouTube, which at the time was in its infancy. She has since taught and performed as a soloist throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Today, she balances her time teaching and touring, appearing in at least 12 dozen cities per year.

The next Colorado date for Mejia includes a 3D collaborative animation/interactive performance at CU-Boulder's Conference on World Affairs on April 8 at 1p.m. The performance, to be held at the Atlas Black Box Theatre, is a collaboration with Kenji Williams, founder of BELLA GAIA, recognized for demonstrating how humans and nature are connected, and how art and science are connected.

From April 14-17, she will debut two new works in CU Boulder’s annual faculty concert titled, “The Current.” Her new solo benefits from the design work of Oscar-winning designer Jim Doyle and multimedia artist Teri Wagner. In late April, she will join other international talents performing at the Elevations Tribal Fusion Dance Conference in Golden.

Learn more about Donna Mejia’s regional instructional classes and upcoming touring dates at https://donnainthedance.wordpress.com/. 
“Black Women: Celebrating the Road Less Traveled” is a weekly online series published by Canady’s Corner to honor Black women who are making a mark in the world in their very own way.  

 

Monday
Mar212016

Phaedra High: Flowing Naturally with the Movement

Phaedra High, director and co-founder, Colorado Urban Naturals.If you live in the Denver metro area, you will be hard-pressed to hold a conversation about natural hair without saying the name Colorado Urban Naturals, quickly followed by the name Phaedra. 
A self-professed “natural networker,” Phaedra High, is all about making natural hair and skin care products easily available to Coloradoans, particularly with the state’s dry climate.
A few years ago, the Denver native noticed that there was a high demand for natural hair care products in Colorado, but few resources. She and one of her associates, Andrea Grady, started investigating what was available locally, and then started the process of adding to and centralizing these resources. 

The result was Denver’s first Natural Hair Care Expo held at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre in June 2014. It has been non-stop education and networking for the Urban Naturals since that time. Now as the director and co-founder, High is preparing for the third annual expo to be held  on Oct. 23. The fair-like event will feature workshops, demonstrations and entertainment. More than 500 people are expected to attend. 

A business administration graduate of Colorado Christian University, High has tested her wings through a few business ventures from branding, grant writing, event planning and financial planning. Not one to waste an experience, she has built on her background to help make the Urban Naturals the go-to resource in the state for men and women needing natural products, services and education.

The interest in the beauty industry did not come early for High, who was raised by her dad from the age of 10 years old. “My dad wasn’t into vanity,” said High, who has two sisters and three brothers. 
But, he was into cars. “We used to watch Auto Week on PBS. It’s still one of my favorite shows,” says High, who can list some of the vehicles from her younger days. There was the steel blue 1983 Buick Skylar, the first car her father purchased for her. It didn’t run. They had to push it out of the parking lot. There was the family car, a dark maroon Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciara that they took on road trips from Denver to Baltimore. She laughs when she remembers that the kids at school called it the hooptie. The first car she ever purchased for herself was an off-white 1992 Acura Legend from Craigslist for $400. She paid an additional $400 for a clutch. She learned how to replace the starter on that car, and it ran for about two years. 

The Conversations
Her eagerness and excitement about learning a new process and finding solutions has served her well. It’s no secret that the natural hair movement, often recognized as the shift from relaxers to natural hair, has become a lucrative endeavor. But it’s about more than money.

It spurs conversations that address a number of topics from the standards of beauty to making healthy choices. “I enjoy being natural, being expressive with my hair and being comfortable in my own skin,” says High, who captured others account of going natural through a video called, “Colorado Urban Naturals on the Streets Black Arts Festival.” 

The video, filmed at the 2015 Colorado Black Arts Festival, is a compilation of interviews she conducted while mingling with the crowd. She simply asked people why they chose to be natural. The answers were deep and practical. One person said she liked the convenience of it. “You are fine all the time when your hair is done,” she said. “You wake up fine. Go to bed fine.” 

The testimonials were a sign of more to come. 

The Colorado Urban Naturals is sponsoring an exhibit at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library entitled, “The Art of Being Natural.” The portrait documentary series, highlighting Urban Naturals in the Denver area, was co-created by artist Tya Alisa Anthony and the Urban Naturals, who coordinated the shoots, model casting and organized the first feature show. The people in the series, which runs through April 8, have chosen to live organically through nutrition, lifestyle, and personal hair style. 
Following the exhibit run, High will flow right into International Natural Hair Meetup Day, an annual event celebrated in more than 50 cities across the globe. This year it will be on May 21. The meetups are events designed to share information, techniques, inspiration and products to aid individuals in their natural hair journey. Each city does its own event in coordination with the day. Colorado Urban Naturals will be hosting a hair and fashion show on that day at AfrikMall in Aurora, Colorado. 

High’s decision to continue “kicking the tires” and investigating Colorado’s natural hair and skin care industry has turned out to be a worthwhile investment, locally and beyond. 

“I’m learning that if I just trust the process everything will be okay,” said High.
For more information, visit Colorado Urban Naturals.

“Black Women: Celebrating the Road Less Traveled” is a weekly online series published by Canady’s Corner to honor Black women who are making a mark in the world in their very own way.  

 

Sunday
Mar132016

Lea L. Porter: From Single Mom to the Mrs. Colorado America Stage

Mrs. Denver At-Large 2016, Lea L. Porter. Credit: Brad Harper Photography.The reigning Mrs. Denver At-Large 2016 is poised to make a second consecutive run for Mrs. Colorado America 2016 next month, and this time she truly understands the magnitude of this stage. Lea L. Porter is an accomplished actor, who has appeared on stage, in film and on television. But, 10 years ago, she faced a real-life drama. 
“I was a single parent in every sense of the word. No financial or moral support. Due to abandonment at the time, I was in sub-par living conditions, technically homeless, fighting tooth and nail,” says Porter. “I was very pregnant, in my third trimester. I was working a retail job. My back was hurting. My feet were hurting. One day while I was at work, I just felt very alone.”

At the same time, she realized that she had the next day off.

“I needed to get away. So after work, I got my pregnancy snacks and called my favorite auntie to say, ‘we’re coming to see you.’ I drove the most peaceful drive of my life from Denver to Pueblo. It was a short road trip in Josephine Baker (aka Jo Jo Dancer, the name she gave her 2002 Black Nissan Altima.) “I had my baby in my belly, God and I. I knew then that I was going to be okay. Amazing what a short drive can do.” 

Though the trip did not resolve all of her problems, it changed her perspective to a more optimistic place.

Fast Forward to The Decision 
A little over two years ago, while working at a broadcasting company, Porter unknowingly met Emily Stark, the director of the Mrs. Colorado America Pageant. Stark had actually left the office, but returned a few seconds later and asked Porter if she were married. Porter had been married less than a year at that point. Porter recalls, “She handed me a business card and told me to look at the website. She said, ‘You should think about this. You’re beautiful. You should do it.’”

Less than two weeks later, Porter made her decision. It was then that she looked at the website and learned, to her surprise, that Stark was the director of the pageant. She was also the mother of twin daughters, who were once conjoined. “Her testimony spoke to me. If she can survive, I can overcome. I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to put my big-girl panties on and do something.’ ” 

That something entailed a conversation with her husband, who said, “Well, I know when you put your mind to something you’re going to do it all the way.” That was the support she needed.  

Walking onto yet another stage should have been a piece of cake, but it presented a dilemma. 

“The genres are very different. Being a performer, you have a character. When on the pageant stage, it’s just Lea. I’m very vulnerable,” says the graduate of the contemporary dance performance program at the University of the Arts Philadelphia and former dancer with Cirque Du Soleil Dralion. “A lot of people think performers are extroverts. But it was the opposite for me. I didn’t want to talk after the performance. I merely wanted to be Lea.” 

As a pageant delegate, she has had to put herself on the line, do fundraising campaigns and develop a platform. She has chosen to pull from her personal experiences to help single moms to help them overcome labels, stigmas, stereotypes and homelessness often associated with single parenting. Her purpose is to use her platform to encourage, inspire, and empower other single parents through their journey. But she has done more. 

At last year’s pageant, she made an impression on a 13-year-old Black girl who was in attendance to support her auntie – another delegate. Her auntie told me later that when she went home she talked about me, and said, “Look at her. She’s dark. She’s beautiful.” 

Lea L. Porter reading to first graders. Credit: Roy B. Photography. “Her auntie said that she fell in love with herself after that,” says Porter, who has made a number of appearances including at elementary schools to read to first graders. “She went on to compete in her first pageant and won!”

A young woman, also Black, came to support Porter at the competition and was so upset that Porter didn’t advance to the top 10 that she dared to enter her very own first pageant. The young lady reached out to Porter to help her prepare for her pageant. Porter is proud to report, “She took the crown!” 

She has also found a sorority of sorts within the pageant where married women can help to support each other. These are some of the reasons why the mother of four, through a blended family, is still in the pageant world. “You never know who is watching. It’s amazing,” she says.  

The 40th Annual Mrs. Colorado America Pageant will be held at 7p.m. on Saturday, April 16 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in the Denver Performing Arts Complex in downtown Denver. The winner of the state competition will receive a prize package valued at more than $30,000 and advance to compete with 49 other state delegates at the national Mrs. America Pageant in Las Vegas in August.

To purchase tickets for the pageant, visit Mrs. Colorado America
To vote for your favorite delegate, visit Fabulous Faces.

“Black Women: Celebrating the Road Less Traveled” is a weekly online series published by Canady’s Corner to honor Black women who are making a mark in the world in their very own way.  

 

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