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.

Greg Coles performs at a PEM event in 2016. Photo courtesy of John Andrews/Creative Collective.

Coles was born in New York, grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Salem, teaching African and Latin dance and drumming across the North Shore with an eye for “building community through the arts.” He is one of three community partners for the exhibition As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic, which draws from Dr. Kenneth Montague’s Wedge Collection of works by Black artists, organized around the themes of community, identity and power.

The “Community” section of As We Rise begins with a video introducing Coles, and ends with a wall fluttering with squares of paper, where visitors have recorded what community means to them: “Trust,” “good food,” “dignity and kindness,” “Familia,” “the Coffee Shop.” There are answers in pictures, in children’s careful handwriting and in a growing number of languages. As the exhibition continues its run, more visitors will fill up the wall with their joys and reflections.

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.

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:

Nicole McClain is the newly-appointed councilor-at-large of Lynn, Massachusetts, and the president and founder of the North Shore Juneteenth Association, a Lynn-based nonprofit and group of community leaders. The association seeks to create awareness about the Juneteenth holiday, educate the broader community about positive aspects of Black American culture, and dismantle racism by using events and programming as a tool for change. The North Shore Juneteenth Association recently organized the sixth annual Black Excellence 5K in Lynn to highlight the positive contributions of Black people. Watch as McClain explains the significance of the event, in which more than 200 people ran by banners and signs highlighting the positive contributions of Black role models in our local community and greater society.

Zainab Sumu is an artist and designer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is also the creative director of Zainab Sumu Primitive Modern, a design studio specializing in limited edition textiles for home and fashion. Born in Sierra Leone, she studied in London and Paris before moving to Boston to study at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Many of her designs are inspired by the music, patterns and architecture of West Africa. Watch as she takes us through her studio and the creation of the Malick Sidibé x Zainab Sumu T-shirt collection, based on the work of the pioneering Malian photographer.

Greg Coles is a drum and dance instructor based in Salem, Massachusetts who builds community through the arts. Formally trained in ballet, jazz, modern, African and Latin dance, he teaches drum and dance at Studio FOLI and throughout the North Shore. Watch as Coles demonstrates the rhythms of the djembe, a drum originally from West Africa whose name roughly means “to gather in peace.” The rhythms and the stories that they tell help players connect with Black diasporic identity, encourage empowerment and form community.

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