As a child, Deneane Richburg got into competitive figure skating at the Maplewood Figure Skating Club. Eventually, she’d train at all the major ice arenas in the Twin Cities. These days, Richburg brings her skating chops together with contemporary dance artistry and a social justice aesthetic.
Richburg’s company, Brownbody, showed an excerpt of its work “Tracing Sacred Steps” back in 2019 in a co-presentation by the Walker Art Center and Northrop, and now brings the evening-length work to the Highland Ice Arena. The work draws on a Black social dance called ring shout, which was invented by enslaved Africans. The piece uses that dance form to explore healing and resilience, with an all-Black cast of skaters and actor/vocalist Thomasina Petrus.
Here, edited for length and clarity, is an interview with Richburg about Brownbody.
Sheila Regan: Did you start as a skater? Or did you start as a dancer and got into skating?
Deneane Richburg: I started when I was a toddler dancing in the little neighborhood studio. And apparently I had a lot of energy as a child, so my parents wanted to help me burn off some of that energy. They had me try every type of activity and sport, including figure skating and dance. By the age of 5, I was in group lessons. I really loved the sensation of flying across the ice and then whipping myself in a turn and sometimes falling. The craziness of flailing arms and no sense of balance, just kind of going for broke.
SR: At what point did you decide to combine the two?
DR: In my early 20s, while I was an undergrad, I actually injured my right knee, which for a lot of skaters — they land their jumps on their right knee. I couldn’t jump in the way that I needed to continue to be competitive. I had to stop competing, but I was still dancing and I actually found dance really therapeutic in terms of healing and correcting the physical misalignment, which caused the initial knee injury.
I was also diving deep into contemporary African American literature and contemporary African American theater. I had the good fortune of doing a Horace J. Bond fellowship with Penumbra and I got the opportunity to study with Dipankar Mukherjee at Pangea and really had all these different creative influences. I was like, oh my goodness, how do I how do I blend this? How do I bring this all together?
I opted to go and get an MFA in dance and choreography at Temple University in Philadelphia to really learn and understand composition. They gave me the wonderful opportunity to do my thesis concert on the ice, which was really the start. When I realized I can use the ice for more than jumps and spins and sparkly costumes — that the ice can be a place of layered, nuanced, creative exploration? I can bring my Blackness to the ice, which is something growing up as a competitive skater … I can tell you some stories.
Here’s an example. I remember for a competition I wanted to wear a white competition dress, and I was urged by judges and officials not to wear white on the ice because it made the brownness of my skin more pronounced against the ice.
SR: What did you what would what happened in your body when you heard that?
DR: Instant shame. I was born and raised in Maplewood, Minnesota. There were very few Black families. I didn’t have the language to express, OK, y’all are objectifying me. The level of disrespect and diminishment and pure racism that y’all are directing towards me — I didn’t even understand how to contextualize that, or even how to see that.
I believe in blood memory, and I remember the depth of the wound to me; it was something I knew, but I didn’t know, and I couldn’t figure out why I knew. As an adult, as I’ve reflected back on those moments, I really do believe those were my ancestors trying to tell me something deeper than I had understanding of. My parents, they did their utmost best to try and protect me. But you know, when you’re a teenager, you don’t want to hear anything from your parents.
SR: Was there an aspect of activism in your family growing up?
DR: Definitely, definitely. I just was not at a place as a teenager, to really have a nuanced and a much deeper understanding the insidiousness of the racism that I was experiencing. I just was not at a mental place, and I really didn’t get to that place until I read “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. There was something about the deep cutting stinging pain that was expressed and experienced by Pecola Breedlove that was oddly familiar to me. And I started to put the pieces of the puzzle together and realizing that this level of objectification and this level of just pure racism —it’s not me. It’s the spaces that I’m in and the people that are in those spaces that wield the power. But it took me a while to really figure that out.
As I got older I had success — doing my thesis concert on the ice was a piece on Sarah Baartman, also known as Venus Hottentot. I was able to really open up ice arena doors and really know and understand that the ice is so much more than what popular culture understands it to be, and can continue to be so much more has been really significant. To be able to bring these stories, these realities, onto the ice is necessary. It’s essential. I just feel so blessed doing this work, being able to connect with other black skaters that have had a similar path as I have. That have such beautiful enriched movement in their bodies — movement and body types are shunned in so many different competitive skating spaces.
To really bring all of that is just so, it’s so exciting. Even if we’re just warming up and doing whatever. I’m just like, oh my gosh, this is such a big deal. This is so amazing.
Brownbody Presents: Tracing Sacred Steps runs 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 3, and 2 & 7 p.m. Saturday, June 4, at Highland Ice Arena. ($33). More information here.
Tonight, May 31, Richburg will join Tomasina Petrus and the skaters of Brownbody’s upcoming production in a conversation hosted by the Eastside Freedom Library at 7 p.m. (free). More information here.