Writers & Company

Dance legend Bill T. Jones on growing up Black and gay, and being inspired by Abraham Lincoln

In this 2010 conversation, American dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his lifelong commitment to artistic rebellion.
An African American man with a fedora, glasses and a white shirt stands in front of Radio City Music Hall.
American dancer and choregrapher Bill T. Jones poses at the 75th Annual Tony Awards. His show Fela! won the Best Choreography Award in 2010. (Jenny Anderson/Getty Images)

This interview originally aired on May 11, 2010.

An African American man smiles as he looks up toward the sky.

Bill T. Jones changed the face of modern dance. He's one of the most adventurous and celebrated dancer-choreographers, known for provocative works that blend traditional and modern influences. While remarkably sensual and tender, his productions take on big subjects — race, politics, sexual orientation and death.   

Jones was born to migrant farm workers in Florida in 1952 — the 10th of 12 children. He grew up in upstate New York, steeped in the social and political fervour of the 1950s and '60s.   

It was at the State University of New York that, as Jones says, "dance reared its beautiful head." That's also where he met the Jewish Italian dancer and choreographer Arnie Zane, who became his personal and professional partner. Jones wrote about their collaboration and Zane's death from AIDS-related illness in his 1995 memoir, Last Night on Earth

In 2009, Jones created two new shows that looked at the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. When he spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in New York in 2010, he had a hit Broadway musical, Fela!, based on the life of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti. It went on to be nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including best choreography, which Jones won. 

Be what you see

"I remember sitting one day and listening to our 78 RPM records. And I was thinking about my future. And I thought, 'Well, of course I have to become a recording star. I mean, because we got television probably in 1956 or 1957. And the only Blacks you saw were Sidney Poitier — a little later, of course, you saw Sammy Davis, Jr. 

"And if you saw the old films, you probably saw Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and so on. They were performers or actors.

I did not grow up with Black doctors, Black lawyers — and the people I came from were field workers. So it was a very particular kind of line of development that I was being offered."

"So of course, that must be what my fate is to be. I did not grow up with Black doctors, Black lawyers — and the people I came from were field workers. So it was a very particular kind of line of development that I was being offered." 

An African American dancer in a red, white and black outfit raises one leg in the air.
Dancer Shayla-Vie Jenkins performs a scene from the NYC premiere of Bill T. Jones's Serenade/The Proposition, one of a suite of works created to commemorate the 2009 bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

Discovering dance

"I was a pretty good runner and there was a lot of money around at that time. Two or three schools accepted me and I chose SUNY Binghamton because it had a lot of New Yorkers in it. My niece Marion — who is my age — she told me one day, on my way to track practice, 'Don't go to those athletic practices. You've got to check out these dance classes.'

"That was kind of like a shorthand for, 'Here's what's really happening in terms of culture.' African dance was that. So I went to a class conducted by the great Percival Borde, a beautiful Trinidadian man who was a wonderful dancer and quite a wonderful model for me to see how a Black man moves.

Once I was there, I fell in love with the poetic sweat. It's different than the sweat of the locker room, which was about a kind of competition.

"There's nothing like opening a door to a dance studio for the first time. There's something about that smell. It's hopefulness; it's optimism; it's sex. It's all those things.

"And a room full of young people, 'getting down with the primordial drums.' Once I was there, I fell in love with the poetic sweat. It's different than the sweat of the locker room, which was about a kind of competition. Little did I know, there's a lot of competition in the art world, but at that point, it was a place of reinvention and freedom. And I hadn't even called myself a gay man yet, but I could sense that there were certain people in the room that I felt an affinity for."

Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer, and pioneer of the Afrobeat music genre Fela Kuti (1938 - 1997) in an hotel room, UK, 6th January 1984. (Mike Moore/Getty Images)

Revolutionary inspiration

"Back in my youth, when we were living as a dance collective in upstate New York, we were constantly looking for ways to get a class going to improvise. And our fearless leader, Lois Welch, literally went to the library one day and found a colourful album that was, quote, 'African music.' And she brought it back. And we all danced to it, improvised to it, dreamt to it, for many weeks after that. 

"That was my first introduction among that circle of creative people, particularly musicians. If you knew about Fela already, you had some sort of leg up in terms of that place wherein politics and culture crossed. And for a young group of cultural warriors, as we saw ourselves, we were concerned about our work reaching a large number of people. And so he seemed to be a figure that had an international kind of currency. 

If you knew about Fela already, you had some sort of leg up in terms of that place wherein politics and culture crossed.

"I don't know where my poetry is if it's not about struggle. As time has gone on, my consciousness has been raised about what it means to be a contributing adult in any social situation. It's all about power for me. Yes, there is love. There are things like sensibility and there's spirituality. Fela says music is the weapon. I thought that was a bit overheated and self-serving, but no, no. There are battles to be fought. There are battles if one is going to really live in this world."

Love for Lincoln

"Abraham Lincoln meant a great deal to me, much more than I had ever had to publicly declare. He was a good man. Lincoln freed the slaves. He was thought highly of. He was on the penny, for God's sake. His father was a hard working man who thought that all of this attention to book learning was a waste of time. And it is said that Lincoln's take on slavery was informed by his aversion to the system that his father had imposed on him, where he was not paid for his work.

"Hearing the tale of Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, speak about Mr. Lincoln sitting in the edge of the bed in his nightshirt, doubled over with cramps of anxiety hearing the news about some battle in Gettysburg. I said, 'Oh, this is what power is. This is what a decent person inside of an institution — and I daresay a decent person who got his wish — this is what it looks like. This is how I feel.

This is what a decent person inside of an institution — and I daresay a decent person who got his wish — this is what it looks like. This is how I feel.

"I wanted to no longer be a migrant worker. I didn't want to be a nice, middle class father of 2.5 children. I want an adventurous, big life. And I often sit up in the middle of the night worrying about what someone is thinking about me, worrying if I'm going to pay the bills, worrying if I have made the right choice. Choice and freedom of will. All of those things made Lincoln very, very moving to me."

An African-American man having intricate white lines painted on his body.
Bill T. Jones having his body painted by artist Keith Haring before a 1983 photoshoot. (STD/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Dance as rebellion

"I used to think dance was going to be the thing that was going to continue the work of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. I thought that the body itself was a strong, strong platform to make change. Naked people on stage. Who is touching whom? Who is dancing with whom? Who is sweating on whom? That already starts a catalytic change.

"I had that belief. Now, I'm not so sure. 

I thought that the body itself was a strong, strong platform to make change.

"Since everything can be marketed, everything can be co-opted. Everything can be made a fashion item. What you hear is maybe an old radical in the middle years, and it's not a pretty sight, I know. I am fighting for integrity and fighting for that fire in the gut that the youth has so effortlessly.

"Maybe I know too much now. I fight the battles I'm able to fight right now."

Bill T. Jones's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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