Connected \\ August 22, 2023
Greg Coles is nourishing his community through the joy of dance
Greg Coles calls dance rhythms “moving hieroglyphics” for the way they can convey a story.
Beats can lay out emotions, set a soundtrack for work and pass down messages through generations. That philosophy is just a small part of what he aims to share through his drumming and dance lessons at Studio Foli, whose name means “rhythm” in the West African language Bambara.
“Rhythm can be calming. It could be uplifting. The remembering, the feeling, the doing, the organizing, all happens with rhythm,” he says. Coming together to dance as a community “gives you the opportunity to feel like you belong and to learn from people.”
Greg Coles performs at a PEM event in 2016. Photo courtesy of John Andrews/Creative Collective.
Coles teaching a roomful of dancers at PEM in 2022. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Coles has previously led the PEM community in dance and drumming for events like the opening of As We Rise last June, February School Vacation Week in 2022 and Artopia in 2016.
His mission of “calling people together to celebrate through dance” and create positivity together is closely tied to Dr. Kenneth Montague’s reason for collecting the photographs that became As We Rise in the first place: to show Black people experiencing triumph and joy.
“The idea of joy…is not based on your experience,” Coles says. “It's based on who you are…It's based on what made you. The process of becoming an individual who feels that you're actually beautiful and that you have something to offer.
“This Black joy is also a uniquely African gift. It's this way of figuring out how to be happy and how to be strong under trying circumstances that produces a way of being free even if you're not free, happy even when you're not happy because you're looking forward to the future, or you're making a way for someone to eventually be there.”
Coles found a measure of that joy in seeing himself in the photographs of As We Rise.
“I had a sense of these people being my people, extensions of the environments in which I grew up and people that I could have known or have been,” he says.
Boy With Flag, Winford, in Handsworth Park, pictured on view in As We Rise. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
He was especially drawn to Boy With Flag, Winford, in Handsworth Park, a photograph by British artist Vanley Burke. (Winford Fagan, pictured in the photo, reflected on community and identity in his own interview in 2015.)
“This young boy here, his pants are dirty, which meant he's been living as a young kid and running around and getting himself dirty,” says Coles. “The fact that he has a bike – that was a must-have growing up, having a bike. We adorned our bikes with playing cards to make them sound like they had a motor, flares, any number of things. It was fun to see him in his youthful and innocent world. It's like, ‘be dirty, have fun, and enjoy your bike.’ I love that.”
You can find your own joy at one of Studio Foli’s regular social dance opportunities. Or, sign up for a class in Latin footwork, djembe or African dance – levels beginner to advanced.
As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic is on view through December 31, 2023. Look for in-gallery videos introducing you to our three community partners: