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Black Arts Company: Lifting each other up by getting down

<h6>Photo by Collin Riggins</h6>
Photo by Collin Riggins

On a Friday night, the Frist Film/Performance Theatre was buzzing with excitement. In the darkness, the dancers struck their starting pose. The crowd waited with bated breath. Soon enough, the bright lights came up and Michael Jackson’s “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” rang through the speakers. It was time to get down.

Loud, fun, and unapologetically cool, the Black Arts Company’s (BAC) latest performance, “The Get Down,” truly took the audience on an adventure through time. The show drew inspiration from the 70s and centers Black empowerment. Imagine “Jungle Boogie.” Imagine grooving with the “Soul Train Line.” Imagine beautiful bold afros that dominated the 70s scene. This is the vibrancy that the BAC brought to the present day.

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Although the 70s theme was threaded throughout the show, each piece featured different forms of Black art and dance. From old school hip-hop to whacking, BAC defies genre, and the result is an amalgamation of unique styles. And this diversity is no accident — their choreographic process invites all members to contribute their perspective. While one could worry that combining so many ideas will impact cohesion, the members not only made it work, but used it to their advantage. At BAC, difference is embraced, not feared.

“We’re just constantly learning from everybody. There’s really no barrier to people trying new styles or things they’ve never danced before,” said Samantha Johnson ’23. “There’s always this kind of cross-cultural — but also style-wise — [learning].”

Johnson is BAC’s website manager, who previously served as a publicity chair.

President Emeritus Aishah Balogun ’23 agreed, adding that “everyone comes with an idea of what they want to do. Some people want to do Afrobeat, others want to do a Caribbean-inspired piece. It’s very individual.”

And this individuality shined through in their performance. In every piece, the dancers moved in practiced synchronization, experimenting with formations and creating complex imagery. However, if you looked closely, you could see how each dancer added their own unique flavor to the choreography — some seamlessly blended steps into one smooth line while others emphasized the beat with subtle pops and locks. Just like they do behind the scenes, on stage, everyone brings something special to the table. These small details allowed us to gain a glimpse into each performer’s interpretation — little Easter eggs that only the careful eye got to enjoy. However, one thing remained unanimous: under the strobe lights, each dancer was bursting with personality.

BAC prides themselves on their authenticity. In promoting their show, I noticed a bold claim on their flyers — “No one does hip hop better than us!” And that much certainly seems to be true. Their secret? Education.

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Johnson emphasized the importance of appreciating the history behind the dance styles that they do and understanding that many people have grown up dancing hip hop or listening to the music they use. This context allows dancers to understand the gravity behind their work — each movement is loaded with a rich history.

“This is not hip hop from another source. It’s not hip hop from, you know, white facing companies or groups. This is hip hop from where it originated,” Johnson told me.

This opportunity to indulge in the Black arts is not just reserved for Black students — it’s open to everyone. Since its conception in 1990, BAC has been open to all students, but its membership has historically been composed primarily of African Americans and other students of color. Today, BAC boasts dancers from various backgrounds, all united by their appreciation for the Black arts.

To Balogun, this diversity is important for many reasons — not only does it create more manpower to sustain the presence of Black culture at Princeton, but also sparks meaningful conversations between students. However, this openness is a two-way street. BAC extends a warm welcome to anyone who wants to experience the history of the Black arts. However, those who wish to participate must also treat it with utmost respect.

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“Whenever we have auditionees, we always ask them what Black arts means to them, and you’d be surprised by some of the answers we get,” said Balogun.

“Why is cultural sharing so important at BAC?” I asked.

“I think it can bring about really interesting perspectives to people’s experiences growing up. Maybe they grew up in an area that was predominantly Black. Maybe they were very much surrounded by Black music and Black dance, and that’s something they want to appreciate.”

“Do you ever feel the need to protect your culture and keep it your own?” I followed up.

“I think it’s important to emphasize difference, and not look at it as a bad thing. We all come from different places and have different cultures. If we appreciate them instead of trying to erase each other, it’s a lot better than just saying ‘We’re doing hip hop and let’s not talk about Blackness at all.’ That does nothing for us,” Balogun responded.

During the show, this diversity and cultural appreciation was not only present among the dancers, it was reflected in the audience. Halfway through the second act, one of the dancers invited audience members to join them in “getting down” on stage. Immediately, a flurry of hands shot up. As the four chosen members moved to the music, the crowd cheered and clapped along. The evidence was undeniable — BAC wasn’t just building a group of great dancers, it was building a community.

For many Black students, BAC is a safe space on campus. And for Balogun and Johnson, BAC was their first home at Princeton.

“BAC was my first taste to Black life and dance, and getting those two at the same time,” said Johnson. “We moved like a family — there was really no person left behind from studying together, eating together, partying together, chilling together. It’s been the lens in which I see my Princeton life, academically and socially.”

“Coming to Princeton, I was really unsure about what I was going to be experiencing as a Black woman on this campus. Having a space that was so predominantly Black and had Black people in positions of authority, who were looking out for me, who were mentors to me, who I saw thriving at Princeton was really inspiring,” said Balogun.

As the dancers rushed on stage for their final bow, it was clear that “The Get Down” was much more than just a dance showcase — it was a celebration of Black culture past and present. That Friday night, Frist Theatre came to life, and I was delighted to be swept away on a journey that carried so much gravity yet so much joy.

“Black culture has become a universal thing,” said Johnson. “But, to be where it is strongest and where it is most proud — I think it’s something very special.”

Kerrie Liang is a head editor for The Prospect and an assistant editor for Podcasts at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at kerrie.liang@princeton.edu, or on Instagram at @kerrie.liang.

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