Afia Thompson is proud to be a plus sized dancer in spite of running into prejudice early in her career. Instead of being broken by rejection, Afia and her daughter Nafi founded their own successful company to celebrate dancers of all sizes and shapes! They might be very short, or very tall; plus size, or diminutive; typically or differently-abled, cis-gender or transgender, but Bahiya Movement accepts dancers exactly as they are, and develops the work from there.
The company informs us on their website that “Bahiya” is a Swahili and Arabic word meaning “beautiful.” Their mission is to “create a safe, welcoming and body positive environment where everyone of all shapes, sizes, and genders are transformed into performing artists.” Their goal is to break down barriers created by body image and low self esteem, while creating beautiful dance touching on these issues and other challenging subjects such as racism and other social injustices.
“Weighted Acceptance” is described as “a multidisciplinary performance piece that seeks to heal urban communities by deepening the understanding of weights People Of Color collectively share and carry.” It has been created in collaboration with the company founders, mother/daughter team Afia and Nafi Thompson, and poet and spoken word performer SevanKelee Boult.
I recently interviewed Afia and SevanKelee.
Charles: How would you describe your work?
Afia: Bahiya Movement was founded in 2011 by myself, Afia Thompson, and my daughter, Nafi Thompson. Nafi and I grew up as plus size professional dancers. Both of us are rooted in West African dance. We both are professionally trained in hip hop, lindy hop, and Congolese dance styles while Nafi is professionally trained in modern, jazz. and ballet dance styles. As my daughter grew older we began working together more. Eventually we decided to create our own company to allow dancers of all shapes, sizes, and genders a platform for self expression in a judgement-free environment. We don’t discriminate! Bahiya Movement is a teaching company, training dancers at all levels from beginners to professionals. Most of the pieces we create respond to issues of social injustice. We’ve addressed sex trafficking, fatherless children, self-esteem, gender rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and more.
Charles: What are some of your influences?
Afia: Bahiya Movement is rooted in West African tradition, so it is important to pay homage to our ancestors. Growing up in the 80s with hip hop was certainly an influence, and still is, on my artistic expression. I’m a great admirer of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater of Harlem. Their work, and that of many other prominent black choreographers such as Rennie Harris and Ronald K. Brown, has definitely influenced my artistic work.
SevanKelee: Prince is totally my influence of originality. Hiphop, of course, especially early hiphop, is a common denominator for all of us! I am a child of the 70s. I grew up right along with hiphop, from the beginning. I’ve always been a part of that culture. On the playground, I was breakdancing and rapping. My friends were DJs and graffiti artists. Music is just who I am.
Charles (to SevanKelee): How did you come to collaborate with a dance troupe?
SevanKelee: Well, I had been working with Nafi and found out about the dance company. Then, one day in 2015, I saw Afia practicing for Carnival. I was preparing a spoken word show for my birthday, and asked Afia to dance during that performance. In 2016, Afia was doing a show at Red Poppy. That show was the original spark for this piece. It just kind of developed from there.
Charles: How would you each describe your daily artistic practice?
Afia: I listen to a lot of music and a lot of talk radio (KALW, the BBC). That is a big influence. As an artist and an activist, I need real and true daily insight on the world. I look at YouTube a lot as well, to see the different ways people move within the body. I want to figure out how to bring these insights into rehearsal. I always try to challenge my dancers to get out of the “normal” way of dancing and commit to telling a story through movement. I challenge myself and my dancers to always think outside the box and be innovative.
SevanKelee: If you followed me for a week, you would see and hear a lot of me talking to myself. I’m trying to get the words into my body. I do a lot of recording and listening back over and over again and practicing whatever poem or words I’ll be using in a show. You’d see a lot of physical cues tied to certain words. I’m always stopping and restarting, stopping and restarting, until it’s done right.
Charles: What would you say to someone who wants to do what you do?
Afia: I’d say take a breath, visualize exactly what you want, and write it down with lots of details. Then get started prioritizing what you need to do first. Move on to the next thing and just keep going. Always add to the list; you never stop wanting to grow, and change and move. Keep moving. Movement is key! As you create your art, you also create and change your life. So be open and be fluid. Change is good. Growth is good. And ask for help. You may not get it, or you may hear no a thousand times, but keep asking and don’t give up. Find a mentor. And keep going after your dream. Never stop dreaming.
SevanKelee: Go for it! Let the fear help you in all that you do! Don’t be afraid to fail, because you are going to anyway, much more than you succeed. That’s okay. Learn from your mistakes, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and find mentors and guides. Be strong enough to take constructive criticism. It’s a good idea to practice the “Serenity Prayer.” Stay humble and continue to believe in yourself.
Bahiya Movement will perform “Weighted Acceptance (2016)” on Saturday, May 26, at 6 p.m. in The Firehouse at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture.
Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) hosts this performance as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, which runs from May 24, 2018 to June 3, 2018. The Festival features more than 60 performances by close to 40 different artists, ensembles, and companies. Get discounts on tickets to see multiple shows at the Festival by buying a Festival pass. More details HERE.