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Dance & Discussion: Past, Present and Zane Booker


Zane BookerHe’s an Aquarius.  He likes his freedom (“It’s like a physical need,” he says).  He confesses he can be stubborn.  But talking to Zane Booker, the creator of the Smoke, Lilies and Jade Arts Initiative (SLJ), is nearly therapeutic.  It’s almost as if he’s reading your inner most thoughts.  He frequently struggles to find the word he’s looking for, but when he finds it, it’s perfect, poetic even. 

Here he is, standing in front of his dancers during a Thursday night rehearsal. They’re running through choreography for Saturday’s performance and someone is doing it wrong. “Something really interesting is happening here,” he says civilly. That’s his way of saying, “that ain’t the way it’s supposed to be” and if you weren’t paying attention, you’d confuse it with agreeableness. 

“Respond to the task,” he tells the SLJ dance troupe. “It gets tense, tense, tense…then it pulls back.” 

He’s talking about the ‘choreo’ at hand, but the same could be said about his mission for the event they’re rehearsing for: Dance & Discussion 2010: Black Men’s Health Part II: Let’s Focus on the Youth! 

Last year we did Black Men’s Health Part I and I think it’s an ongoing conversation,” says the 41-year-old Philly native.  “We did a focus group with some youth and we brainstormed by asking them, ‘what do you think are the most pressing issues where Black men’s health is concerned?’ 

Surprisingly, the kids chose homelessness. “Nothing is on an island. These topics are all interrelated,” he explains. “Talking about homelessness opens up a whole bunch of other topics we could talk about.  Of course one of them being HIV and being kicked out of your families.  Another is abuse. Why do people get kicked out of their house?  Why are these LBGTs (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) living on the streets? A lot of it has to do with how people react to stigmas, and then once they’re out there, they are in trauma.  I think my point was to broaden the discussion.” 

As a community, we all should be concerned about these topics, but Booker, who has performed from New York to the Netherlands, may take this conversation a little more personal. He’s an openly gay Black man whose primary objective for SLJ is to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and to inspire through a creative avenue, such as dance.  Without a shred of doubt, he’s sincerely dedicated to both.  “One of the things I love about SLJ is that it gives me a certain amount of creative autonomy,” he professes. “And [Saturday] you’ll come and you’re not going to know who you’re going to see. It’s a cross-section of folks in Philly that I’m really happy to have come out.”

I dig a little deeper to discover more about the man behind the dream of a socially-conscious venture.  With what I call “phrase association,” we take a look into his past to understand the present and see into his future.


At 21 years old, I was... in Holland. I got my first European job dancing there.

The best advice I ever received was... to check yourself first. As far as dance is concerned, there were times when I felt like I wasn’t being casted or I wasn’t being used enough.  I talked to my dance director and she said, “A lot of times we focus on whether someone else is treating us right. What if we just focused on the work? Don’t focus on what’s happening on the outside. Just focus on your job and try to improve that.” Check yourself first.
When I first created SLJ, I didn't know... it was going to turn out like this.  I didn’t know it was going to be so successful. People really connected to our mission, to our work and to our aesthetic.  It’s community-oriented and people are curious about it on a national level. That’s a blessing. 

I don't know what's with these young kids these days, because back in the day... sometimes I wonder if their passion is fully ignited.  What drives you? That’s my biggest question mark with the kids.  Seeing them connect with their passion and having that translate into a consistent work ethic would be Heaven for me.

If I could step out for one night and cheat on Philly with any other city in the world, it would be...the Dominican Republic.  Honestly, when I see someone from the DR, I ask, “Are all of you this beautiful?” So the reason I want to go there is very shallow.


The best thing about this year's Dance & Discussion is...the new format and the engagement of the youth.  Dance-wise, I give the performers a wide rubric to sift their creativity through concerning this discussion of Black men’s health.

While creating this year’s Dance & Discussion, I couldn’t help but to think is it valid? I’m not just doing an event just to do an event, but I can’t help but wonder if people are going to think this is a valid conversation.

What I hope to accomplish this year with the SLJ dance troupe is…to get the company administratively sound. I think that will make my company run better.  I’ll be able to pay my dancers better. They get paid a stipend now for rehearsals.  I want to pay them an hourly wage.  I’m trying to fortify the infrastructure. I’m stepping back from production after establishing who we are artistically, and now we have to catch up administratively.  

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't...miss my mom.  I just lost her in April.

In the Black community, sex is…complex.  In our community, I think it’s fair to say for the most part, we either have Christianity or Islam and both religions are weird about sexuality. And on top of that, we are very sexual people. There’s an irony. There’s no true traditional way of celebrating sexuality. Even in South Africa, they are more comfortable with the sexuality of the body. Even when I lived in Holland, there was not a lot of shame of being a sexual human being.
I wish our young people would... set higher standards for themselves. Setting high standards is a way of being fully engaged in life.
Right now, there's almost nothing better thanmy family. My blood family has been so amazing.  Even my extended family, my friends, have been extremely supportive.


It's the year 2020 and SLJ is... headed by Justin Bryant (former SLJ dancer and current guest choreographer).  Also, there’s another organization on top of SLJ, which is a production company with a commercial theater.  Then SLJ becomes our non-profit.  That’s the 10-year plan; where I can hand SLJ over to a young person and say, “this is what we’ve created, so take it to the next level.” 

The next project I'm working on is...with Nadine PattersonWe’re doing a film about Macbeth with featuring two lead dancers. We’ve just began talking about it and that’s my next big project outside of SLJ.  As far as SLJ, up next we have an International Association of Blacks in Dance performance, then we’re doing a concert with Philadelphia Black Gay Pride in April.  We are the feature dance company of Mr. and Miss Black Gay Pride during Philadelphia Black Gay Pride (PBGP) 2010.  I love it because it gives us a change to connect directly with different audience.

I'm dead & gone. I hope when they talk about me, they say... “Oh, he was a great guy.” That’s all. 

The number one reason Philly should come out to Dance & Discussion this Saturday isOne, if you love dance you have to come out and see all of the fabulous performances because the kids have really worked hard with the choreographers on the new pieces. The pieces are all contemporary, good dances.  Another reason is that if you are someone or you know someone, a son, a cousin, a brother or anyone who’s dealing with HIV or Black health issues in general, you’re going to feel welcomed and comfortable in this space.


Dance & Discussion 2010: Black Men’s Health Part II: Let’s Focus on the Youth!
Saturday, January 9th, 2010 - 6:30 PM
Gershman Y

401 South Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147-1111
Free (w/ $10 suggested admission welcomed)


Upcoming Events

January 14, 2010
International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD) PRESENTS “Meet the Philadelphians”
Location: Merriam Theater
Time: 9:00pm
March 28, 2010

SLJ Guests with Dans4Nnia
Location: Painted Bride
230 Vine Street
Time: 5:00pm
April 18, 2010 
Mr. And Miss Black Gay Pride Featuring SLJ

Location: Levitt Auditorium 3rd Floor
Gershman Y – Broad & Pine Streets
Time: TBA
Facebook: @SLJ Arts Initiative