February is Black History Month, and we mark National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day this month as well. I can’t think of a more fitting time to share the story of one of my mentors, Rodney A. Brown.
Seven years ago, I was honored to meet Rodney as one of my dance instructors at the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s school. Like many other students, I admired him instantly. He was very encouraging and believed that every student could do something great, whether it was in dance or another field. Rodney is the type of choreographer and teacher to push his students to explore movements that they would never have considered. He now shares these lessons and more at OSU, where he joined the dance faculty in 2012; prior to that he served as artistic director of dance at Santa Fe College. All these years later, it comes as no surprise that he’s doing amazing work in Columbus
As we spoke recently, it became clear that storytelling, dance, race and HIV education are strong themes in Rodney’s life. Rodney was born in Dayton in1981, which was the same year that the first AIDS cases were reported. To this day Rodney has memories of when he used to dance on his mother’s feet with her at family gatherings. Despite his success as a choreographer and dancer, dance was not what he had originally envisioned as a career.
While in New York, Rodney had the opportunity to grow not only as a dancer but as a man. Being surrounded by other African American dancers provided him with a community that fostered his talent. His time in NYC ended a few months after the September 11th attacks, when Rodney moved back to Dayton to dance with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company II. He eventually returned to Oakland University and earned a B.F.A. in 2005 becoming the first African American male to complete Oakland’s dance program.
To continue his interest in choreographing and creating stories, Rodney attended the University of Michigan’s graduate dance program. It was at the University of Michigan that Rodney began to soar. There he met one of the most inspiring professors of his educational career, Dr. Nesha Z. Haniff. She taught his Homophobia in the Black World course. Rodney’s interest in social justice, race issues and LGBTQ people of color grew, as did his interest in the innovative teaching approach of his professor. Dr. Haniff is the founder of a teaching approach call Pedagogy of Action (POA) that provides opportunities to students to explore their own ideas and empowers ordinary people to act in their community to address its pressing problems.
While on a study abroad experience to help local people learn the tools to provide community HIV education in South Africa, Dr. Haniff told Rodney something that would stick with him forever. She said, “You leave the skills with the people rather than leave with the skills.” It was a humbling experience for Rodney and opened his eyes to how HIV and other issues were afflicting different parts of the world. Once Rodney returned to the states, he focused on the lack of knowledge many people in the U.S. had related to HIV and AIDS. Rodney also realized that he could infuse the POA approach with dance and movement.
The POA was another way to teach HIV education and provide awareness in a simple manner that does not assume that all segments of the public automatically are educated about all aspects of the HIV. The POA breaks down the education of HIV in a way that that allows community members to take responsibility for themselves if given the right tools to learn and allows them to become able to teach back.
Rodney came to a deeper understanding of HIV and AIDS in the African American community when a close friend disclosed that he was HIV positive. It was at that moment that Rodney wanted to make a difference and educate communities, especially those disproportionally affected by HIV. Through his dance company, The Brown Dance Project, he created a piece dedicated to his friend, entitled Loving Lloyd, that still receives praise to this day.
The Brown Dance Project was established in 2006 and incorporated in 2008. It’s a unique company in that group of dancers doesn’t have a set group of dancers. Instead he calls on dancers from all over and also those who had minimal to no dance training. Rodney has created many works under his company that relate to HIV.
By infusing the POA module into his dance company, Rodney teaches HIV education through movement. He includes non-dancers in works and allows them the creative freedom to interpret HIV in their own way. In the end they are able to take the information they learned and teach it back. That’s the purpose of the module: to be able to share with the world.
Rodney is an artist in every way possible. Alvin Ailey once stated, “Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.” Rodney A. Brown is doing just that though his own style of teaching and storytelling.