Our “Pew Fellow of the Week” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.
Dancer, choreographer, and educator Dinita Clark (2019) spoke to us about her lifelong interest in dance, the current issues she is addressing in her work, and what makes Philadelphia’s dance community distinctive.
Also known as “Queen Dinita,” Clark is the co-founder and co-choreographer of Just Sole! Street Dance Theater Company with her partner, Kyle Clark. She teaches at the University of the Arts and Drexel University, and she has performed professionally as a principal dancer with Rennie Harris Puremovement and Illstyle & Peace Productions. She is also a co-founder of Funky Sole Fundamentals—a dance workshop series dedicated to the preservation of hip-hop, house, and funk dance styles—which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2021 with a series of guest-led summer workshops.
How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to this choice?
Music and dance were always a part of my life growing up. Saturday morning house cleanings and doing chores were accompanied by music as well as family gatherings on holidays, birthday celebrations, graduations, cookouts and block parties. I grew up in a household where R&B, soul, funk, disco, and hip-hop music was being played all around me, so my appreciation for music naturally progressed into expressing myself through dance. As I grew older, I realized that I could not go a day without dancing, so I began to seek after school activities and programs that offered dance.
My very first experience “learning dance” was at Morris E. Leeds Middle School. I joined the Songhai African Dance Ensemble and the Sisters of Songhai Steppers. Impressed with my performance, the school counselor suggested that I audition for the dance program at Franklin Learning Center High School (FLC). There, I gained two very influential mentors: Faye Snow and Clyde Michael Hayes, who trained me in Horton and ballet techniques. They were very instrumental to my growth as the woman and artist that I am today. They were my inspirations that drove me to want to become an artist. I was captivated by the way Faye Snow was able to make me fall in love with a process, method, discipline, and technique of Horton, a dance form that I had no prior experience with. Though I was young, I was able to put my life experience into her choreography because her work resonated with me spiritually, as most of her work was created to gospel music. I felt myself growing in every facet of my artistry within my four years as a dance major in high school.
With her guidance and mentorship, I knew that I was no longer just a dancer. I was becoming an artist. With the recommendation of both Faye Snow and Clyde Michael Hayes, I was accepted into the undergraduate dance program at the University of the Arts and received my BFA. I believe that artistry is the ability to have an understanding of life and knowledge of self, layered within dance. I became an artist when I was able to correlate my life experience with my social dance experience, along with my formal training in other dance forms, which led me to my authentic approach to performing, competing, teaching, and choreographing with the understanding that all of these are different facets to be honed.
I also believe that being an artist is not a place that you arrive at. Artistry is an ongoing process, so as long as you are living life, there’s more layers of artistry to unfold. The funny thing is, Faye Snow would always say, “You’re not even a dancer until you are thirty.” I must say, I fully understand what that means now.
What is your daily art-making routine? How has it changed during the pandemic?
My daily art-making routine includes listening to different genres of music and freestyling to keep me inspired. I am a freestyle dance artist by nature, I like to organically flow wherever the music takes me. Even when it comes to choreographing, it is a very impromptu process. I choreograph on the spot as I am driven. The only thing that has really changed is the fact that now I am teaching all of my classes, cyphering, partying, and choreographing at home over Zoom. I have two young children that my husband and I homeschool, and our first priority is keeping them safe above all else during this pandemic. So naturally, whenever we play music, our children cypher with us as well, so it becomes a freestyle family affair.
What images or things keep you company in the space where you work?
For the past few months my living room has become my workspace for all things dance-related, including teaching, choreographing, rehearsing, and freestyling. Needless to say, I am accompanied by images of a few pairs of sneakers, my laptop, a light ring, a notebook, charger cords for all of my devices, and of course a spacious floor. Every now and then, there are darting images of my children running down the steps to go to the kitchen for something to drink during small school breaks. Last but not least, I am accompanied by the images of all of my students, who are consistent at pushing beyond their comfort zone by being present in class via Zoom with me in my living room.
What was the first work of art that really mattered to you? Did it influence your approach to your work?
There were plenty of pieces that really mattered to me as I look back and think about my artistic journey. As a dancing professional, I was blessed to have been a lead dancer in Rennie Harris Puremovement from 2007 to 2014, and all of the work really mattered. One of the works that really challenged me as a performing artist was performing in Something to do with Love Volume 1, choreographed by [1996 Pew Fellow] Dr. Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris. This piece was a 22- minute, four-part love suite for which I remained on the stage for its entirety, only having one exit for a 32-count breather.
This piece was the longest piece that I had ever performed as the main character the storyline was enveloped around. I had to dig deep to establish my character and sustain a transitioning storyline with different movement qualities and style, as each section presented a different dance form, including hip-hop social, house, waacking, popping, rocking, and locking, with room for freestyle as well. Throughout this process, I had to embody various emotions to make the storyline honest, compelling, and complete. I learned how to be vulnerable by trusting my instincts and honing the essence of my character from a sincere place, which required leaving it all on the dance floor. I am grateful for this experience and process, because as a dancer and choreographer, I can speak from a place of experience in my work when translating what a role for a piece requires in regard to developing stamina, execution, and character. Being a part of Rennie Harris Puremovement inspired and helped me envision how to present hip-hop and street dance choreography for the stage.
Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this arts scene distinctive?
As a Philadelphia native, I choose to work here because it has made me who I am as a person and artist. Before teaching as a college educator for ten years, I also taught at dance studios, after-school programs, and special needs programs for over ten years to inspire, encourage, and share my love for dance with children who have the same zeal and love for dance as I had growing up. I am choosing to give back to the city that has given me so much culture and inspiration. This city is not for the faint at heart, and there are no easy props given in any field here. Nonetheless, Philly is filled with so many talented, hard-working artist’ within and outside of the field of dance. I’ve met singers, rappers, poets, DJs, and dancers with so much passion and drive here who are making a way for themselves and their art to thrive. Amongst all of these scenes, I am especially grateful for the house dance club scene here in Philly that has been thriving since my emergence within it in 2002. Parties like the Sundae Party by DJ Lee Jones continue to keep the house dance music and culture alive for all artists and people of all ages to engage in a distinctive scene to experience some of Philly’s underground richness.
For whom do you make your work?
My work is catered to creating a space for those who wish to truly see themselves and be uplifted, engaged and challenged to be better in life and dance. I have been dedicated to teaching the foundation and technique of hip-hop, house, and street dance culture to the youth and young adults. I create my work for the local Philadelphia community, Just Sole! Street Dance Theater, and my places of work, the University of the Arts and Drexel University. As a woman, it was necessary for me to be someone that young girls and women could have access to as an educator and choreographer of street dance and a source of inspiration if they choose to walk the same path. Throughout this pandemic, we’ve all suffered financial and/or family losses, experienced and or witnessed overt racial injustices, faced uncertainty in many aspects of life, and lost a degree of social connection. I make my work for all seeking a sense of connection, release, and liberation in their mind and body, now more than ever.
What artistic work has resonated most for you during the past several months?
One of the works that has resonated with me during this time is a work that Kyle “JustSole” Clark and I co-choreographed in 2015 entitled 1960 What?. We created this piece in response to the ongoing deaths of Blacks due to police brutality. More specifically at that time, it was Eric Garner being choked out by four cops as he repeatedly said “I can’t breathe.” Five years later, during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd was murdered by a cop who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes until his death as he repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.” In response to George Floyd’s murder, Kyle “JustSole” Clark and I co-choreographed another piece entitled STILL CURRENT(S). The first section of this work is an ode to Black excellence and the genius of Black dance forms. Our Black bodies, what we possess, and the traumas we have persevered through are topics that are rightly so “still current.” The second section is about the frustration we as Blacks in America feel still dealing with social injustice, systemic racism, and financial and educational disparities in 2020.
In reflecting back to the beginning of your career, what is the most useful advice you ever received?
The most useful advice that I’ve ever received was to just be myself, to walk in my calling and what God has for me is mine. This advice never gets old as it is a constant reminder to be authentic to my purpose and to stay true to my journey. I believe that everything happens for a reason and what is meant for me will not pass me by as long as I work hard, trust my intuition, and keep my motives clean.