GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — “Blackness is not a monolith,” explained Duane Cyrus as he sat in his office on the first floor of the UNCG School of Dance building.

Those words are what he used to describe his viewpoint on a question he was asked about how dance has evolved through the integration of Black artists.

His answer is that race does not define the artist, but rather their own history, experiences and life themes do.

To further this point, Cyrus continued by saying, “there is a type of movement that I love. It’s not just because I’m Black – it’s partly because of my Caribbean ancestry. There is a certain way that I move as a black person that maybe other Black people don’t move that way.”

Before he found himself as the art of movement professor at the university, the Black artists, who had been in the dance industry for more than three decades, had to discover what dance meant to him.

For him, destroying the monolith of race through dance started in the mid-1970s.

His mother took him and his siblings to a production of a little-known musical called “The Wiz,” starring an all-Black cast in a retelling of “The Wizard of Oz.”

“I was watching this show and a stage of beautiful Black actors…singing dancing acting…with this amazing story that I already knew…here is this interpretation of ‘The Wiz.’ That’s why I’m in the performing arts to this day.”

Dance is an art form that has evolved substantially over the years with the integration and fusion of dance styles such as classical, hip-hop and jazz.

When asked if there was a Black artist who encapsulated that same viewpoint for young Black artists in today’s world, Duane responded with “The Lion King,” a production he was a part of in 1999 in London.

He also said “folks should check out Camille A Brown, choreographer, and she just did an opera called ‘Fire Shut Up in My Bones.’ She is a role model for artists, especially young black women.”

That evolution, as Duane saw growing in the art itself, only came as the types of people who embraced the art grew in diversity.

“You can’t make art if you don’t know anything about life,’ Duane explained. “Having those voices in the room can help businesses, artworks, anything that one does helps it grow.”

The themes expressed by artists changed to reflect the life experiences of those new artists. Themes such as race, slavery and resistance against oppressions; sometimes not in an outright manner.

He has taken these themes into other art forms through various productions. Through his two decades at UNCG, Duane has turned his same journey of self-discovery of what it means to be a Black artist and challenged his students to explore their own worlds of diversity.

“Our bodies and what we do as dancers. If I make a move or a reach that way – that’s not only my body doing it, that’s my history. That’s my mother taking me to see ‘The Wiz,’” he said.

Three of those former students, Jurne Smith, Amelia Byrd, and Maria-Elena Surprenant are taking what they learned and passing it along to other young dancers.

During Black History Month, Jurne Smith and Amelia Byrd taught a Juneteenth seminar to the dance students at Penn Griffith High School.

They, with the help of a grant through Guilford County Schools, showed young dancers of all ages and backgrounds what it means to explore stories and themes that are not expressed in the art form today.

The classes began with a viewing of Smith’s graduation project titled ‘Lone Soldier Rising,’ about Josephine Boyd Bradly integrating schools as a young black student in Greensboro.

Smith said of the piece, “What we’re all trying to push for in the industry is Black people as just humans. Black people living normal lives and doing extraordinary things and going back to living their normal lives. Especially like with Josephine Boyd Brady…we are people. We embody that history, nd we are able to express that through movement.”

A reflection of what Duane said in his office at UNCG: “Blackness is not a monolith.”

For Amelia, she explained that dance to her is about reflecting what is happening in the world around us.

“Everything that’s happening in the 21st century, especially in 2020 and 2021, we take all of that in and then we have to go out and dance about it…my generation was more hesitant to talk about that, and this generation is not.

What Amelia is referring to is the types of themes students these days, all of races, are exploring. For example, in the Juneteenth seminar students were asked to come up with stories they felt were important.

Those students ended up being based on equal rights and positive body image. The diversity of the students and the guidance of exploration of Josephine Boyd’s own experience created this pathway of conversation.

“It really is the forms of communication essentially,” explained Maria-Elena Surprenant, the Guilford County Schools Fine Arts Grants Curator. “A way to really create beauty in this world.”

While there have been major steps forward in the world of dance, Duane said that the themes explored today are similar to the ones he and his fellow dancers dealt with 20+ years prior.  

“Some of the themes are the same. They want to disrupt. They want to abolish. They want to shift things that are painful to them and or others…as a performer, you are integrating – bringing your entire being to the audition. It’s a service to society and the culture,” Duane said.