Arts & Life, Features, Fine & Performing Arts

The CRay Project’s Long Beach Black Dance Festival creates space for Black Artists

On the stage are two dancers, gripping and twisting in and out of each other’s arms for a few minutes. Their faces are solemn, and eventually, one dancer is left, spinning on one leg before placing a hand over her stomach.

The intimate piece is titled “Cat-Call,” choreographed by James Mahkween, about one woman’s experience with sexual assault. It is only a few minutes of a two-hour project he is working on. 

Two female dancers on the floor as part of their dance
Two dancers perform James Mahkween’s piece titled “Cat-Call” at the Long Beach Black Dance Festival. Photo by BSide Photography.

As one of the last performances of the Long Beach Black Dance Festival, a week-long event organized by The CRay Project, the piece captured the artistry and thought put into dance and it is part of the reason the festival was created.

But the Long Beach Black Dance Festival was created for a reason, and while each dancer took to the stage to perform a story with their body, it became clear. 

This is a space for the Black community to express themselves as artists, dancers, choreographers, instructors, performers and leaders. 

The Long Beach Black Dance Festival is the first of its kind in Long Beach. It was born from the mind of Chatiera Ray, executive creative artistic director of The CRay Project, a Black empowerment movement that provides a platform for artists to be themselves and build a community between Black and Brown artists. Today, the CRay Project works with the Long Beach community and youth to educate and engage them with dance and art. 

A male dancer leaps into the air
James Mahkween performs at the Long Beach Black Dance Festival. Mahkween has been dancing for over 10 years. Photo by BSide Photography.

In Cleveland, Ohio, Black-organized festivals were part of Ray’s upbringing. When she moved out to Long Beach, she said the city’s diversity made it so that people did not realize there was a need for an event specific for a community. 

Ray saw that Long Beach is brimming with talent, and yet no was channeling it. 

“We’re not amplified,” Ray said. “I feel like a lot of the work that we do is kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah they do African dance, oh yeah, they do hip-hop’ and a lot of people kind of mixed up the dance culture. We do jazz, we’re one of the pioneers of jazz. We do ballet, we do modern, we do contemporary, we do Afro-Cuban beats.”

Ray has been dancing since she was 11. She minored in dance performance at Kent State University and in 2014, she moved to Long Beach and interned at the Lulu Washington Dance Theatre. 

Soon after, Ray founded The CRay Project with LaRonica Southerland, a fellow Cleveland native and professional dancer.

Southerland, assistant creative director and development manager, knew that The CRay Project was going to be monumental for what it stands for. 

“It really paves the way for other young Black women or men, to really stay true to what it is they want to do,” Southerland said. “That’s just an art itself. I feel like a lot of artists are scared to move forward in their passion or purpose in the art form because of societal norms.”

The idea of this festival had captivated Ray for a long time, but the need for it became undeniable after the killing of George Floyd and the recurrent police brutality the Black community continues to face. 

While The CRay project always sought to empower the Black community, Ray knew that they were needed in a new capacity.

A dancer and a woman seated in a chair
LaRonica Southerland (top) and Chatiera Ray are professional dancers and both graduates of Kent State University. Photo by Kevin Paul Lawrence Studio.

The Long Beach Black Dance Festival needed to happen, and it needed to happen now. 

“We’re going to involve the community always, but you’re not just going to get a performance experience, you’re going to be educated too,” Ray said. “You’re going to leave learning about something.”

The initial stages of the project were met with disbelief that an event of this size could come together  in such a short window of time. The CRay Project was told that it could only be done virtually. 

But Ray knew it needed to be both virtual and in-person, and a month and a half later, it was.

The festival kicked off Aug. 9 with a line-up that included daily dance classes, discussions for artists to engage in and live performances. 

Southerland and Ray spent the following days beneath the sun in their dual roles as both participants and organizers. 

One of the performers, Rebekah JoAnn Guerra, performed a solo she choreographed based off of a poem she wrote for a friend whose father had passed away.

“It Will Be for the Stranger, the Fatherless and the Widow” is a nine-minute piece with multiple iterations that delves into the emotional complexities that arise when a death occurs.

“Dance provides an avenue for me to offend if I need to offend, or without holding back,” Guerra said. “I can say everything that I need to say.”

Guerra, who values a performance rooted in honesty and education, found herself very much aligned with what the Long Beach Black Dance Festival aimed to emphasize. 

“It’s often our communities that are left out of being able to see dance,” Guerra said. “Whether it be in a proscenium stage or an art gallery. I see less of us in a lot of dance spaces, and to create space for us is a beautiful thing, because no one else is going to do it for us.”

Ray and Southerland already have new ideas for next year, which will include masterclasses taught by dancers who are pioneers in their field and to have three classes a day taught by local artists and instructors. 

And based on the responses Ray and Southerland received after the event, the Long Beach Black Dance Festival will only grow. 

“We have to do things in ways like no other to keep fighting for justice,” Ray said. “Whether it’s through art, whether it’s through music, whether it’s through poetry, whether it’s through writing. We have to do something, and that’s the whole point of the Black Renaissance reestablishing itself right now, and I feel like this is definitely one of the foundations in that, that will help push that within Long Beach, and hopefully beyond it.”

This article previously contained an incorrect word choice. A correction was made on September 9 at 10:10 a.m.

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