When dance artist dani tirrell moved to Seattle in 2008, tirrell never thought it would be a long-term stay.
Thirteen years later, tirrell has had such a strong impact on the dance scene here that some of Seattle’s dance leaders and artists are anxious about how the community will fare when tirrell leaves Seattle at the end of this year.
In the summer, tirrell began as an associate curator and producer at Dance Place, a dance performance and education center in Washington, D.C. Tirrell has been back and forth between Seattle and D.C. for most of the year, finishing up some creative projects in Seattle, but this December, tirrell will move to D.C. full time.
The legacy that tirrell leaves behind in Seattle is one of collaboration, community and service, but tirrell’s departure also leaves a void that Black arts leaders say will be difficult to fill.
Over the years, tirrell has worn many different hats — choreographer, performer, student, teacher, curator, producer — and has worked with a dizzying number of organizations in Seattle, including Northwest Tap Connection, the University of Washington, On the Boards, Seattle Theatre Group, the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, and many others.
“Contributing to the rise and the presence of African American choreographers, to me that is the big legacy. Dani worked tirelessly. I don’t know what’s going to happen with all of that now that dani’s not here,” said Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater.
To audiences, peers and friends, tirrell has been a source of inspiration and encouragement. To students, tirrell has been a mentor and supporter. To long-standing institutions, tirrell has been a loud voice holding them accountable to missions of equity and inclusion and safe artistic environments.
For Seattle as a whole, tirrell’s dedication to service and building community has created more opportunities and visibility for those who face the biggest challenges in the dance industry.
As tirrell prepares to make waves and tackle new challenges on a more national scale in D.C., we caught up with the change-making artist and with tirrell’s peers, students and collaborators about the legacy tirrell leaves behind while forging ahead to new stages.
Creating a more unified community
At a meeting at Velocity Dance Center in 2013, Markeith Wiley, then only a distant acquaintance of tirrell’s but now a friend and frequent collaborator, saw nearly every important Black choreographer in the city gathered for the first time since Wiley began dancing in Seattle.
“Dani was the nucleus of that,” said Wiley.
“I was like, OK. What matters to you is Black community, not just dance community. I was like, ‘What have I been missing since I’ve been here? It’s this.’”
Perhaps tirrell’s best-known work, the multidisciplinary show “Black Bois,” which tirrell created in 2018 and revived to a sold-out audience at the Moore Theatre in 2020, speaks well to what many see as tirrell’s specialty — the ability to bring people together.
“Black Bois” brought together Black dancers of a wide range of identities within Blackness and along the gender spectrum. For many of them, it was the first time they were working together or in a show with so many other Black artists.
“From my experience, everything [in the dance community] was just very spread out,” said Majinn O’Neal, dance artist and dani’s “co-pilot,” as tirrell calls them. “Things are still spread, but dani for me and for a lot of people was the person that bridged a lot of community gaps.”
Even during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, tirrell helped keep artists in conversation by creating the Instagram Live show “Intimate Conversations,” a sort of talk show meant to support artists at a time when they couldn’t gather and to create a space for Black artists and leaders to make art, weigh in on world issues and introduce themselves to new audiences.
The connections that tirrell has forged over a decade and a half have extended from individual dancers and students all the way up to arts institutions, creating a more unified dance scene in Seattle, especially among Black dancers and organizations.
This focus on building community has steadily created more collaborations and more work for Black and brown dancers in Seattle, a city where, Byrd says, at one time there were “almost no Black dancers making work.”
That was around 2002 when Byrd had just come to Seattle and formed Spectrum Dance Theater and the Showing Out mentorship program for emerging Black choreographers at the CD Forum to address that problem, along with others, like Sharon Nyree Williams at CD Forum. “I got the ball rolling,” Byrd said, “but dani took the ball and ran with it.”
Lessons from Seattle
Byrd said when he met tirrell in 2015, when tirrell was one of the participants in Showing Out, he found tirrell to be “creative and smart,” but also “reticent” and “intimidated by things.”
Just a year or so later, tirrell was running the program and, over the years, has expanded it and raised the profiles of dozens of promising young artists.
“Over the years I’ve noticed this incredible growth in not just dani’s artistry, but in dani’s confidence,” said Byrd. “Dani’s work got better. ‘Black Bois’ was one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in Seattle ever. I wish everybody would grow with that kind of integrity.”
Tirrell is very aware of that growth too. As a child, tirrell was extremely shy and quiet.
“That person did not have the voice that they have now,” said tirrell. Growing up outside of Detroit, tirrell’s dance experiences were primarily in majority white studios and schools.
“You had to fight to be the best. I started to doubt myself and my ability,” said tirrell. “Still some of that lingers today, but not so much. When you have those things and you’re already a really shy person, you don’t go for what you think you’re supposed to go for.”
These days, those who know tirrell would be surprised to hear words like “reticent” and “intimidated” attributed to the artist. Instead, they use words like “loud,” “authentic,” “honest,” “leader.”
As a leader in the local arts scene, tirrell has often been the “loud” voice pushing for change to make sure the most under- and misrepresented artists have not just opportunities, but encouragement, support and community.
“Dani is never really just working for themselves. Dani is always in service to others,” said O’Neal.
That dedication to service partly comes from tirrell’s aversion to the cutthroat environment and lack of opportunity in tirrell’s early dance days. In the courses tirrell teaches and shows tirrell choreographs now, the focus is less on the perfection of technique or being the best.
Randy Ford (aka Aísha Noir) a dance artist, friend of tirrell’s and original cast member of “Black Bois,” says tirrell’s intimate choreography process helped her gain a deeper understanding of who she is.
“If it wasn’t for ‘Black Bois’, you wouldn’t be listening to Aísha Noir, you wouldn’t be seeing Randy Ford,” she said. “Dani has always encouraged me to be my rawest self. I want to carry that with me in my work.”
At the end of each class tirrell teaches, the students circle up and “pour words of love and affirmation into each other,” said Olivia Anderson, a student in the Street Styles course tirrell taught with O’Neal at the University of Washington.
“When I took dani’s class, it shifted my perspective,” said Anderson. “I could feel that it wasn’t about becoming a better dancer, it was about becoming a better person.”
The artists whose lives tirrell has touched fear losing the advocacy and care tirrell has poured into Seattle, but they are also the ones who feel called to step in and try to fill the many roles that tirrell held here.
“The work that’s being created by Black people in this city is still loud in the best way. It’s starting to get louder now because dani’s not going to be yelling for us anymore,” said Wiley.
Tirrell has gained lessons from living and working as a Black queer person in Seattle as well.
“[Seattle] is not an easy place especially if you are a Black person, especially if you are a Black woman or Black femme,” said tirrell, who originally came to Seattle because tirrell’s partner got a job here. “This is a hard place. As much as I wanted to run out of this place, I had to learn the lessons. If you can make it out here, you’re doing great. D.C. will be a breeze.”
So what is it about Washington, D.C., and Dance Place that is drawing tirrell away from Seattle?
Tirrell says it’s about getting to know the dance scene on a more national scale.
“I’m excited about being able to be in more nationally centered conversations around dance and movement and art,” said tirrell. “At times, I think you can be very isolated inside of the Northwest, i.e. the Seattle area. That’s not a bad or a good thing. It is a thing. I realize how much I don’t know about what’s going on because we tend to be so isolated. So I’m excited to open up space to learn more.”
Tirrell has no plans to stop making noise and building community in D.C. In many ways, tirrell says, the position at Dance Place will be a way to build on the work that tirrell has done here in Seattle.
“I’m gaining information especially to help Black and brown and queer and trans artists. We have to learn things at a different rate, and I don’t mean slower. We have to do much more work,” said tirrell. “If we have more people that look like me, if we have more people that think widely about Black and brown and queer and trans artists, then we’re able to push us forward in a way … I don’t think any of this work is for me to hold onto. It’s for me to also give resources and tools to artists that don’t have access to it.”
At a time when many arts organizations are reckoning with institutional cultures and policies that have negatively impacted Black and brown and queer and trans artists, even those sad to see tirrell go are eager to see what tirrell can do with a more national platform.
“Dani’s journey inclusive of life lessons will enrich and educate a broad community during this time of unrest,” said Melba Ayco, the artistic director of Northwest Tap Connection and someone who became like family to tirrell. “I will rest easier knowing dani tirrell is at the helm of a national platform.”
Although this move will be a great opportunity for personal growth, tirrell has no intention of leaving anyone behind.
“I have been saying something lately out loud that I don’t think a lot of us tend to say — I want the bigger things. Be it bigger platforms to create on and with, more recognition for the things that I do, more visibility, and I’ve been so afraid to say that out loud, but I think as an artist you crave certain things,” said tirrell. “Those things will allow me to open up doors for so many other people. I’m not doing this alone …. I want to keep giving back in the biggest, boldest, fiercest way possible.
“I want that. We deserve it.”