Porshia Derival talks DanceWorks, connecting culture through art at 119 Euclid’s Fireside Chat

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When Porshia Derival arrived at SU, she felt immediate culture shock. Growing up in suburban Long Island, she assimilated into a predominantly white lifestyle and suppressed her Black identity.

That all changed when Derival joined DanceWorks — she found a community where she could be herself and learned how to express her culture through movement.

“It was all sweater vests, khakis, nice sandals, I relaxed my hair,” Derival said. “So, coming onto (campus) SU, it really shook me out of what my entire world was and really brought me into my cultural identity in a very real way.”

On Monday night, 119 Euclid hosted a “Fireside Chat” with Porshia Derival, where she discussed the inspiration for her dance career, and how DanceWorks allowed her to connect to her culture through art to redefine success.

Having grown up a dancer, Derival said she always felt strongly about the power of movement, and wanted to have that creative outlet in college. The organization quickly became her home on campus, and offered her the opportunity to express herself through hip-hop and other styles of dance.

“DanceWorks was my heart and soul, and was a team everyone knew about,” Derival said.

In her sophomore year, Derival began choreographing her own hip-hop dances for DanceWorks and held performances in Goldstein Auditorium. Her goal was to go outside the norm of hip-hop and add her own personal touch — she lengthened dances from about three minutes to around seven minutes. Derival also allowed anyone to come in and perform for her, regardless of experience, to allow everyone the opportunity to express themselves through dance.

“A lot of the dancers that I brought in, they weren’t trained dancers. They were people who had a natural movement and groove and soul about them,” Derival said. “People who you knew that if you gave them enough to work with, enough derivatives and grooves and knowledge of hip-hop dance, they could be really amazing.”

After researching for her senior paper, Derival met Safi Thomas, who is the artistic director of the Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory. Thomas saw Derival’s dedication to dance and how much she embodied the artistic vision of what he wanted to do with his organization.

It was also an opportunity to sit into my own cultural heritage and acknowledge and not just dismiss everything that Black people have gone through for hundreds and hundreds of years. It was an opportunity to look at it in the face and say, ‘this is what I am dealing with.’

Porshia Derival, co-executive director of the Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory

A year later, after Derival graduated from SU, Thomas offered her the position of co-executive director of the Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory (H+) and they have been partners ever since.

The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory is an organization that focuses on helping dancers by meeting their basic human needs. For example, the organization provides benefits to dancers through DanceMart, which offers free groceries to all dancers through stores like Trader Joes and Target. The organization also offers free health and wellness programs, such as yoga and acupuncture.

Yvonne Chow, the director of operations and education director at H+, spoke about how important an organization like H+ is for the entirety of Black culture. In addition to providing dancers with resources and support, the organization creates an inclusive, representative space where Black culture is celebrated, like integrating hip-hop into the education of Black culture, she said.

For Chow, education on hip-hop was hard to come by in college, so organizations like H+ were important to empower an already strong foundation of Black culture.

“There were no classes for hip-hop dance in college so everything was outside,” Chow said. “Coming to H+ was the one way we could study it, front and center.”

Thomas said Derival was the only person who could star in his performance of “Black Barbie,” which centers on Black women’s experiences with racism and sexual assault.

“Playing the character of Black Barbie was almost an homage to my entire ancestral line,” Derival said. “I have women in my family who have dealt with racism and sexual assault and domestic violence and abuse and these things that are so synonymous in our community.”

This demonstrates how forms of art can capture social injustices that are very prevalent in our society, Derival said. Sometimes these messages, in the form of dance or music, are much more captivating, as opposed to a typical presentation that lacks an artistic approach.

“It was also an opportunity to sit into my own cultural heritage and acknowledge and not just dismiss everything that Black people have gone through for hundreds and hundreds of years,” Derival said. “It was an opportunity to look at it in the face and say, ‘this is what I am dealing with.'”

Thomas said this is a shared goal at H+, where he and the rest of the team strive to amplify Black voices, while also examining the way in which they have been silenced in the past.

“Culturally, we continue to be watered down, homogenized or diminished in an effort to make others comfortable,” Thomas said. “We’re the creators of so much, yet we don’t own it. And we don’t even know that it’s ours to own.”

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