Kelechi Okafor interviewed by Broderick Chow
Broderick Chow: Could you start by telling me about the history of the Kelechnekoff studio, and your motivations for starting this space?
Kelechi Okafor: I felt there just wasn’t enough representation for black women in fitness, not enough spaces where they could be seen. Everywhere I’d go, any fitness studio, I’d find that there was that erasure of blackness. I had instances with other studios, where I approached them and said I’d like to do a workshop, and this is what I do, and there was no sort of professional response. Usually the go-to response is “our calendar is full for the year, we’ll get back to you.” No, I got: “I don’t enjoy your style of dancing, I think it’s really basic.” It was definitely a personal attack. And I posted about it. And because of the response I got, people kept saying, “well, why don’t you open your own space?”
For black women, I think that there’s a sort of subliminal conversation that happens within traditional fitness spaces: “they’re not there for you.” But if we look at the demographic who attended my classes, it would be black women and women of colour who are coming to these classes. That made me realise that they wanted to see something that reflected them. If you don’t see yourself, then how do you know that you exist?
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BC: Over the phone you were telling me about your love for Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany for Survival.” I’d like to discuss a piece from the end of the poem.
And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive
KO: I talk about “existence is resistance.” The mere fact that we’re existing, that is resistance in itself, and if that is as much as some people want to do, they’re well within their rights to do so, because it’s tiring enough. But then, there are those of us for whom just existing isn’t going to cut it. Apart from existing, we have to have something that demonstrates and immortalizes that we were ever here. Ultimately, what I take away from that poem is the idea—not just the idea, the reality of scarcity, and finding that a lot of black people work from a space of scarcity, thinking that they’ll never have again, and being scared when there is abundance. I think that there needs to be a shifting of perspective in that we are always working from a place of abundance, because we were never meant to survive, so that had to come from a source of resilience that can’t be depleted! Otherwise it would have been depleted by now. That’s my personal mission statement, to work from a place of abundance. It’s why this studio has to exist, because it provides a space for more things to grow.
BC: How did you come to teach twerk and pole?
KO: It was accidental! The only other thing I’ve ever done after acting is athletics. I’ve got a strong aptitude for sports, so that’s what I was doing alongside drama in school. So whenever I was in the school play, I was also on the athletics team. I’ve always loved both, but I’ve always known that acting, performing and directing is what I want to do. But the reality of the landscape of the industry in the UK means that a lot of black actresses don’t get seen. Black actors generally don’t get seen, that’s why they all fly off to America. I looked at that and I thought, I don’t have enough money to go to America, I’m working at a call centre, I hate it with all of my heart, what else can I do?
I remember being at London Bridge Station and heading to Peckham, and it hit me, I’m just going to become a personal trainer. I’m going to utilize what I know about fitness, and do that. It instantly allowed me more space to do more acting work, because I wasn’t worrying about “oh, I’m going to have to cancel my shift, I’m going to have to call in sick, I’m going to have to kill a relative…” [Laughs] There was just so much more space, and time.
But again, you begin to see how fitness is a really white space. Even things like, decolonizing diet. The way people say, blanket, “don’t eat this, don’t eat that”, not taking into account where people have grown up or their background or genetics. As a black woman, I get lots of benefits from eating yam. I remember a personal trainer who writes some of these [diet] articles, seeing a yam at the market and laughing and saying, “ugh, it looks like a mammoth’s penis” or something, but just not knowing what a yam is. But yam is good for me, because it helps to regulate my oestrogen levels.
BC: I feel that when people in bodybuilding and weightlifting circles say “no white rice”—my ancestors survived on that for centuries!
KO: Exactly! This is my superpower! Anyway, while I was doing that, and having those thoughts, I took up pole dancing because I wanted to learn a new thing. I walked in, the only black girl there. I’d already been doing lots of weightlifting before, so it wasn’t too difficult to do a lot of things. But I noticed how I wasn’t afforded the space of tenderness, “this is how you do this.” I remember vividly, the teacher becoming very intimidated and not helping me for the entire class, so I had to teach myself from looking at what other people were doing. Even after asking, I don’t quite get this, she came over and said “you’re strong, you’ll figure it out.” That was very loaded to me, because of the strong black woman trope but also actually being physically strong. Strength or no strength, I still need to understand the technique.
When they asked me if I wanted to become a teacher, I remembered that teacher, and it made me think about how I would go about teaching with my background in personal training and fitness. In that same meeting they said “by the way, do you twerk?” I was like… why would you… why? Why? [Laughs] Why would you think that I do, and I said, I don’t know about this phenomenon that you guys are having, but me, this is what I do. I remember putting on music, I played afrobeats, and I just danced for a few counts. They were like “yeah, just do that! Just teach that!” But I didn’t see it as twerk, I just saw it as West African dancing.
I my classes I started looking at the footwork that we get in mainstream twerk, originating mainly from New Orleans, and the footwork we do in West Africa, specifically in Nigeria, in the Igbo and Yoruba traditions, and looking at how they overlap. It proved really popular. But the owners pulled me aside and said “yeah, well, we like what you’re doing, but we don’t think you should call it twerk anymore, we think you should call it like, ‘Tribal Twerk.’” And that was it, that was the eureka moment where I thought, “oh, I need to leave.” I didn’t leave for another year or so, but things just started building up from that point. It was the idea that there would need to be a prefix to what I’m doing when everything that they’re doing originates from [my culture and practice].
BC: Twerk originates in West African traditions, but is so associated today with American hip hop. Do you conceive of it as a “transnational practice?”
KO: I remind myself it’s really a reclaiming of histories. Not just one history. When you’re looking at the movements, the sacral movements, all the footwork, the pelvic regions, all these things, if we look at Senegalese dancing now, it’s still there. Because of the transatlantic slave trade, Africans being taken to the Caribbean, the Americas [pause] and Britain, because they don’t like to talk about that. This kind of dance started to find a new form in New Orleans, and that’s what people are using today. If we look at the exportation of black cool, from America, that’s really what started informing what other people are doing. I’m careful not to over-theorize this thing, because it has a fresh history now that needs to be respected, even when I’m aware of all of the things that informed it. When I talk about it now and do it now, I remember those things. There’s no doing it this way, or doing it the right way, or doing it the wrong way.
BC: When you teach, what is the music you would use?
KO: I use Afrobeats as a basis because that’s what I understand, and also because when I listen to Afrobeats there’s a prominent drum beat that frames the footwork that you do. When we talk about any form of twerking, everything starts from the feet. It’s how you move the ground. And it travels up to your hips and everything else. So, I use Afrobeats for that prominent drum beat, but when you listen to Nola Bounce [New Orleans Bounce music] it’s the same beat. It’s still the same thing. I always start every class in the studio playing Afrobeats, getting the students to march to it, finding that prominent beat, the one that they’re working to, and then whenever they listen to any other song, they’ll be able to identify what’s there. Because that’s the beauty of all of this, even with Nola bounce and hip hop and all these other variations—we’re all using the same beat. It reminds me that through art, histories can’t die.
BC: Part of why twerk shot into mainstream consciousness was its appropriation by a white woman, Miley Cyrus. There was kind of a sense, with her, of someone who had been influenced in the “wrong way” by these forms. So it’s interesting that that is what brought it to prominence, which allowed you to open up this studio, but you’re also now having to reclaim something from a problematic moment of appropriation.
KO: When black women try to reclaim anything, already with the trope of being aggressive, there is conflict. Like the last line of Audre Lorde’s poem, we were never meant to survive. So the audacity that then you’ve survived, and you say “I want this now, and I want this back”, that makes it very hard for people. We talk about racism as an individual, a very nasty individual that’s aware of the nastiness that they’re doing—no! Because it’s a system, and people are existing in a system. The average person, when you say, “oh, I’m going to do this class, and it’s because I want to reclaim my history”, the first thing is “Oh, but I didn’t take it! I was just enjoying the music! Oh my gosh! I’m not a bad person!” Moving away from that conversation is so difficult. “It’s for everyone!” It’s interesting people saying music and dance is for everyone. But when you look at the classes they teach and who they teach it to, it’s a specific type of person they’re teaching it to. So it challenges that white fragility, where people are so used to having things white-washed and then given to them, in a way that they can accept it and not feel guilty about it.
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BC: Another form of resistance I want to talk about is the idea of pleasure. In her essay “Uses of the Erotic”, Audre Lorde talks about the idea that the erotic is an underlining of one’s capacity for joy. She says that the erotic has become domesticated to the bedroom, so we just associate it with sex. But if we extend it to every part of our lives, it becomes a form of resistance because it shows how joyful we could feel. How do ideas of pleasure, joy, and the erotic touch on your work?
KO: When it’s something like twerk or pole dance we’re already expecting the erotic. But that’s not usually what we’re getting. Either bell hooks or Audre Lorde said that when we look at pornography, it’s not erotic, because the humanity has been taken out of it. When it comes to something like twerk or pole dance, people have already started to take out the humanity of the people who were doing it initially—exotic dancers, black women. They’re already deemed as not human, or not at the same level of humanity as everyone else. So therefore what they’re doing is thought to be this vile thing, when actually it’s this deeply erotic, deeply sensual thing.
I feel like we can only survive in this capitalist society is on some level of disconnect. Because we’d rather replace that feeling that is self-generating—it doesn’t need anyone or anything to keep going—we’d rather replace it by buying material goods because we’re told that’s what’s going to give us that same pleasure. And it really won’t. So connecting with self means we’re constantly fulfilling ourselves. I really enjoy tarot, and there’s a card in it—one of the major arcana—the Temperence Card. You’ve got an angelic figure, pouring from one cup into another. I’ve always seen that as ourselves. We’re constantly pouring into ourselves. But at the moment we’re pouring but there’s nowhere for it to go. So it’s just finding that way of reconnecting with it. We reconnect through movement, through breath. Doing all of these things brings us back to ourselves. When we’re there we can’t operate from a place of scarcity. Scarcity is what happens when we don’t tap into the erotic. Even simple things—I play music and I ask them to breathe deeply. At first they’re embarrassed. “Oh gosh, I’m doing this in public.” But after they start to get used to it, they improve exponentially, because suddenly they understand they’re an entire body, an entire system.
BC: There was a moment on your Insta awhile back that I found really moving: you talked about one of the women in your class who—
KO: [Laughing] Whipped her wig off!
BC: There was something so wonderfully freeing about that.
KO: That’s kind of a metaphor for everything. We come to spaces with so many things, layers, to cover ourselves and protect ourselves. Because we’re so distracted by the layers, we don’t do what we’re meant to do. We don’t enjoy the moment. I find people learn best through play, and you can’t play when you’re feeling so self-conscious. It was a great moment for me that she could just take off her wig and put it to the side.
If there’s anything I’m very strict about, it’s the culture that exists in the studio. You can go to so many other pole dancing studios, and look at people and you giggle… but not in here. I’m strict about that. And I use different ways to impress upon students the culture. Things like always making sure that they spot each other. I show them how to spot, then I move away and I make them spot each other. That way they understand that they’re accountable to other people. When we start building that level of trust, it means other people have the freedom to be themselves, and take chances on who they might want to be that day.
KO: I find with women who come to the studio the biggest disconnect is in the sacral region, and also in the throat. I talk to women in class about Mooncups and they say “Oh, I could never touch myself that way.” But it’s your whole-ass body! Similarly there’s so many things they want to say, but “you must be demure, you must be ladylike.” Those areas, their energies are just blocked. When they’re doing warm-ups, I make them talk or count. That’s one way I know they’re breathing but getting them to use their throat and exercising that area.
When it comes to the sacral region, that is the biggest battle. What you’re asking people to do is to forgive themselves. I think that’s one of the hardest challenges we come across as humans. Forgiving yourself for all those times you’ve just ignored yourself. It’s so easy to deflect and project and say, “it’s other people that have ignored me”, but in our relationships with ourselves, we’ve ignored ourselves. That’s why it’s easier for the media and people to be like, this region of your body is very sexualized, you should hate it. It’s easy then to take it on board. But the moment we say, “no, I don’t hate it.” And I’m going to put up Instagram videos of me shaking my bum, exercising that pelvic region, doing what I like, as a statement that I’m still here. I’m in that process of healing. I’m in that process of forgiving myself and really, really connecting with self. When you are a woman who’s been marginalized in society, people have historically seen your body as a site of violence, or easily as easily accessible. So there’s that forgiving as well, of the trauma. It might be intergenerational, it might not be your own, where you’re carrying trauma for other generations. It’s about forgiving those things.
BC: What are some of the transformations you’ve seen with the clients here?
KO: A couple of times, newscasters have come through and spoken with some of the women. One of them spoke about being in a very abusive relationship. When she came out of that her self-esteem was wrecked. She started coming to the classes, and I didn’t know anything about her background. The first few times she came, she was in leggings, and fairly covered up. Now she comes to class, she has hot pants, and even the hot pants have holes in them! Various holes! She just wants to show up as herself. In this society people often body-shame women that they deem to be bigger. She receives the brunt of that. But she says that doesn’t bother her in the slightest now. She knows that she can do this. Once a week or twice a week she can come to this room and dance however she feels. It’s not fixing everything, but it’s letting her know that everything is fixable.
Others might say: what’s a dance class going to do? But we know what exercise does, the endorphins it releases. That’s you just going to the gym. No one cheering you on, that’s just you. Here, you’re getting those endorphins going but also everyone else in the room is rooting for you to have the best time. We could be skipping. We could be doing anything else. It’s not about the thing so much as the space we’re doing it in.
Broderick Chow is Senior Lecturer in Theatre at Brunel University London and was Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded project Dynamic Tensions: New Masculinities in the Performance of Fitness. He is co-editor of Žižek and Performance (2014) and Performance and Professional Wrestling (2017). Broderick is a competitive weightlifter and coach.