Every so often, Dance Exchange gets the opportunity to reconnect with an artist who is, in some way, part of the Dance Exchange family tree. This month, we’ve had the pleasure of being in conversation with Christal Brown. Among many other things, Christal is the founder of INSPIRIT, the Chair of Dance at Middlebury College, and a former Dance Exchange apprentice.


On March 8 and 9, Christal is presenting The Opulence of Integrity, “a multimedia ensemble work inspired by the public life and inner searching of boxing’s outspoken superstar, Muhammad Ali. Inspired by Ali’s career as a boxer and life as a social activist, public martyr, and human being, Christal deploys her eclectic movement vernacular to illustrate the turmoil of a life infused by divinity yet misinterpreted by humanity. By using Ali as an archetype, The Opulence of Integrity explores the homogeneous inner struggle for identity as it pertains to men of color in the United States. The Opulence of Integrity is an evening length work divided into four movements. Each movement is introduced by DC’s own Patrick Washington who use quotes from Ali to set the scene for each movement experience that follows. There is also an element of projection that lays the backdrop for the cultural and social energy of each time period. The musical score for the work was created by Zimbabwean composer Farai Malianga, whose contemporary take on the subject matter supports the choreography every step of the way. Lighting design by Nick Hung provides the audience with the feeling of watching history through the frames of old tattered photos while Aya Shibahara’s costuming infuses vibrancy and individualism into each character. The performance is 1 hour in length with no intermission and a brief Q and A with the cast and choreographer will occur immediately following each performance.”

DX: Tell me about The Opulence of Integrity. What narrative(s) are you and the dancers exploring? What questions is the work asking?


​The Opulence of Integrity is a work that looks at the life of Muhammad Ali as an archetype for men of color who strive towards greatness.  The narratives are historical and contemporary, acute and obtuse, global and personal.  The questions are about freedom.  What is it? Who has it? At what cost? And, what happens when a divine purpose is interrupted by humanity.

Christal Brown: As a mover I was fashioned like most. I grew up taking tap, jazz, ballet, and acrobatics from the age of 9.  After graduating high school, I attended The University of North Carolina at Greensboro where I was introduced seriously to modern and contemporary forms.  After graduating from UNCG I had the honor of joining Chuck Davis’ African- American Dance Ensemble (AADE). AADE taught me about the African Diaspora through movement, culture, and community. Upon my departure from AADE I was invited to apprentice with Dance Exchange, along with Cassie Meador.  My time at Dance Exchange taught me about movement as a language. I then continued my professional career with The Bill T. Jones/ Arnie Zane Dance Company as an apprentice before finding a permanent home with Urban Bush Women. As a mover and a maker I have been able to integrate the information I gathered from each of these dance pioneers as well as the colleagues I shared in each of these experiences.  My movement vocabulary continues to change as I grow in my artistry.  Each piece requires its own language, therefore I’m always learning and trying to use my past as prologue.


DX: Can you talk more about your experience at Dance Exchange? What was your role in the company?


As an apprentice at Dance Exchange, I had the opportunity serve as the assistant to Liz Lerman.  This relationship was extremely instrumental in shaping my work as an artist, entrepreneur, director, and educator.  Because of my degree in business I was asked to be logistically responsible for Liz’s schedule and personal tasks.  In turn she agreed to consult my artistic work.  Having her eye on my work and the gift of being in her presence changed my perspective on what it means to have a life in dance.


DX: What values, questions, or practices did you carry with you from your time with DX?


From Dance Exchange, I carried the artist/executive structure that helped me build my company INSPIRIT, a pedagogy for entering community, a value of for personal narratives, and an understanding that relationships are what make the work work.

November 14, 2013, 2013 at 2:47 PM


We are a sum of our parts. The way we were raised, the conditioning we've experienced and the opportunities that have shaped our world view mold our perspective on the life we live. This perspective causes us to judge each moment as right or wrong. One of the key elements missing from our evaluation is reality. We often assess how the situation could or should have gone instead of operating from a place of reality and moving through each moment with clarity of action.
Seeing the reality in each moment frees us from desire and regret, allowing us to act authentically, therefore becoming more of the individual we were created to be.

Photo by Sophie Bufton

The Challenge of Change
January 20, 2014, 2014 at 9:32 PM



“All that you touch you Change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is Change.God is Change.”

                                                                                                                                                                                              Octavia Butler


Transition, movement, change; some of the most intimidating words in any language.  Not because of what they imply but because of what they require. When we are asked to go through a transition we do not fear the beginning or the end, we quiver in the middle. Our stomachs turn and at our core we are undone. When we are asked to create we do not doubt the vision or its manifestation we find discomfort in the process.  For artists the process is where purpose is forged, fought for, and forfeited.

As an endeavor toward consciousness I strive to stay open to the process of change.  My present comfort often allows me to be swayed into a false sense of security, for which the perils are much greater than ignorance.  The war for understanding is fought at the crossroads of fascination and fright.  At times I am paralyzed by both and enamored by my individual weakness to stand and only stand.  Yet, as I find courage to open my eyes and take in the fullness of the battlefield, I find courage in the actions of other warriors who battle for change.  Day in and day out bodies of truth lay aside their personal needs for the well-being of others and steep themselves in lives not meant for them in order to see their place and play a new position.  Moving as vessels and being moved by a deep desire to manifest meaning we all take to the stage of life and do our best to perform in step, in relation, and in concert with all things that is Gods artistry.

No fear, deep faith, daily change……..

Photo by Sophie Bufton

Life and Legacy
September 1, 2015, 2015 at 12:34 PM

As this incredible team of collaborators is gearing up for this performance, DX had the opportunity to connect with Christal about her career, her work, and what she has carried with her from her time at Dance Exchange. 

DX: Can you talk a little bit about your history as a mover and maker?

Moving Questions
January 19, 2015, 2015 at 11:24 AM
I was fortunate to be asked to participate in the 2014 Tedx Middlebury event: Living in the Question.

Enjoy!  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yvv5RTXXrBE

Wider and Deeper
November 27, 2013, 2013 at 1:35 AM


The myth that vertical growth equals success or contentment is one conjured by a continuous desire to attain. When we see our lives, our work, or our passions as things to be accomplished with specific pentacles and picturesque endings, we miss opportunities along the way to grow wider and deeper.  Depending on how high we climb the latter of success, our view may become askew with reality.  We may find ourselves at the top of our game, with our dreams in tact and nowhere to go but down, motivated only by a fear of falling. 
As I ponder this idea of achievement, I am intrigued by the idea that if we reach wide by forming alliances in our quest for purposeful greatness and deepen our understanding of self in the process we can achieve a more sustainable version of success.  In this version there is no one to look down upon, only reflections and encouragement on either side.  In this version the roots are longer than the branches and the works we make visible to the masses are a small part of the abundance that lives beneath our exterior projection.  By extending past our comfort zones and asking questions that perpetuate our growth rather than validate our knowledge we get closer to the source our strength.  We discover new possibilities in old patterns, beauty in new beginnings, and expansion in our expression.  
My teaching, dance making, and parenting are all continual reminders that grasping for what is not keeps me doing but digging deep and embracing what is, keeps me understanding.  In all areas of my life I am reaching wider and deeper. 


"What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure? Whether you go up the ladder or down it, you position is shaky. When you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance."
Tao Te Ching, 13


Honesty and Autonomy
July 4, 2014, 2014 at 9:46 PM


Throughout the course of my life, I have had the opportunity to travel to various parts of the US and abroad.  These travels have afforded me a wealth of knowledge and experiences that shape my world view.  Without travel my understandings would be limited to my preferences and my biases and confirmed by my assumptions.

When I travel, what frightens me and thrills me the most is the sense of strangeness I feel in unfamiliar places.  I begin again.  My understandings become frail myths and the journey to being, begins again.  Being a stranger avails me to the gift of autonomy where I do not presume to know or be known by my surrounding and fellow inhabitants.  My strangeness gives me license to ask, inquire and the privilege to be taught.  Traveling keeps me honest in a way that I believe the comforts of my present life do not.  My normal routine shelters me from misunderstanding and discomfort.  I do not need to reach far to find understanding or comfort when I am surrounded by people, places, and things that speak my language and share my same values.

Becoming a stranger is my way of gaining perspective on my own reality.  By stepping outside my construct of life I am able to see my weaknesses, rejoice over my blessings, and create goals for my life that allow me to not only be a better person but a better friend to the world.  Traveling keeps me honest and gives me the ability to see clearly in a convoluted world.

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.
attributed - sir francis drake -1577

Dancing Disciple

Last night Blondell Cumming died, and some people won't recognize the name or know the impact she had on the field of dance.  Blondell was an extraordinary woman, artist, and mentor. Her multimedia work was at the forefront of its time and although her white counterparts and collaborators received accolades and awards throughout their career for much of the work she pioneered, she will always be known by me.  Her life, talent and legacy have always prompted me to develop my own sense of value.  Blondell created work and influenced artists around the world yet, there are dancers and students of dance who do not know her name.  The life of an artists is often spent toiling away at the completion of a vision and working tirelessly to make ends meet.  Our efforts are not often understood or in some aspects even seen by patrons, family, friends, or colleagues.  Therefore, the work has to be fulfilling to its creator.  As artists we must define our own worth and make the work we are called to wether our names are ascribed to history or not.  We must create for the sake of living an authentic life; Blondell taught me that.  She taught me not to compare myself to the masses or judge my success by what the world seemed to patronize.  I am grateful for her mentorship and the life she lived.  She will always be an example of life, legacy, and love.
Rest in Peace Blondell Cummings       

DX: What’s on the horizon for you and this work after the showing at Joe’s Movement Emporium?


We are currently partnering with TAON magazine to create a national tour for the work.  In the meantime, we will continue to perform the work in as many communities as possible so that the perception of men of color in this country becomes more accurate.


Dx: Thanks so much Christal! We’re looking forward to seeing The Opulence of Integrity at Joe’s Movement Emporium (3309 Bunker Hill Rd, Mt. Rainier, MD 20712). Sunday, March 8 and Monday, March 9 at 7:00pm. Tickets: $18-$25. More information HERE.

Mother and Artist
March 2, 2014, 2014 at 11:46 PM


Recently, I have been asked about my relationship to my life as a mother and an artist.  In some specific cases attributes of being single and African-American have made the inquiries even more specific.  The questions have lead me to analyze my role and come to the conclusion that mothering and artistry go hand in hand.

Mothers create life, nurture understanding, facilitate growth, and deny themselves for the greater good of a life they deem more valuable than their own.

Artists give life to work, share their visions to promote deeper understandings, delve deep into process to build products of perspective, and deny themselves for the greater good of the work.

I was asked what tools I have taken from my life in dance into my role as a mother and the most prominent tool is discipline.  My training as a dancer offered me the structure I needed to build a capable body, mind and spirit.  The discipline of dance taught me to deny my fears and strive for my passion no matter what I "felt" like.  Rehearsals taught me that there is power in repetition if we submit to the ritual, and within that submission there is strength.  As a mother, I offer this discipline to my son by being consistent and creating structures that give him the courage to pursue his life passionately yet boundaries that keep him growing in the right direction.

In addition to discipline, trust is also a huge factor in my professional and personal life.  On stage trust equals authentic performance. I have always trusted God to dance me on stage and do what I knew was not in my power.  In my role as a single parent I trust that God will provide for my son  that which I cannot. Each decision I make in regard to his well-being is one of faithful assurance that all my experiences and training are valid and valuable.  This is the same decision making process I learned as a performer, choreographer and teacher.  Trusting God allows me to trust the process, which allows for greater possibilities.  Therefore, I trust the outgrowth of my artistry and the upgrowth of my son.


Check out the FIRST #SydChats: TRIUMPHS AND CHALLENGES OF BLACK MOTHERS WHO ARE DANCE ARTISTS

Photo of Gabe and I accompanied this article:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anthonia-akitunde/black-mothers-are-the-wor_b_4820530.html

Featured on Mater Mea
http://www.matermea.com/#/christal/4565412847

This Happened in Haiti
September 25, 2014, 2014 at 3:36 PM


We are conjurers of spirit
all at once forging towards the future
while insisting on the past

We magic vessels of time

We moving liaisons of ghosts

We dancing through a continuum of light

studying the details of God's physical manifestation
through myths and steps of sincere worship
we begin to undo ourselves for the sake of
assembly a visible and visceral truth We
be therefore undone, unkept, unspeakably powerful

We be black, surface bound and belligerently beautiful

We be spirit
We be light
We be dancin
We be God

the necessity of discomfort
April 29, 2015, 2015 at 9:26 PM

February 16, 2015, 2015 at 12:35 PM
Middlebury Magazine essay

Dancing is the magic with which I conjure meaning out of thin air.  When I move I am all at once emptied of the shortcomings and trappings of my human existence and transformed into a vessel of the divine.  I know transcendence, I know strength, I know truth; through dance all these have become my modalities of existence.  Dance has taught me humility, discipline, acceptance, innovation, and perseverance.  My body speaks in spite of language barriers and cultural access; I find dialect through dancing. Every gesture and nuance of time, space, and energy that I conduct correspond to the colloquial nature of the places I inhabit.  Dance is my language, my medicine, my practice and my pedagogy; my proof of life.

With Photography by Brett Simonson

Story Power
November 12, 2014, 2014 at 12:08 AM
On Friday October 24th, I was asked to participate in a storytelling event called Cocoon at Middlebury College.  Cocoon is a spin-off of the highly acclaimed radio series The Moth.  The rules are that the story has to be true and told without note cards or visual aids.  I told a story about a boy that I didn't know much about, my father.  During the story I spoke of the few facts I knew about him like where he was born and that he loved to play football.  And most vividly about how he lost his legs in Vietnam before my brother and I were born, how I became a professional dancer and how we only danced together once.

Weeks have past since I told the story and cried in front of a concert hall filled with 372 people but to my surprise one of them came into my office today and told me a story in return.  As I was sitting in my office this morning an older white gentleman in his late 60's or early 70's walked into my office and took off his hat.  He began to introduce himself and I stood up and came in front of my desk to shake his hand and say hello.  He told me his name was Conrad and proceeded to tell me that I didn't know him but he heard me tell my story at the Cocoon and that he was also a Vietnam veteran.  He sat down and told me that my father was a real hero and that the reason that I didn't know much about him was because the war was hard to talk about.  He then went on to tell me that I was also brave for telling my story at Cocoon and I asked him if he would tell me a story.

He told me about his return home from Vietnam and how he was met by protestors at the airport, how a flight attendant put him in first class, and how when the pilot announced they would be landing in 15 minutes he burst into tears.  He told me he buried everything else and that I and 1 other person were the only two people he has ever told about his service in Vietnam.  He never told either of his 2 wives or his children. And the reason he came to see me was that he had recently relocated to the area and had to find a new Veterans day ritual, so he came to see me.

I was honored, I wept, and I thanked God for my story. I hope he comes back by to take me up on my offer of coffee at some point and I hope he has more stories to share.  This experience has taught me that my practice of saying yes has the power to do so much more than I imagine.


I may possibly share the audio from this story on my website at some point.