Detroit artist reflects on Black Bottom in stage musical

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Shirley Ann Bryant of Detroit has a new approach to being an artistic dance director. No stranger to jazz, flapper dresses, and paired swing routines, she is well versed in the types of dances that were wildly popular during the Black Bottom era in Detroit. Inspired by that time period, Bryant developed the musical production Black Bottom Paradise— a musical that chronicles one family’s migration from Georgia to Detroit while underlining their struggle to survive.

Bryant’s overall goal? To achieve community bonding and educate youth on the significance of arts in education. Bryant has achieved both with Black Bottom Paradise. On September 23, she offered a free matinee performance which was reserved exclusively for public and charter schools. An evening performance was held for all other theatergoers.

Bryant co-owns the dance studio Body Rhythm Aerobics and is also the founder of her own studio for children, Body Rhythm & Dance Theatre for children and adults. In an exclusive interview with rolling out, Bryant discusses her greatest influences and mission to continue helping the community.

How did you discover your love for dance at the age of 10?
During the time I was in school, there were after school programs for girls who were interested in dance, so I took part in that. Then when I attended Northern high school, I was a part of a dance company called Experimental Movement by Jacqueline Hillsman. When I trained with her I found that dance allowed me be creative and express myself. With dancing I found freedom of expression in different forms.

Your experience is impressive. Tell us how you strike a balance between your IT and dance careers?
If you’re doing something you love, it’ll come natural. I have a partner who understands that my whole motive is to do something for my community. I also show my daughters that being a woman means multitasking and if you don’t, who will do it for you? It all just flows natural for me.

Share some tips on how someone can aspire to become an artistic director of a dance company.
If there’s something you love to do, you should go for it! I advise talking, connecting, listening and learning—even growing with people in the higher ups.

Was this your first show as an artistic director?
This was my first show being an artistic director of a musical show. I’ve had my dance studio since 2004 also. Having dance shows and musicals is a totally different element within itself. There were so many different components—actors, singers and dancers. The directors want to do a musical again because of the great feedback we had.

Who are some influential dancers that you’ve worked with?
Carole Morrisseau, Gina Alice, Deborah Miller, Paulette Brockington, Jackie Hillsman, and Ali Abdullah. Watching them and how they teach, their arrangements of choreography has broadened my ideas of creativity.

Who else do you want to work with? Why?
I try to be of service to the community at all times. Everyone I work with has been a blessing to me, and God brought them into my life because is was meant to be at that time. I learned that people who aren’t in the spotlight can offer a lot more than others.

What inspired the Black Bottom and Paradise Valley theme of the musical?
My mentor, Angela Gaye mentioned ‘Black Bottom Paradise Valley’ and I didn’t have an idea what that was. I’ve never heard of it. After I did my research, I fell in love with the concept. Life is a full circle—seeing how previous generations migrated with their families to live a better life. I feel like all children should know about Detroit history and how the community flourished.

Do you believe the audience captured the message of the musical?
Some didn’t, some did, even though we had technical difficulties. The older generation loved the show actually. I’ve even had some people tell me this was their first time seeing a black bottom show in 20 years in Detroit.

Which dance style do you prefer? Modern, jazz, African, Dunham?
I love all styles of dancing! I want the kids of my studio to embrace all the genres, as well.

What are some lessons you’ve learned opening Body, Rhythm, and Dance Theatre?
I learned that I love working with children who can’t afford dance classes or have low self-esteem. I like helping those with low self-esteem because I love to see them grow and develop. Learning how to be ‘tough’ is something else I learned because people will take advantage of your kindness once they see you have a passion for something.

What can we expect to see from Body, Rhythm, and Dance Theatre in the future?
Expect to see Black Bottom Paradise again in February. We would like to test it regionally sometime in the future. Over the next 10 years, I want to continue to flourish and take on many more blessings to come.

Photo Gallery Credit: Detroit Music Hall

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