On Dancehall & Family History: In Conversation With Aaliyah Thanisha
Interview by Naomi Joshi
Aaliyah Thanisha is a Jamaican-German professional dancer, performer & artist, based in Berlin. On a frosty day in Germany, interviewer Naomi Joshi had the pleasure of hosting Aaliyah at her kitchen table. The two spoke for hours over coffee & cigarettes, finding warmth in each other’s company while snow covered Berlin’s empty streets. This special, intimate piece is a product of two women of color bonding through raw, unexpected feelings of familiarity. In the following conversation, Aaliyah and Naomi discuss the similarities in their family histories, experiences of othering/racism in the Western sphere, bilingual and multicultural upbringings, and a never-ending love for dance.
Tell me your story of becoming a dancer.
I’ve literally been dancing my whole life, I don’t have any memories of not dancing. It started when my mom sent me to take ballet classes. And I just never stopped. I began with the classics: looking at Beyoncé’s music videos and trying to copy them for hours in my room. It was really just being in my own universe, creating my own world and feeling comfortable in it. Eventually, I started doing more into hip hop and commercial choreography. When I was about 16, I had my first commercial jobs as a dancer: music videos or TV jobs. And since I was 19, I’ve been doing it professionally, making a living off of being a dancer.
Would you say that your passion for dance has grown throughout the years or do you think it’s something that you were born with, in a sense?
I feel like I’m in a relationship with dance. Throughout my entire childhood, until my early teens, I would dance every day, all the time, either in my room or in class. That drive lessened a bit when I was in my late teens, but I think that’s normal – not only to have ups and downs with your passion as an artist, but also prioritizing other external things as a teenager and young adult. But I never lost that bond.
When did you start to find your own groove? Which different forms and types of dance do you feel most connected to?
I remember being eight or nine, I was in a ballet studio, and I was having a conversation with my ballet teacher. I told her: “I’m not feeling this, I really don’t want to do ballet anymore”. And she was like “are you sure? Because you are really talented”. But I was sure, so around eight or nine, I started doing street dance choreography – hip hop, urban, etc. I was in those kids groups, where you’d train together twice a week, and from then on, I pretty much moved on to more commercial/hip hop choreography. In my mid/late teens I also joined the Berlin Ballroom scene and found family there. I trained and battled vogue fem in addition to walking face, which is more of a beauty rather than performance category.
Then there’s Dancehall, which I very much grew up with because of how embedded it is within Jamaican culture. Both my mom and dad love Dancehall music. But the dancing came later, and it’s a very intricate way of moving – there’s a lot of technique and a lot of knowledge you actually have to learn to really dance it properly, so it requires hard work. The moves are connected to the history – it tells a story and you have to know which crew/creator it comes from, make sure to give credit where it’s due. You can’t just learn the moves, and I always liked that as a way to really tap into that part of my culture.
Where does your inspiration come from when you’re choreographing a new piece or even just free styling?
It sounds kind of cheesy, but when I dance or perform, I want people to be touched by the sort of feeling I give them when they’re watching me. It doesn’t have to be the most complicated choreography or the most insane production, I just want it to resonate with others and evoke feelings that you may not be able to describe in words. I think that’s also where my inspiration comes from – dancing with that sensation in mind.
I would also say I’m a rather introverted person, and very shy. I’ve been doing commercial jobs since I was about 16, and it’s definitely a hard environment to grow up in. It’s very competitive, you have to look good and everyone tells you how you have to be. So, I definitely take that struggle as an inspiration. A sort of reclaiming; this is me, this is how I want to express myself, my most authentic self. It’s almost a rebellious act, against the system. I want to be myself, and I don’t want to fit into anyone’s idea of how I’m supposed to be or what I should look like. And also past trauma, definitely, growing up as a mixed race child in Berlin. Everyday racism, institutional racism, all of that struggle – it goes right into me, I take that and try to make it into art.
Tell me a bit about your ethnicity.
I’m half Jamaican, half German. But my mom is actually Indian-Jamaican, so she’s mixed with Black and Indian.
Were your ancestors indentured workers who were brought over during the time of British colonial rule?
Yes. I actually only recently had this conversation with my mom, because we don’t really talk about it within my family. It’s very hard to put together our ancestry. I only just realized that my great grandfather was a slave brought from India to Jamaica. I didn’t even really notice it before, because if there was ever anything Indian, culturally speaking, it was lost. We don’t cook or eat Indian food, there’s no Indian language being spoken. It’s all gone.
My family’s from Negril, more in the countryside. My mom comes from a relatively poor family. When I visit my family in Jamaica, most of them are from a lower class community. That’s one of the main reasons why my mom left, because she wanted a new life, a better life and to raise her kids in a better environment. As we all know, once you grow up in that kind of space, it’s very hard to come out of it. But my mom’s amazing, and she did it.
What language(s) do you speak with your mom?
When I was younger I would speak Patois with my mom, that’s her mother tongue, along with English. Patois is a dialect, influenced by Jamaican, African, Spanish, French and English colonial history. I’m actually currently relearning it. When I used to be younger, I used to spend a lot of time with my mom, and at the time she didn’t speak any German. But since we stayed here, she eventually adapted and learned the language, and during that time I lost my Patois. But really, I’d say English is my mother tongue.
Where did your parents meet?
My mom met my father when she was about 19 years old. My father used to be a music producer during the GDR time – very alternative punk type of stuff. He would vacation a lot in Jamaica because he was so inspired by the music scene. If you think about Jamaican music, especially old school or mid school, it’s absolutely genius. How can you not be inspired? I’m talking Dancehall, where you have different artists toasting over the same riddims. My father used to listen to all of those Jamaican records. And that’s how he met my mom in Jamaica. They left for Germany together. But shortly after my mom had me, they split up. She wanted to stay in Germany though.
When you were growing up, were you surrounded by other mixed kids? If so, were you able to build a community with them?
Yes, definitely. I grew up with a lot of BIPOC, mixed people – half black, half white, also a lot of Turkish and Arabic people. It was hard for me, because there’s no Jamaican diaspora here in Berlin, at least not people my age, so I struggled connecting with those around me. I never felt comfortable being surrounded by only white, German people – I don’t have anything against them, but being around other BIPOC, mixed kids just felt so much better. I understood their struggle, and they understood my struggle. It’s as simple as that.
How does your dance world connect to your Jamaican culture?
I only started learning Dancehall about two years ago. I grew up with Jamaican music, but I only really familiarized myself with the art and culture of Dancehall relatively recently. I thought: “you need to know your own cultural background. You’re half Jamaican, your culture is so beautiful. It’s so rich and gives you so much life”. It’s necessary for someone like me to claim this dance, because we have so many white people here in Berlin who are very involved in the Dancehall scene. I just thought it would be a really nice chance to actually have someone from the culture, and also someone who’s female, take it back. I can only really describe it as a journey, honestly, because learning Dancehall is so hard.
As I said, Dancehall has a really hard technique. And it’s not just about the dancing, you have to know the music. You need to know all the names of the different crews who created certain moves, you really have to do the research because we have to pay respect to the actual creators. It’s honestly a whole different kind of world you really have to tap into and get to know, before you understand anything. I remember being in my room, playing Dancehall music all day long, looking at old school dancing videos on YouTube, and literally rediscovering myself. It was so beautiful to get in touch with that because that’s part of my identity, that’s part of who I am.
But I must say – Dancehall is such a classist issue within Jamaica. It’s very hard for Jamaican people who are lower class, those that literally created the culture around Dancehall, to be accepted by upper class people who will listen to Dancehall music, know the artists, but still stigmatize and distance themselves from it. They don’t necessarily take it seriously.
Talk to me about inclusivity, diversity and cultural appropriation within the dance world & outside of it. What has your experience been with these topics in Germany?
There’s still a lot of racism going on in the Dancehall scene, especially in Germany. I feel like a lot of white people, especially white women, get away with being super disrespectful. I’ve felt very uncomfortable many times – there will be white people touching my hair… It’s that bad. When I started teaching, I remember I had this one white lady who started a whole discussion with me in class in front of everyone, telling me that I’m talking bullshit, that I’m teaching it the wrong way. It’s really hard for BIPOC to teach their own culture in Germany because there’s a deep lack of respect for the people who take up space within their own cultures. But I’m lucky enough to have people that have my back, others of Caribbean origin who were born here and are part of the artistic world. It’s really nice to share that space with them because at the end of the day I am only half Jamaican, so I can most connect with those that understand the difficulty of having to navigate both cultures everyday. It’s still a very white-dominated space, but we are currently working on changing that.
I don’t feel that non-Black people actually understand how racism or anti-blackness shows up within the German context. Germans love to point their fingers at Americans, but they won’t take the time to understand what it feels like to be a Black, mixed or non-white person in their own country. Even in regards to their history, Germany had so many colonies… it’s never talked about. I always wonder: are you aware of your past? People love to join the movement, and be active on social media, but it’s all very performative. What frustrates me most is that so many people claim to understand the Black struggle, but when I try to have these conversations at my dance studio, for example, people would tell me: “you’re too vocal, you’re too angry, and if you keep talking about these problems you are not going to get booked”. Your IG feed is full of BLM posts, yet you tell me I should be more silent… That kind of environment, it’ll break you. It destroys you.
I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I can say: I really want to learn about my own culture because it’s a part of me, even if that means I have to learn from white teachers. It’s really all I have access to. But it’s hard. I’m trying my best to reclaim Dancehall and include my own story within it. Since my story includes finding my way back to my culture, it feels fitting.
How does dance function as a form of self expression, or even a source of healing?
I really tell a story when I dance, and so through that narrative, I express my feelings. When I dance, I’m able to process and work through my emotions, my inner feelings. Dance provides a sort of relief for me that I can’t find elsewhere. To let go of all of that build up – whether it’s anger, happiness or even sadness. It’s the feelings that I don’t know what to do with, that I find a way to work through when dancing.
Through Dancehall, I finally understood what it means to dance from your heart and tell a story rather than to just do movement. As I came from more of a choreography-based background, I really had to battle with that “assimilating for the viewer” process. But when I started doing Dancehall, I was like, “oh, this is what it actually feels like to organically express yourself”. I dance every day to calm myself, to get into my own zone, and to restart. It’s a form of meditation for me. It’s therapeutic. Every style of dance has a story and a history to it.
A really beautiful part of dance is the dynamic between self and other. You can dance for and by yourself, but there’s a certain energy and power that comes from collaboration, and being in sync with other dancers. What are your thoughts on that?
When you think about Dancehall, Jamaica, and its cultural and colonial history, there’s a lot of trauma there. You had a lot of African slaves that were brought over to Jamaica, so in its essence, its technique is very much based on traditional African dances. Dancehall is born out of trauma and political issues, especially for marginalized groups. So when you engage in Dancehall collectively, you also express that origin and those emotions, collectively. You can exchange without having to use words. It goes beyond the music and the movement, into something much deeper.
What language is used in dancehall music and what are the artist’s narratives about? Are the lyrics something you integrate into your physical movement?
As I said, dancehall comes from the low class communities, so it is very much about the everyday struggles of people that live in those areas: gang violence, crime, poverty, etc. We have a very violent political background in Jamaica, a lot of sexism too – Caribbean women trying to break out of that patriarchy. I can’t 100% identify with that, because I grew up in Germany, and we have a totally different system here. I don’t understand what it means to wake up to gunshots, gang violence and fend for your life. I cannot relate to my mother having to eat porridge every morning because they can’t afford anything more. Having no clothes because you are poor, I can’t relate to that. But what I can relate to is my family struggling due to those systems – their experiences intertwine with the narratives you hear in dancehall and thus, I incorporate it into my own expression and Caribbean diasporic/multicultural takes on the music through my movement.
Growing up, I would notice how my mom would try to distance herself from her Jamaicanness, trying to forget her own past, and that’s totally understandable because it was very traumatizing. There’s a lot we don’t talk about… I’ve always felt like so much of my family history has been missing. But I need to know my family background because I need to understand my ancestral past. It so much defines where I stand now as a person. Connecting with Dancehall has allowed me to heal from that gap.
Do you consider yourself to be German?
Great question. Yes, I definitely see myself as German because for me, German doesn’t mean you have to appear European. Especially growing up in Berlin, we have so many ethnicities here and I definitely strongly identify with this city. Over the past few years, I’ve stopped overidentifying with my Jamaican side because I think at some point, it gets disrespectful to the people that were actually born and raised there. Jamaica carries a lot of very different forms of discrimination and political structures than here in Germany, so I wouldn’t want to piggyback on their experiences. I identify as German and as Jamaican, but mostly as a mixed person. There are different kinds of struggles and everything is relative, but I have privileges in being mixed and being raised here and I want to honor that. When I usually get asked where I’m from, I tell people I’m half Jamaican, half German without hesitation. But lately, especially when I travel, I just say I’m German. If they ask what my ethnic background is, I’ll get into it, but it’s important for people to know that Germans can look like me, too.