In the late 1990s, at the intersection of University Avenue and 12th Street, behind a Brandon House furniture showroom that once sat just off Interstate 630, a strip mall of offices housed a one-room dance studio helmed by C. Michael Tidwell. To me and dozens of other black teenagers in Little Rock then, Tidwell symbolized a kind of worldly glamour. A well-traveled former professional dancer who had returned to his hometown to teach, he showed us an ideal version of black masculinity in stark relief to the narrow and corrosive popular notions of the era.
Behind the studio’s tinted facade sat a waiting area, where I took a seat most Saturdays throughout my adolescence, closed my eyes and listened for what was escaping the wall supporting my head, behind which the class before mine was finishing up.
If the record — most often something up-tempo from a catalog of ’70s black disco and funk soon to be sampled by a hip-hop producer for a bass line — scratched, it meant things weren’t going well. Sometimes there’d be the murmur of a stern talking-to, signaling Tidwell’s disappointment. Worse was hearing the sole of a shoe thud against the floor or thwack against the drywall at my back, making me flinch.
We liked fearing him in this way, I think, spinning stories about his temper to flatter ourselves, our real fear being that our hold on his regard might slip. A stare from Tidwell could feel like an embrace back then, a reprimand serve as confirmation that he remembered your name.
As dancers from the preceding class filed out, I’d watch their faces, surprised at their relative calm and resenting their ease. When my classmates and I entered the studio, we’d typically find the room empty, the back door left open a crack, Tidwell having escaped to the alley to collect himself with a smoke. The studio would be humid with the same urbane energy that billowed from Tidwell like his cologne. Even entering the room put us on edge, the floor becoming unwieldy, my black Capezio jazz shoes loosening my flat feet from the glossy wood floor like roller skates.
This was just after that boogeyman of my boyhood, the gangbanger, had taken his leave. But his aura persisted, such that I spent more time reckoning with the myth of gangsterism in Little Rock than confronting the thing itself.
The spike in Little Rock’s per capita murder rate, the highest in the nation in 1993, had left a permanent mark on the city’s collective psyche. There were hotly disputed, widely distributed statistics about young black men that generated national hysterics: More black men would be locked up or killed than would attend college, we were told, and most of us would not live to the age of 21. The histrionic tone of that narrative embarrassed me (and still does today), but that did not free me from feeling anxious over it.
And there was the popular media about gangbanging that swallowed every young, black person, men and boys especially, and reduced us to a profile. “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock” corroborated the messaging from urban black films of the era (“Boyz n the Hood” “Menace II Society”) and gangsta rap remained ambivalent on whether it intended to inform the public of conditions in under-resourced urban communities (Ice Cube’s contention) or shock and titillate (Geto Boys’). My two visible identities were under siege, by a city too quick to consign its own black youth off to a rumored criminality.
In my head, three narratives vied to define black life at that moment. One came from outside Little Rock’s black community and defined black space as perilous and imperiled. The white world drew a crude image of black Little Rock that derived from the city’s historic geographic segregation and economic disenfranchisement, even as it feigned amnesia over their institutional origins. A second narrative, which came from within that black community, cast the fervor as nothing more than a fabricated crisis of racist origins — summoned from the rankest nightmares about black manhood to stoke black youth to further unrest. That idea, though more plausible, nevertheless failed to account for the very real jailing of men I knew and the occasional spats of violence I witnessed from the window of my two-parent home. And then there was the third narrative, in my gut — the me who surreptitiously practiced gang signs with my friends on the playground. Enticed by the glamour of the national media scrutiny and eager for the cred that “being hard” could bestow on a pubescent boy, we cast our circumstances as harrowing both to ourselves and others. That’s the legacy of the ’90s in Little Rock for me: gangsterism as a monster with three heads, each of which had to be dealt with.
But the ascendance of the black male gangbanger in Little Rock’s collective conscious converged in the early ’90s with that of another black adolescent figure, the male Tidwell Dancer, a black boy of similar age, performing classical dance on concert stages across the city. That such disparate types existed in proximity, sometimes in the same body, indicates the elasticity of black masculinity and reveals the constraints that society’s archetypes sometimes impose on black men — who we imagine we’re allowed to be.
Tidwell remembers the disaffectedness he observed in the city’s youth in the ’90s as stemming from the dissolution of familial networks — nuclear, extended, even fictive kin. “We were having so many young men killed. What was different is that they didn’t have much of a home life. As poor as I was as a black male, there was still a family unit. There was still someone guiding you. And through history, black males have always had that thing where they have not felt equal enough, or that they weren’t on a level playing field.
“I always knew I had to give something beyond dance. The percentages are very low of those kids who will leave and dance. My first thing was to save them, give them something else to do, something to grab them — when you perform and get standing ovations. Most people don’t expect it, the curtains open and there are 20 black males dancing in a group. That within itself, especially at that time, was astonishing.”
A native of Little Rock, Clarence Michael Tidwell began dancing at age 16 with Manolo Agullo, a dance instructor at the Arkansas Arts Center. He left the city to study on scholarship with Gus Giordano in Evanston, Ill., then waited tables and wrapped gifts at Macy’s while auditioning and taking class around New York. He joined the Buddy Simpson Dancers in Dallas and toured East Asia and the southern United States before returning home and joining Ballet Arkansas.
Much of his earliest work in Central Arkansas involved creating an audience for classical dance — deconstructing ideas about who went to the ballet. “In the beginning, dance was so stereotyped,” Tidwell said, describing Little Rock’s dance scene in the mid-’70s, when he returned home. “I’m old enough to remember Ballet Arkansas doing a show in Pine Bluff where I partnered [with] a white girl and half the audience walked out. The idea was, if I still wanted to dance, I was going to have to leave again. But I loved Little Rock. I’m comfortable here. I’m more artistically creative, because I’m not dealing with the stress of big cities and the competition.”
Along with kindred spirits Debbie Rawn and Jana Beard, he worked to push the accepted bounds of dance in Central Arkansas. “We danced everywhere there was to dance. We danced on concrete slabs, we danced at any club meeting. Anywhere that we could try to show dance in a different light.”
Tidwell also believed in the importance of exposing black audiences to classical dance. Through outreach work and grant programs, he introduced dance to public school students in Little Rock and North Little Rock before he made a full-time commitment to teaching in 1988. That year, the Little Rock School District began offering dance programming as part of its magnet initiative, which was designed to combat white flight by offering more electives.
He began that year as a last-minute substitution. A month before school started, the district’s head of fine arts called to encourage him to interview for the job. There was no curriculum in place. Tidwell began the year with 85 girls — evenly divided racially, though only one dancer of color had received enough private training to enter his advanced class — and no boys. Horace Mann, formerly a segregated black high school in East Little Rock, sat at the juncture of two historically black neighborhoods — the South End and East End. The school’s location, originally intended to discourage integration efforts in the late ’50s by estranging black residents from whiter parts of town, placed Tidwell’s program on a potentially combustible fault line.
Tidwell insisted young men be a part of his educational efforts from the inception.
“Dr. [Marian] Lacy came on as principal my second year at Mann. She was the one person who believed in my vision for the future,” he said. “I told her that if you didn’t have guys in the dance program, then you really didn’t have a dance program. You just had a drill team, or a dance team. Without men, the classics are out of reach. So she allowed me to recruit.”
That Tidwell’s programming began in a junior high school, when young men first take up the mantle of masculinity, distinguished his early success. He enlisted boys by relying on relationships forged during his nomadic years in the public schools, conscripting former pupils to fill his ranks. He’d taught at nearby Booker Arts Magnet Elementary, so the grade school students he knew from those days were prime candidates to join his class at Mann.
One of those boys from Booker, Zhiva Brown, now a pharmacist in North Little Rock and father of five, remembers Tidwell first relying on pop music and his long history with the community to convince him to join a class of female dancers in elementary school. “When I heard that he was playing Michael Jackson, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going.’ ” Tidwell also revealed that Brown’s mother was an old acquaintance. “I didn’t know many people who knew my mom and here’s a guy who says, ‘Yeah, I grew up with her on Cedar Street.’ ”
Tidwell later asked Brown, though not a dance student his first year at Mann, to recruit some guys to partner with his female students for the school’s first spring recital. “It was such a good time that I said, ‘I might be on the science track, but I’m taking dance.’ I think the number of guys started growing exponentially after that,” Brown said.
Tidwell altered the traditional classical dance classroom, substituting sweatpants for black tights. “Did I have to change things up a little bit? I did,” he said. “I knew there was no way in the world I was gonna get a guy from the East End to step into a studio in front of a room full of girls in a pair of tights.” He forfeited technical terminology for language that engaged the sports and activities students brought into the space. And he began with movement generated by the students themselves.
“I had to work in the classroom to get as much technique as I could. A lot of times I had to come from what they were familiar with. I would take what they were doing, look at the technique in it, and figure out how I could make it into a modern move — try to transpose it into the artform of dance.
“That was my teaser, giving them a whole dance that felt familiar, and then I would show them how we would change those moves to make them more artistic, why you needed to be at the barre, and why you needed to be on the floor, and why you needed to do across-the-floor combinations.”
Courtney Peeples, a business owner in Prosper, Texas, and father of seven, remembers Tidwell seeking him out in his first year at Mann.
“Tidwell came to me on the football field and asked me what I thought about dance,” Peeples said. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not gonna do that.’ I was a street guy, playing ball. He heard from the grapevine that I was one of the popular guys, so he came and talked to me. One thing he told me was that it would help me on the football field. And then I’ll be honest with you, I was in the seventh grade. It was the girls.”
Peeples remembered his gradual introduction to the artform, but also emphasized the rigor Tidwell brought to dance instruction.
“It was baby steps. When we first started, we thought we were gonna go in there and be gangsta walking and cabbage patching and doing our thang. We got in there and had to learn first position, second position, pliés, grande rond de jambes.
“Tidwell was very honest, very hard, and he was very thorough. He had more respect than the football coaches. Tidwell cared about me outside of dance. I was a person. I wasn’t just a dancer. Coming from where we come from, it was football, and it was the streets. You meet someone who genuinely cares about your grades, cares about how you feel, about what you’re doing. That maneuvered us into becoming different men, made us think in a different manner. It expanded what I thought was possible, what I thought I’d never do.”
Like Brown and Peeples, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott was motivated to learn dance from Tidwell because of its potential to improve his agility in football. He, Brown and Peeples looked to idols like Rashaan Salaam and Herschel Walker, who had translated dance into football greatness. For Scott, the experience helped him grow up.
“I was a shy kid. In that way, Tidwell was a deciding factor in my life. He helped me come out of my shell to learn how to be an extrovert,” Scott said.
Dance offered the same community as athletics, but performing it in class and on stage subverted the traditional gender dynamic of a junior high school, with males offering themselves to be observed and critiqued, where otherwise they might have only claimed status as big men on campus.
“When it came to technique, I got a female partner and started dancing with girls, and I wanted to learn more,” Peeples said. “Most of it was the girls. They taught us things they already knew how to do. They loved us. We could do no wrong. We were dancing, we were football players. We were street guys, but they didn’t look at us as street guys, they looked at us differently. Once they saw me dancing, I wasn’t Courtney the street guy all the time.”
Brown echoed this. “We were so limited in what was presented in front of us as young black men. It was always just sports. And so being able to express yourself through dance … it helped give black males another outlet. I think that when girls found out that you were a guy taking dance, all of a sudden you became a more caring-type guy, you were more sensitive. … You were OK with your emotional side, you would listen, you’d write a note in between classes, and so I guess their popularity with girls went up.”
Chivalry and courtship informs much of classical dance instruction, and Tidwell embedded these lessons into his own pedagogy. He served as the faculty adviser of Mann’s Young Men of Honor club, and later the Gentlemen’s Club at Parkview High School. His emphasis on presentation translated to lessons on etiquette and dress.
“Tidwell was a big-time male figure in my life,” Peeples said. “My mother was a single mother, but once I got to junior high school, Tidwell was my father figure. He introduced me to dance, he taught me how to treat a woman. He changed our style of dress. We were walking around in Dickies and T-shirts, Converse and sagging jeans. He made us put that stuff up and put us in slacks and Tommy Hilfiger, and ties. To me, that whole wave was because of Tidwell: Polo boots and Cole Haans.”
Being a member of the Gentlemen’s etiquette club at Parkview became “the cool thing to do because C. Michael Tidwell was leading it,” Scott said. “He showed us how to tie a tie. We all had our Polo boots. He had his own style. It was different because he was different. He was cultured in an era when we didn’t know what culture was.”
Scott said he was blessed to have a father who worked a lot while he was growing up. Nonetheless, for him and others, Tidwell was a father figure. “My dad didn’t teach me to tie a tie; Tidwell did,” Scott said. “I learned to tie a bow tie from Tidwell, and that if you’re gonna wear brown shoes, wear a brown belt. He was a father to the fatherless, all the while teaching us culture, etiquette and how to be a man.”
If many of my classmates were safe from the trope about gay boys and dance, I wasn’t. That’s who I was back then: black, gay and closeted, my sexual orientation a predicament not afforded much sympathy at the time. Sometimes I still resent those gangbangers, all the air they sucked out of the room, all the energy that had to be deployed in saving them. My bookish reserve, and my two-parent household often meant suffering the presumption that I was OK, when I was not. I lacked an understanding of my sexual orientation and visible models of out, self-assured black gay men, but my pristine academic record and model extracurricular schedule were read as evidence of well-adjustment and a guarantee of safe passage into successful, heteronormative Black Achievement.
A scene from the dance film “Centerstage” (2000) captured my attitude then about classical dance and its relationship to the community. The character Erik Jones, a black, gay man, is seated in conversation with a fellow black ballet dancer, an urban landscape at his back and jazz playing in the background. “Jody [the choreographer] has all these theories about making ballet for the people,” Jones says. “I do ballet ’cause it has nothing to do with the people. Give me tiaras and boys in tights any day.” I remember this sentiment crystallizing my thoughts about dance as an escape hatch from the pressures of black masculinity and black community at the time.
Even though I followed Zhiva Brown’s model seven years later — another black, male dance student elected student body president at Mann — my body existed in a kind of self-imposed paralysis then. That’s what it felt like to be 12 or 13 and attracted to my own sex, terrified by what my own body might tell on itself. When people talk about dance as a language, an expression, that’s what I think of, my body unfurling like a tongue, able to speak for the first time its forlornness and desire. That’s what I felt in my arms’ port de bras, in the rigidity of my neck and chin, my épaulement — the expression of my want of things in life, things I could not see myself having in Little Rock.
Fortunately, dance required enough attentiveness to free me of my own self-consciousness. Expressiveness or a femme manner weren’t flaws that required hypervigilance. I could see in the studio that strength and athleticism were not attached solely to machismo or aggression, that those qualities could also be deployed to say something. I wanted to relieve my black maleness of these burdens anyway. My body wanted to express its vulnerability, its emotional depth, its aptitude for precision and rigorous intention.
Tidwell’s studio became the place where I began negotiating my own masculinity and offered me a place to do this where I did not have to flee broader black community.
Dance was the first time I got to say something performatively with my whole body. I feel its phonics even now when I’m writing, the theatricality that imbues my syntax, the effort I inflate things with, wanting to make them mean. I did that first with my body, before I’d learned how to do so on the page. It’s exhilarating, how gay that can all feel sometimes, the mannered speech and sharp opinions, when all those things align, a true expression of my interior, my physical comportment and gesture, the sounds and words I make, and even more abstracted, the symbols I compose on paper. All of them hopefully contain the same elemental stuff.
For me, the appeal was that dance collapsed the binary entirely, made male and female identities expressible through one body, an idea that classical dance still grapples with. “If you didn’t know much about classical ballet, you might think it’s an obvious home for queer artists and narratives, but it’s more complicated than that,” David Ebershoff wrote for T Magazine in 2018. “Ballet, of course, has always had gay dancers and choreographers and homoeroticism, but it’s an artistic discipline shaped by tradition. … To have a public queer identity, or to be perceived as too effeminate, can still affect a dancer … . It’s one of ballet’s ironies — the outside world has long viewed the male dancer as the antithesis of conventional masculinity, yet the culture inside ballet can still be somewhat bro-y.”
Queerness and one’s ability to orient at any point along that spectrum became the keyhole through which I could discover myself. Martial arts had given me the same body conditioning and precision but had deployed it to violent ends. Football blunted all of that, made me into an instrument of force, less than sentient. Tidwell worked to communicate to his young men that dance could serve their athletic ambitions, but through the artform offered me something competitive sports did not, a chance to disprove the assumptions saddled onto my blackness and my manhood.
Mann’s dance program, with Tidwell at its center, established a loop in the city’s broader black popular culture, exerting an influence on social behaviors and street style throughout Little Rock. Tidwell’s classroom sampled dance styles from outside the classroom, while also informing them. A male soloist in Mann’s annual spring recital might segue into a section of footwork, mined from the foot gliding technique of gangsta walking, a street dance style originating three hours from Little Rock in Memphis and popularized by the rap/dance group G Style. The tribal associations of neighborhoods, and schools, gangs even — a means of social networking teens knew from the street — informed a citywide dance culture. “Cliques” met at teen dance parties at venues throughout the city. G Style’s 1993 video “Gangsta” records the atmosphere of these parties, with black men dressed identically in prep styles, moving in and out of formations, performing intricate choreography across caricatured urban landscapes.
“Back in the day, my group was PBC, Players By Choice,” Peeples said. “Then you had Naughty By Nature, you had 304, you had Freaks By Nature, you had a lot of different cliques at the time. Dance took off. We threw parties, we went to parties every Friday at the Big Apple, The Armory, Billy Mitchell Boys Club. It was a time where dance really kept us busy, kept us from fighting, shooting, selling drugs. We took it from the streets to the party.”
Dancers from cliques appeared on Tidwell’s stage, then repurposed the choreography for local parties. Tidwell himself emphasized exposing black audiences to dance, performing annually at events like the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame Gala and the Martin Luther King Convention, a statewide gathering exploring themes of social justice that attracted black teens from throughout the city.
“It really took off in the ’90s,” Peeples added. “The Tidwell Project (Tidwell’s touring performance group) would always perform at the King Convention, and with a couple of us being street guys, all of the older OGs came out to see us on stage. And they loved it. They’d be like, ‘Oh, look at my YGs. They up there getting’ it.’ The girls were hollering, so they loved it. That was one weekend in the city where there was no violence. Everybody came together, East, South and West. We were all there.”
Though Tidwell most prized exposing his audience to modern and jazz dance forms, he also worked to present the breadth of black experience, setting modern dances to traditional gospel and incorporating street dance vocabularies into his work.
“Regardless of what you think about religion, the church has been the backbone of black community,” Tidwell said. “I choreographed ‘Oh Mary Don’t You Weep’ [a staging of the biblical story of Lazarus rising from the dead, set to Aretha Franklin’s performance of the eponymous song from 1972’s “Amazing Grace”] intentionally, because I knew it would get me in the door. I knew if I wanted the black community, then I would have to go through the churches. We danced anywhere, basements, meeting halls, and then the Black Hall of Fame heard about it. Then they were calling for us. I said, ‘Here’s my key to the city.’ ”
The access won by his early success grew Tidwell’s programming from leading Mann’s two-instructor dance program alongside the late Traci Presley, to serving as owner and creative director of the Centre for the Dansarts on 12th Street, and leading the Tidwell Project Dance Ensemble, a touring company that performs throughout the state. Three decades since his first days at Mann, he now leads the dance program at Parkview High School, where he moved to establish courses for upper grades. He’s mentored teachers that facilitate programs at Mabelvale Middle School, Pulaski Heights Middle School, Horace Mann Middle School and Parkview High School, four of the six sites where dance training is offered in the district.
And his influence has always extended in both directions, to the street, and toward Little Rock’s black professional ranks. “One of the things about Tidwell’s dance program came about through his adult class,” Brown said. “It was an outlet for older African-American people in the community who also wanted to dance but didn’t have an outlet like that. When he started getting lawyers and doctors and other community leaders into those classes, that helped expose a lot of youth to those professions. Being able to see that many people that were on a professional level right there in a dance class just like you are in dance class was really good. I hadn’t ever been around that many black physicians or black lawyers or black professionals in one setting. To be able to say you had a connection to those people felt like you had a better connection to black leaders in the community.”
A lesson Tidwell perhaps meant for me finally, that becoming my full self did not require I defect from something as multifaceted as black community, that I did not have to seek accommodation for my sexual orientation in historically privileged, white spaces that appeared more cultured.
An aspirational quality pervades much of the collective memory of Tidwell’s studio, inside the blank blue of those three walls, before the derisive stare of its mirror, peering out at us dancers the way he always did. That’s what we sought from him all along, I think, a way of envisioning ourselves as urbane and expressive. In Tidwell, and the community he engendered, blackness could be both funky and expensive, could sweat and also possess dignity, authority, a sense of high self-regard. Watching ourselves mimic his movement, we hoped to see our own black, male bodies not as threats or haints, but as fine things, costumed and seen, and possessed of something to say.