The Choreographies of Black Women’s Joy

Naila Ansari


“The Movement of Joy” defines and imagines joy through the archiving of performance, looking at and shifting documenting the joy of Black women through movement. This digital project is an exploration and series of embodied mediations of storytelling from an improvisational practice deriving from dances that have shaped dance in America. There is an emphasis on understanding and researching the histories that created spaces of joy through play, community, resistance, and self, creating a pathway for collective acknowledgment, while creating space for the immediate. In its fullness, “The Movement of Joy” is an ongoing practice aimed to amass joy testimonials through community, individuality, honesty, and authentic artistry. In this article, I will connect my research with the Movement of Joy Project and Black women who have championed Black joy through movement and choreography as a source of archiving our dance legacies.

"The Movement of Joy is a digital humanities project I began in 2019 to archive the ways Black women have made their joy visible through the spirituality of movement. Each woman that brought their stories and movements of joy offered a glimpse into a whole world of ways they embodied joy through social dance and their connection to a higher power. I learned through these women that how we move as Black folx in social or private spaces is in reverence, consciously or unconsciously, to our spiritual ancestors, and that Black women have been the cultural bearers of this reverence in many cases. Each woman who interviewed for the project has a different faith-based or spiritual practice, yet movement was a constant, such that it became clear in this project that movement is a Black interfaith bridge. Movement connects Black women through spirituality and joy on our journey of being Black women in America. 

As a Black American woman who grew up in a Muslim household, my discovery of joy through a perspective of movement is not one that many would consider traditional to my faith. I admit, when I began writing this article, I was skeptical in addressing dance and its connection to spirituality because of many stereotypes and ideologies around dance and faith. However, As I continue to research for this project and learn of the origins of movement and spirituality for Black Americans, specifically Black women, it becomes clear to me that our culture is one that connects to many religions, rituals, and spiritual practices. Although Black folx are not monolithic in our experiences, there is an understanding of the spirit that movement can develop as a collective source of Black joy. From the ring shout, second line dances at the Congo Square, to house dance and music, dance is one of the ways movement can create sacred central spaces of joy. 

The Movement of Joy is a project I developed as a survival source in navigating single motherhood, graduate school as the only Black student in my program at a predominately white institution, divorce, a full-time job, and the other complexities of life as a Black Muslim woman. As I was searching for my own joy, I began interviewing Black women elders in my community. Each woman identified differently in their faith and religious practices, but all identified as spiritual. I asked three questions in the interviews: What is joy? When did you discover joy? When did joy discover you?

The Movement of Joy Project | Anita Lewis - Corning, NY | Photo Credit: Mustafa Hussain

Anita Lewis, in a black and white photo, is seen singing with her face upwards. A smile is spread across her face and she is clothed in a long-sleeved white dress, hands upraised mid-clap.

I asked each woman to pick her favorite song that gave them joy or reminded them of joy and move to it however they wanted. These movements are photographed in still images. I took the interviews that were recorded and documented the answers each woman gave, and the songs they selected. After interviewing the first 20 women, there were many discoveries. The women pointed out various ways they found joy from play, community, or service to others. They found joy in their resilience, and they described moments of joy they found within themselves. While the women differed in the ways they had come to discover and know joy, when they moved to the song that gave them joy, that joyful movement consistently brought about a collective spiritual feeling in the room that defied explanation, but was captured in the photographs taken.

            For Black folx in America, to be resilient is not a choice, but a way of prevailing against the complexities of Blackness in white spaces. We often meet times of resistance with faith, spirituality, or religious practices. For Black women who find joy through movement, our Black social dances have been spaces where we confront resistance with joy. I look to Takiyah Nur Amin in defining social dance as it relates to these concepts. Amin writes, “I propose that these dances are sites for bodily enactments of pleasure, agency, and resistance, and consider that moving one’s body in the manner of one’s choosing is perhaps as revolutionary an act as many others2 .” Amin is situating our Black women’s bodies as the space where “pleasure,” “agency,” and “resistance” can all exist3 . It is this combination that makes our moving bodies in popularized dances a revolutionary act and allows for radical joy. I define radical joy as a joy that connects to the spirit of the ancestors as a collective community. Examples would be Krumping, lines dances at Black celebrations, and dance battles. In the dances created in our communities, they are far more than social, they are the interfaith spiritual legacies that have connected Black Americans together since the 1400s.

            This article will look at two Black women choreographers, legacy holders, and cultural ambassadors who have paved the way for Black women to move their joy as a spiritual collective. Michelle N. Gibson or Mz. G as her community refers to her, is a cultural ambassador, educator, the creator of The New Orleans Original BuckShop methodology, and a living legacy holder who shares the knowledge of New Orleans with the world. Most recently, her work “Takin it to the Roots” was performed at Jacob’s Pillow in its 2022 season, sharing the movement and spirit of New Orleans and its significance to dance and American history4 . The second woman is Marjory Smarth, undeniably one of the most significant figures in house dance and dubbed the “Queen of House.” Ms. Smarth’s legacy is one that influences hip hop and house dance today. It was her spirit of joy through movement and the sacred spaces she created that made Ms. Smarth a pioneer and an ambassador for the culture. Some thought of Marjory as a spiritual leader who allowed those she embraced the feeling of joy through movement. I had the honor of interviewing Ms. Gibson for the Movement of Joy project. Sadly, Ms. Smarth passed on before the project began, but I was privileged to speak to many she uplifted during her life.


Creating the LINE for Joy 

Line dances and formations like soul train lines are part of our roots in social dance. We can find the fundamentals of Black social dance cultivating spirituality in the “second line,” also known as the jazz funeral, out of New Orleans. But the roots of the second line can be traced back to the “ring shout.” Delving into this lineage tells the story of joyful social movement as a centerpiece of spiritual healing and legacy for Black Americans. The ring shout is one of the first sources of worship for enslaved peoples on plantations in the West Indies and America. It is also known to be one of the origins of the Black Church. Ring shouts were spaces in which enslaved persons would come to gather late in the evenings and Sundays with all of their stories and journeys inscribed in their bodies, creating a circle rotating counterclockwise. There would be a shuffling of the feet, a moving of the body, and clapping of rhythms that embodied sounds of home5 .

The ring shout is a collective testimony of the body and voice that created space for the ancestors and brought attention to a higher source of faith. Due to the diversity of African peoples enslaved during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, that higher source of faith could have been connected to the Yoruba faith, to Al-Islam, and to the BaKongo cosmogram. As a Muslim woman, I feel a deep connection to the ring shout and the ways it links spirituality and movement as the pilgrimage to Mecca involves millions of Muslims rotating around the Kaaba counterclockwise (Tawaf) in reverence to and in bringing the believer closer to G-d6 .

This ritualistic practice of the Ring Shout was one of the origins of Black testimony in America and the site of Black interfaith. In Black communities, testimonies have become the stories that are passed down to younger generations as guides to living fuller lives. Testimony is also connected to the spirituality of movement that we use to play, resist, communicate, and center joy in self. 

            The ring shout became a foundation for the establishment of Congo Square7  in New Orleans in the 18th century, there progressing into what we now call the second line after the Civil War.

During the early 20th century, the New Orleans second line served an important community function. At that time, African-Americans were not allowed to buy insurance, so they formed mutual aid societies – called Social Aide and Pleasure Clubs – to help members through tough times. When a member’s house burned down, or when someone died and their family lacked the funds for a proper funeral, the club would step in to help. Live bands and second-lining became integral parts of the fund-raising efforts. Combined with the city’s long-standing penchant for a parade, these activities led to the current “second line” brass-band parade tradition8 .

The Social Aide and Pleasure Clubs also helped Black Americans access brass band instruments, which were made accessible through pawning. Second lines are crucial in understanding how Black joy is cultivated both through self and as an act of resistance. It is a foundational aspect of how we build community in times of elation and grief through spirit. While the transition of death brings family and friends together, it is the movement of the second line that allows us to discover joy in difficult times. For Black folx, our joy is radical because it has to live in multiple complex spaces at the same time. We cannot ignore the oppressions placed on us, but we can choose to move through life on a high frequency.

The second line is a celebration of life. It is a ritual, processional, and a legacy for the memories of the people who have passed to live on through movement and music. Led by a brass band, the music and movement become a journey of grief and joy. It is the acknowledgment of a higher power, and that ease will come knowing the soul is home and in the ultimate space of joy. Second lines are living archives and the creation of legacy. Second-lining is a practice that has been carried and collected for generations, holding the space of both culture and tradition while creating a legacy and archiving for Black performance.

Michelle N. Gibson, a Grand Marshal of second lines, a scholar, a sister, professor, and legacy holder is an example of a moving life. Ms. Gibson is a cultural ambassador for second lines and teaches the history, movement, legacy, and the real spiritual work of the second line in her Original BuckShop9 methodology. Ms. Gibson is a highly spiritual woman who grew up in the Church; her father was a pastor. She was connected to faith at an early age which makes her work so impactful and healing. Ms. Gibson is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and continues moving the joy and the spirit of the Congo Square and the New Orleans second line. In her interview for the Movement of Joy project, Mz. G speaks of the second line as:

Creating of a spirit form that does not ask for permission. Our culture is too rich. We don’t need nothing to be made up, it’s all factual. Second line is a struggle of a people, second line is the resilience of Black people, second line is the generational chains and links of Black folks, second line is a rebellion. Second line is our church, second line is our prayer. And second lines happen in different times, at different events and situations. Second lines are our modes of rituals for us; they are the choreography of our people10 .

This spirit of the second line that Ms. Gibson is speaking to is not just the dance, it is our connectivity to the divine. The second line is our celebration of life and the pains that we feel internally and communally and the practice of resistance as resilience to live in joy.

Being from Buffalo, New York, I never experienced a second line or what it means spiritually to connect to history and the culture of New Orleans and my ancestry that shaped Black America. The great migration left many northerners like myself lost to a world of traditions and connection to the diaspora and our ancestors. I invited Ms. Gibson to Buffalo to do a second line, honoring Harriet Tubman and bringing awareness to the modern day slavery of sex trafficking, through The FreeTHEM Walk.

Michelle N. Gibson - FreeTHEM Walk, Buffalo, NY | Photo Credit: Mustafa Hussain

A photo features Michelle N. Gibson in a vibrant outfit with a red tie, black suspenders, and a black, red, and green Grand Marshal sash with feathers. She has on large, square-frame glasses with a black and white checkered pattern and medium-sized hoop earrings. A crowd of people shows people holding hands and playing wind instruments such as saxophone and trumpet.

People in Buffalo still speak on the experience and liberation that Ms. Gibson brought to us as a Grand Marshall and cultural ambassador. I personally can attest that I have never felt such a collective spiritual connection to so many people from all walks of life. She brought New Orleans to Upstate New York and lifted us up as a community. People cried, sang, shouted, and thanked Ms. Gibson for bringing the cultural roots and legacy to a place that has been segregated by redlining and white supremacy.

         Ms. Gibson has taken the culture and spirit of the second line and made it archivable for the movement to live on as a practice and repetition for us all. In our conversation for Movement of Joy she explained, “Spirit form intercedes when [people] see it. [Second line] is a very bold spirit form, it will break you when needed to be broken and […] will also allow you to be at the river.”  Ms. Gibson’s reference to being at the river is a reference to baptism – and thus to spiritual transformation and healing. Ms. Gibson is referring to spirit as the culture and phenomenology of who we are. Our joy is ephemeral in that it could never be defined solely by language; it is a feeling. It is a knowing, it is a practice that lives in our bodies, and lives on through our spirits. This is the joy of the second line.


Our House of Joy in Community 

            There is the line, and there is also the structure that holds our joy that is so radical only a house can allow it to live. The movement of Black women’s joy is what I would refer to as the “house,” which sets the foundation and sacred space that allows our senses to act and react without judgment. This type of joy is in the spirit of house dance and music. There is no separation between house and culture. It is centered around ritual and spirituality. Some house dancers give reverence to the DJs in ways analogous to the worship of Yoruba priests, providing the space for dancers to connect to a higher power through music12 . Similar to the ring shout, house gives a space for all to be bare yet sacred and profound, following the lineage and heritage of Black folks. House is a space for the divine, for the connectivity to spirit through the community. It houses feelings of protection that Black dances have always provided for Black people in America. It is the music and dance that brings us together in a consecrated space of joy. 

            House isn’t just a social dance that pushes the new trends, it is who we were, who we are, and who we will be. To know house is to know the divine, both communally and individually. House is a testimony that may not be spoken in clear phrasing, but in the sounds of agreement and witnessing like a church service. It is a space for people to say, “I see you, all of you, and you never have to explain yourself.” House is an acceptance of everyone, giving lead roles to people that are often silenced. House is a “shouting,” like the ring shout, that is loud and filled with emotions that can only be heard by people that are taught to listen from the divine. When one speaks of house, they have to know that this movement within a movement is a political one that represents the identity of anyone who chooses to testify. Brian Polite, a house dancer and scholar, stated the following at a lecture given at New York University Tisch School of the Arts EMP Pop Music Conference:

We are a culture of transportations and transformations. The trance inducing musical communities is as emotionally moving as the Sunday morning shouting of Pentecostals and Baptists, as mystical and spiritually intense as a Haitian Vodun ceremony. I have seen the moment and the music bring many to a rush of cathartic tears, as if their pain was unlocked and released. The Music/Dance is the key. It is our unifying principle. Like the best of African cultural expression and its diasporic inheritors we combine the sacred and the profane, the sensual and the spiritual, celebrating our bodies equally with our souls. The dance floor becomes the setting for a limonoid ritual. People slip in and out of the zone continually13 .

Polite addresses the joy of community and the ways people come together and build through a sacred practice. Like so many dances that came before, house is a witnessing, supporting, giving, and sharing experience – a testimony of our past, present, and future. It also exemplifies the four sources of joy that I discovered during my research for The Movement of Joy project, which are community, play, resistance, and self. 

            House is not just music or just dance; both are integral to each other. Like many movements for Black Americans in this country, house incorporates the rhythm of the soul that binds us through the Swahili word “Ujima” (collective work and responsibility). Some refer to that as a circle, others know it as the “cypher.” While the circle and cypher are both used interchangeably in the hip-hop community, there is an understanding that what you bring into the circle with your body is sacred and a manifestation of the divine. The more practiced you are, the more the circle becomes a home, giving you the freedom to express who you are. Like the ring shout, the circle in house represents many faiths and elements that unify the spirit and bring a sense of liberation. It is a safe space to see the humanity and hope in people of all backgrounds, identities, and understandings of life. The origins of the circle points back to Africa and the women creating the rhythms for us to know ourselves through a connection to the divine. The rhythm of our people is held sacred in the space given to us by women. There are many circles and cyphers that Black women created for themselves and continue to create for people that have so much to give and are seldom given the opportunity to share. House is an example of this and the pioneering of Black women in house gave space as shelter” (a reference to a popular house club on Hubert Street in downtown Manhattan). One of those women was Marjory Smarth.

Marjory dancing at Brian Green's House Dance Conference in New York City, 2001 | Photo credit: E. Moncell Durden

Marjory is seen as the subject of the photo in a pale yellow, spaghetti strap top with burgundy detailing and blue jeans paired with Converse low tops with purple shoelaces. She is also wearing a burgundy bandana on her head and dangling feather earrings.She is featured in front of others in vibrant clothing who are all in motion, and her gaze is down as if focused on dancing.

Marjory Smarth, a pioneer and a pivotal figure in the house scene, was known for the joy she brought to people’s lives. She was creating space for everyone to be themselves through joy. A Haitian native and New Yorker, Marjory, known as “Marj” to friends or sometimes “Lotus,” championed the movement of hip hop dancers seeking space in queer communities. She used movement to build connection and community. Although she was known to dance for legends like Diana Ross, Heavy D, and Cece Peniston, her work transcended the material world. When she danced, joy illuminated her spirit. In an interview with Ashani Mfuko, Marjory said:

The only way to show my true appreciation for what I received, is to give. To give to other people that joy that I received. I am getting all choked up. I have had such a wonderful life because I found dance at a young age. That’s what I wanted to do with dance. To help other people find their freedom, their joy, like Ladies of Hip-Hop and Impulse Dance in Vienna, all the other places that I have been. That has been the focus for me. To be able to watch people open up and really enjoy themselves. Find that place where they are carried by a wave of joy. It’s just the most incredible thing14 .

Ladies of Hip-Hop is a non-profit organization empowering girls and women through hip hope arts and culture founded by Michele Byrd-McPhee, who brought Marjory into the organization as the first teacher (when the organization was called Montage). Byrd-McPhee is a Black woman that has continued the legacy and joy of house and also created new spaces for women in hip hop, like the Ladies of Hip-Hop Festival (LOHHF), now going into its 18th year. “Through female-powered workshops, performances, public talks, and professional development training, LOHHF is educating and cultivating Hip-Hop’s next generation of female leaders15 .”[1]

While I did not get the privilege to meet Marjory personally, I was honored to connect with people close to her. Each one spoke to her joy and the way she understood rhythm from an African perspective. In an interview with historian E. Moncell Durden at Brian “Footwork” Green’s House Dance Conference in New York City, Marjory speaks to the importance of dance and culture and the understanding of our humanity through dance. She says, “Dancing is who we are. There is no such thing as separating dancing from African culture. We are rhythmic, graceful, respectful. Dance is us. African is us.” Marjory is house. She was and is the representation of all that house is – rhythm, agency, liberation, and joy. Every song was her story. Every story was her joy. Marjory Smarth was more than a pioneer for house; she was an example of what it means to be a practitioner of radical Black joy through dance. She was and still is the essence of Black woman joy. Marjory passed on in 2015.


(Re) Claiming Our Joy 

As I continue to develop the Movement of Joy project, I begin to see Black women’s joy in the light of what I call the choreography of spirit. It can be found in the movement and “shout” of Black women that becomes the amplification and peace of our voices. Black women’s joy is seen in the lines of our histories that we put into formation. It can be felt in the house that protects our souls. The choreographies of Black women are a way for us to not only ignite Black joy in the United States but build the bridge of Black interfaith, connecting us now as our ancestors connected across faiths when violently introduced to the Americas. Political movements in the United States are informed by the dances that were created by Black women as the anchors for those movements and that brought us collective joy. Black womens joy creates the possibility to imagine infinite possibilities beyond where we are currently. Our choreography as Black women has been established by rhythms and patterns brought forth by our ancestor mothers who come from all faith-based backgrounds.

We are all choreographers in our own right, creating the life we want to live, but every great choreographer has a mentor to guide them in their vision. Black women are the guides and consciousness of this country. We have choreographed joy in play, community, and resistance for everyone else, and now it is time for us to choreograph it for ourselves. Our gestures, dances, and movements created and embodied by Black women are our legacy and give us a vessel to connect to something higher than ourselves. And while each person may have their own connection to the universe, Black women’s movements and dances have collectively brought us together by keeping one of the few things that was not taken by white supremacy – the spirit of joy.

1. To see “The Movement of Joy” trailer and website please visit: back to text

2. Takiyah Nur Amin, “The Booty Don’t Lie: Pleasure, Agency, and Resistance in Black Popular Dance,” in Are You Entertained? Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Simon C. Drake. and Dwan K. Henderson.(Durham: Duke University Press, 2020),141. back to text

3. Adrienne Maree Brown is also in conversation with pleasure and agency as political healing. Adrienne M. Brown, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2019). back to text

4. John Perpener, “Dance of the African Diaspora Archives,” Jacob's Pillow Dance Interactive, back to text

5. Katrina Thompson Moore, Ring Shout, Wheel about: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014). back to text

6. To learn more about Hajj visit: back to text

7. Edward Branley, Nola History: Congo Square and the Roots of New Orleans Music,” GoNola, November 16, 2018, back to text

9. To follow the methodology, workshops, and performances of The New Orleans Original BuckShop, visit back to text

10. Karen Celestan, Social Aids & Pleasure Clubs,” Music Rising ~ The Musical Cultures of the Gulf South, back to text

11. To see the journey of The FreeTHEM Walk please visit: back to text

12. An analogy given from an interview for this chapter from E. Moncell Durden, a Professor of Practice at the University of Southern Californias Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, 2021. back to text

13. Polite, Brian. "The Other 8: On The Photography of Lafotgrapheuse." Lecture given at EMP Pop Conference at New York University, 2013. back to text

14. “House Dance Icon, Marjory Smarth, On The Kiner Hour - Let's Talk Dance with Ashani Mfuko,” KinerEnterprisesInc, YouTube, August 17, 2011, back to text

15. “Making Herstory,” Ladies of Hip Hop, accessed November 9, 2022, back to text

Works Cited

Amin, Takiyah Nur. “The Booty Don’t Lie: Pleasure, Agency, and Resistance in Black Popular Dance.” In Are You Entertained? Black Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Simon C. Drake. And Dwan K. Henderson, 237-51. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.

Brown, Adrienne M. Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. Chico, CA: AK Press, 2019.

Branley, Edward. Nola History: Congo Square and the Roots of New Orleans Music.” GoNola, November 16, 2018.

Celestan, Karen. “Social Aids & Pleasure Clubs.” Music Rising ~ The Musical Cultures of the Gulf South, 

The FreeTHEM Walk. Accessed October 7, 2022.

KinerEnterprisesInc, director. “House Dance Icon, Marjory Smarth, On The Kiner Hour – Let’s Talk Dance with Ashani Mfuko.” YouTube. August 17, 2011.

Moore, Katrina Thompson. Ring Shout, Wheel about: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

Perpener, John. “Dance of the African Diaspora Archives.” Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive,

Polite, Brian "B". "The Other 8: On The Photography of Lafotgrapheuse". Lecture given at EMP Pop Music Conference, New York University Tisch School of the Arts, New York, April 18-19, 2013.

“The Second Line.” The New York Times, January 1, 2006.

What Is Hajj.” Islamic Relief UK. Page last reviewed July 25, 2022.