Featured photo: Alexandra Joye Warren is the founder of Joyemovement dance company in Greensboro. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)
Alexandra Joye Warren got into a lot of trouble in elementary school.
“I was very energetic and talkative,” says the Greensboro dancer and founder of Joyemovement dance company. “It would be like on my report card, everything good, but when it came to behavior: unsatisfactory.”
Eventually, Warren’s parents enrolled her in a dance school as a way for her to work through her energy. There, she remembers being inspired by an older Black female dancer and wanting to grow up to be just like her. A few years later, when she got to her performing arts middle school, Warren continued to dance and play the violin but eventually switched her major to dance as her sole focus.
“I just fell in love with movement,” Warren says.
As an adult, Warren still uses the artistic form to express herself, tackling traumatic issues like racism and sexism. In 2014, she started her own company — Joyemovement — to be able to tell the stories she wanted to tell. But that was never really her plan, says Warren. After graduating from UNCG’s graduate dance program in 2006, she spent years in New York, investing in other people’s visions and focusing on performing rather than creating. It wasn’t until Warren moved back to Greensboro in 2013 that she realized that in order to continue the work she was doing in New York, she’d have to start her own company.
“I wasn’t seeing work that was focused on activism,” Warren says of the dance scene in Greensboro. “Work that was telling untold stories, work that was trying to be more meaningful in choreography. For me, I was missing the work that I had done that was about connecting things.”
That summer, the George Zimmerman trial took over the news as he faced the jury over his shooting of Trayvon Martin; Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges.
“That was a really tough time,” Warren recalls. “I remember having my daughter and being in the store and these trials are going on and I’m trying to process what’s going on and feeling frustrated with how the case was being handled. I’m holding [my daughter] in the store and people are like, ‘Let me touch her hair,’ and I’m like Noooo! It was just so much. I started thinking about Trayvon and I wanted to make a piece that was going to let me process how I was feeling. There were no words to describe how that had happened.”
Shortly after, Joyemovement’s first piece as a company, “Stand Your Ground,” debuted.
As a former DJ, Warren pieced together radio interviews and snippets of news reel to create the soundscape for the work. She remixed gospel and a part of a reading of the Constitution and a portion of a TED talk explaining implicit bias.
“The sound takes you through some of the thoughts that are happening,” Warren says.
Her dancers go through repetitive movements, one after the other like an echo as they clasp their necks or fall gracefully to the floor.
Ever since then, Warren’s pieces have worked to seek understanding of the world through movement.
Her 2017 piece “For Love of Country” explored what it means to live in a country that elected President Trump while being a descendant of slaves. A year prior, Warren created a work drawn from her own family’s personal experiences with racism.
“One time my husband was working in downtown Greensboro,” Warren says. “He decided to walk to Jimmy John’s for lunch when a police car pulled him over. They accused him of a crime. They put him in handcuffs and put him in the police car. They said, ‘You look like this guy that just robbed this bank. We’re going to take you to this bank and ask if you’re the guy.’”
In the end, the police let her husband go.
“That was a heartbreaking experience,” Warren continues. “He was like, ‘I could have died.’ He could have easily been shot because it was a miscommunication. Going through that, he started opening up about the other times he’s been harassed by police and I was like, ‘I’m making a piece about this.’”
Warren’s 2016 “Fit the Description,” was the result.
She says she’s saddened that the work continues to be so relevant today.
“The years that it has been shown, you hope that it becomes less relevant,” Warren says. “Every time I make a piece, things keep happening. I would like it to be retired now.”
She’s gotten requests to show it virtually over the summer and says she’s thankful that her art can bring awareness to systemic forms of oppression. Most recently, she’s been working on another story that she says isn’t as well known but needs to be talked about.
“Wicked Silence” deals with the forced sterilization of women, particularly Black women, Warren says. Last summer she received a regional arts grant and decided that she wanted to shed light on North Carolina’s eugenics program that lasted until the 1970s. She envisions it as a three-part piece, spanning about three hours in length and hopes to debut it next year.
“It will be the biggest and most expensive project that we’ve ever done,” Warren says. “But I think it’s important because lots of people still don’t know that this happened.”
During the pandemic, Warren says she’s been researching the history of forced sterilization in the Triad through old newspaper articles and has even started looking for survivors to interview.
“I want to make sure their stories are told in a respectful way,” she says.
Warren says the history of forced sterilization affected her particularly when she visited Senegal and stood at the Door of No Return, a memorial to the Atlantic slave trade which functioned as the final exit point of slaves from Africa.
“I thought I would cry and be devastated,” she says. “But I felt this enormous strength. They thought some people didn’t matter so they wouldn’t allow them to procreate or allow them to have descendants, but my ancestors went through this horrible thing and they had enough hope to continue on to eventually get to me. I can’t find the words which is why I have to move through it.”
Warren says she wants people to invest in dance like they do visual art or music.
“I think a lot of times people go see dance and they’re like, I don’t understand what this means,” Warren says. “It’s okay to sit with your discomfort and not know what it means, but just to value whatever it makes you feel whether it’s curious, worried or unsure. Those are all real and valid ways to feel and that’s an okay way to leave a performance…. Dance makes me feel all the feelings that I need to stir up in me; it makes me cry.”
Learn more about Joyemovement and watch excerpts from past work at joyemovement.com.