Entries in Heritage (1)

Tuesday
Mar292016

Donna Mejia: Dancing Through it All

Donna Mejia is the first professor of tribal/transnational fusion globally. Photo: Steve Balderamma.A mom’s response to bullying tactics against her child has no bounds. It can be vengeful or it can be graceful.

One day at a Boys & Girls Club in Colorado Springs, 12-year-old Donna Mejia was cornered by other girls, being berated because of her mixed heritage. It was not the first time, but this time her mother walked in and witnessed the harassment. She pulled her out of the hornets’ nest, so to speak, when other adults did nothing to intervene. 

Following this incident, “She put me into ballet to improve my self-esteem,” says Mejia, who has since danced her way around the globe, and currently holds an assistant professorship in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

When recalling life before ballet or “structured training,” she describes herself as an introvert, yet physically expressive child, finding all kinds of ways to use her body: roller skating, running track, skiing and back flipping off things in the yard. “But all of those activities fell away,” she says, once dance was introduced into her life, becoming her sole extra-curricular activity. 

It wasn’t until 1996 that the business administration graduate of CU-Boulder realized that she could make dancing a career.

“I was in an education-corporate type job, but spending discretionary income and vacation time on dance opportunities,” says Mejia, who has been teaching dance at private and public institutions of higher education for nearly 20 years, including Colorado College in Colorado Springs and Smith College in Massachusetts, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts degree on fellowship. “It was pretty obvious all of my energy was going into dance. The most honorable thing to do was to get out of the way so that someone less distracted, than I, could fulfill the job.”

Though she found her career path, traveling it has not been without challenges. At various times in her career, congenital health issues have threatened to bench her. “It was difficult to maintain a dance career. I had to learn self-care at an extreme level. I had to become my strongest advocate with the doctor. But all of the hard work has paid off. I’ve now been pain free for years.”

Confusion about her mixed heritage has also followed her throughout her career. “It has been difficult to get casting in both white and non-white communities. Producers always wanted to know my heritage,” she says. “It is this overlapping identity and cultural ambiguity that stalled my professional career for so long.”

Mejia, whose heritage, for the record, includes Ghanaian, Spanish, French, Jewish, Native American and Scottish, adds, “I think my mixed heritage can be disruptive to people who’ve not workshopped their own assumptions about (and reliance on) social categories.” 

A Self-Defining Moment

Donna Mejia, a professor, dancer and scholar, has taught in higher education for nearly 20 years. Photo: Steve Balderamma.At the age of 35, she realized that she was “banging on doors that were not going to open for me. It had nothing to do with my talent. I was nailing it. I knew it,” she says, noting one particular audition. “My appearance was not what they were looking for.”

They actually said it to her at the same time they were telling her that the performance was perfect.  

She did not mask her disappointment and said, “Screw this!” to the choreographer’s face. At that point, she “stopped trying to fit the mold and started self-defining by cultivating an inner dialog between the collective dance genres in my years of study. Ultimately I landed comfortably in my art-making as a transnational fusion artist.”

Today, she is the first professor of tribal/transnational fusion globally. One promotion for her transnational dance immersion program in New York last year stated: “Donna has galvanized a personal practice that defies categorization but aesthetically highlights common denominators between North African/Arab rural dances, yoga, ballet, American hip hop, and Brazilian Silvestre Contemporary technique.”

These words validate her choice to blaze her own path. But more importantly, she wants to be recognized for empowering her students and helping to guide them as they refine their own skillset. “Some institutions can be toxic, hierarchical systems that abuse their authority, leaving broken souls instead of developing artists. I try to inspire students’ hunger for self-improvement and perpetual learning.”
She credits Letitia Williams, CU dance instructor emerita, for this approach to teaching. 
CU Assistant Professor of Dance Donna Mejia leading a class. Photo: Salwa/Art2Action“She became my reference point for what good education should look like when approached with integrity,” says the dance scholar, who early in her career served for 12 years as managing director of the award-winning Harambee African Dance Ensemble of CU-Boulder under the leadership of Williams. The ensemble performed for President Bill Clinton and Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. 

Overall, she enjoyed stable success in her dance career, but catapulted to international status in 2006 when an anonymous audience member bootleg filmed and uploaded one of her recital performances to YouTube, which at the time was in its infancy. She has since taught and performed as a soloist throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Today, she balances her time teaching and touring, appearing in at least 12 dozen cities per year.

The next Colorado date for Mejia includes a 3D collaborative animation/interactive performance at CU-Boulder's Conference on World Affairs on April 8 at 1p.m. The performance, to be held at the Atlas Black Box Theatre, is a collaboration with Kenji Williams, founder of BELLA GAIA, recognized for demonstrating how humans and nature are connected, and how art and science are connected.

From April 14-17, she will debut two new works in CU Boulder’s annual faculty concert titled, “The Current.” Her new solo benefits from the design work of Oscar-winning designer Jim Doyle and multimedia artist Teri Wagner. In late April, she will join other international talents performing at the Elevations Tribal Fusion Dance Conference in Golden.

Learn more about Donna Mejia’s regional instructional classes and upcoming touring dates at https://donnainthedance.wordpress.com/. 
“Black Women: Celebrating the Road Less Traveled” is a weekly online series published by Canady’s Corner to honor Black women who are making a mark in the world in their very own way.