The Long Beach Black Dance Festival makes its debut August 9 – 16, 2020 featuring workshops, master classes , community discussions, and virtual dance concerts. The entire festival will take place online via Zoom, Facebook, and Instagram, and with support from the Arts Council of Long Beach, admission is free.

CRay Project was co-founded in 2015 by two dynamic and talented Black women, Chatiera “Cookie” Ray (CEO and Artistic Director) and LaRonica “Ronnie” Southerland (Assistant Artistic Director) who began their collaborations while earning degrees at Kent State University in Ohio. I first met them in January of 2019 shortly before they presented their first evening-length work Looking Upon Venus/Black Phoenix at the Long Beach Playhouse, an organization that they continue to have a working relationship with.

Chatiera “Cookie” Ray and LaRonica “Ronnie” Southerland - CRay Project - Photo by Kevin Paul Lawrence

Chatiera “Cookie” Ray and LaRonica “Ronnie” Southerland – CRay Project – Photo by Kevin Paul Lawrence

CRay Project’s mission statement reads “Educating artistic individuals through various genres of art. Keeping it BLACK and deeply rooted”. Their audition process is, however, open and inclusive. After 5 years of challenges regarding performance opportunities, the two women have not lost their fondness for living and working in Long Beach. “Long Beach allows me to authentically be myself as an artist and individual. It allows me to create what I want to create without feeling restricted to conform to the industry’s expectations,” Ray said. “Working in Los Angeles has helped transition development in what the company wants to see happen with our art hub we are creating in Long Beach

Southerland stated that other than her work with CRay Project, she had not had an opportunity to work in performance art in Long Beach. “More of my work has been in the fitness industry and incorporating my love for the performing arts with developing my  longevity programming for dancers, but also allowing the everyday person a chance to participate in the performing arts,” she said.

CRay Project - Cookie, Keilah, Ronnie "God is a Woman" - Photo by Irie Vision

CRay Project – Cookie, Keilah, Ronnie “God is a Woman” – Photo by Irie Vision

CRay Project has made connections with the people of Long Beach via offering dance classes, community events, virtual workshops, and discussions. Before the pandemic brought everything to a halt, they were offering Heels dance classes at the LGBTQ Center where “adults from the Long Beach community would come out and learn sex appeal, confidence, and rhythm, all by “two-stepping” in heels.” Ray stated. “We have made some interactions with other community dance companies in Long Beach; however, we haven’t had the opportunity to nourish any full collaborations or build upon relationships, outside of booking rehearsal space.”

As with all artists, Ray and Southerland have had to adjust to the “new normal” forced upon us by COVID-19 and they have educated themselves on how to find additional financial support and creating additional partnerships. They are offering self-care workshops, discussion panels with other artists within the industry, and longevity classes for dancers. “At the beginning of the quarantine, we were teaching classes online but in the mist of the latest injustice facing the Black Community we knew we were needed in a different way other than teaching,” Ray said.

James MahKween - Photo by Daniel Rhone

James MahKween – Photo by Daniel Rhone

The Black Dance Festival was originally called CRay Fest. Ray and Southerland had hoped to present an outdoor event that was to include Long Beach performing artists, carnival style games, and interactive activities. The continuing quarantine had some part in the decision to product the Long Beach Black Dance Festival but primarily it was a result of the events that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They knew that CRay Project had no choice but to become completely involved in the fight for equality and equity for the black community.

We recently collaborated with local black organizations to develop a Juneteenth event this past June 19, 2020.” Ray stated. “In May we decided to apply for the Arts Council of Long Beach’s microgrant to help assist in the next event we had in mind. This is when CRay Fest changed to The Long Beach Black Dance Festival.” They had witnessed companies around the world cancel concerts and festivals and began researching how to make this festival happen, and for it to take place in Long Beach.  “A lot of cities throughout California have planned black dance festivals, however Long Beach seems to always get “slept” on,” Ray said. “so, it’s time to wake some folks up!”

The festival’s online performances run for three days, August 14, 15, and 16 with a different concert presented each evening.  When the call for submissions went out, there was room for 15 choreographers who were offered the opportunity to submit 2 works no longer than 12 minutes in length.  When this article was published, the companies, performers, and teaching artists participating in the Festival included The MahKween Method, Go to Heaven Dance Company, Nehemiah Spencer (former dancer with Complexions), DANA Movement Ensemble, Camal Pugh, and others from around the west, east and south areas of the US. The festival will present previously seen works as well as a few premieres.

This is not the first time dance artist James MahKween has worked with CRay Project. I therefore reached out to him for comment. “Working with CRay Project is always an amazing pleasure,” he said. “Amazing energy and great workmanship.” MahKween said that he will be teaching a contemporary dance class and presenting a duet that “focuses on the toxic love and how it’s hard to let go!”

Nehemiah Spenser - Photo courtesy of CRay Project

Nehemiah Spenser – Photo courtesy of CRay Project

When asked if the festival was centered around a common theme, CRay Project stated the following:

We wanted to do something “FOR US, BY US”, and that can bring about some healing, fun, and change through the arts for our black community. Our main goal in putting this festival together, is for the community to “dance” together. Dance is also a universal language and can also break barriers amongst people. It is a form of storytelling, education, and fitness. We want the community to feel empowered to create or to do something during these times. We also, want our black audience to feel comfortable, prideful, and fulfilled in our culture and be PROUD! We want them to learn, live, and lead, and be excited for the festival again next year.”

I wanted to know what CRay Project wished the readers to know about the first Black dance festival in Long Beach. “We would like for the readers to know that you do not have to be an experience dancer to participate in the art that will be presented and taught during the week. Also, that Black Stories are important and still relevant and we must continue to tell them rather it is through literature, visual art or performance art. If you haven’t had the opportunity to or do not know how to share your voice in regard to the current civil injustices that the Black community is being faced with then being a part of this week long festival may create that voice for you.”

The Long Beach Black Dance Festivals runs Sunday, August 9 through Sunday, August 16, 2020. Participants are encouraged to register in advance and may do so on the CRay Project website. The Zoom links will go live on the opening day of the festival, August 9.

To learn more about CRay Project and the Long Beach Black Dance Festival, click HERE.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: LaRonica “Ronnie” Southerland in Carmen Sutra – Photo by Kevin Paul Lawrence