Kenna-Camara Cottman Is Bringing Black Dance to a White Land

Kenna-Camara Cottman's choreography specializes in rhythmic drums and movement

Kenna-Camara Cottman's choreography specializes in rhythmic drums and movement

One of the fascinating Twin Cities community members featured in City Pages' People 2015 issue. Check out our entire People 2015 issue.

Kenna-Camara Cottman is many things.

She's a choreographer specializing in the rhythmic drums and movement of West African dance. She's a griot, showing up at spoken word events to share the oral history of the Twin Cities' black community. She's a teacher at TU Dance and Hall International Elementary School in north Minneapolis. She's the artistic director of Voice of Drum and Dance, a youth group that introduces kids to dance, music, and culture.

There's one common objective tying all these threads together: "More than anything, my work is about creating black spaces for our people to claim our cultural heritage in Minnesota, which is a very white environment," she says.

Her choreography fuses West African dance with hip-hop and other modern movements, tying past to present. Audiences have taken notice. Cottman won a Sage Award, Minnesota's Oscars for dance, in 2013. She was given a McKnight Fellowship last year.

In November, the Walker Art Center invited her to curate Choreographers' Evening, its annual evening of vignettes and short bits. The lineup included old-school and breaking moves; a plus-sized artist using ballet, modern and West African dance to examine body identity; and high contact, improvisational styles.

But during rehearsals, the national news grew increasingly grim.

"Auditions were going on at the time Michael Brown was murdered," she says. "When it was time to perform, everyone was reeling from the Darren Wilson verdict. We ended up doing a die-in for curtain call, and my daughter allowed me to read her poetry. Everyone was like, 'There's no way we're just doing business as usual.' I was really proud of us."

The reviews were glowing. "With metaphorical megaphones in hand, they spoke up and spoke out — not as tokens or tropes, but as authentic rich, lush, and complex individuals," wrote dancer Rae Charles.

Cottman demurs at such praise. "I've laid an egg, I've done shitty work before, but this time I did good. Sometimes it just happens."

Since her end goal is supporting black performers and creating black spaces, Cottman's work mixes smaller projects with shows at bigger institutions to pay the bills.

"When I was starting 10 to 15 years ago, I wanted this to happen or that to happen in terms of these large white institutions," she says. "That was my measure of success. Now that I am older and more into my community, my measure of success is more about representing ourselves and doing it for ourselves. And even if it's teeny tiny, we still did it in a way that was meaningful for us. I would rather put on a rinky-dink show at the Capri than have the Walker put me on."