JUMATATU POE wasn't the type of kid who was sent to dance class the moment he could walk. He learned about movement socially, from what he saw at parties and on TV, not from a stern teacher with her hair in a tight bun. He didn't even take a formal class until he was at Swarthmore College, where he decided to train in contemporary African dance.
There's no separation between low and high dance culture for Poe. Maybe that's why he's been able to take complex ideas about identity, space and transformation and present them using, in part, a form of dance that's been most widely experienced through Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" video.
His piece "Private Places," produced by idiosynCrazy productions, the company Poe co-founded, premieres at the Live Arts Festival on Friday. It's the most recent entry from the 30-year-old Poe. "He's like a shooting star," said Merian Soto, an associate professor of dance at Temple University, where Poe received his master's degree in fine arts. "He has vision; his growth is all constant."
Poe has worked with Philadanco and the Kun-Yang Lin Dancers while studying up on social-dance genres such as salsa and Jamaican dance hall. "I would love to study all dance, but there's just not enough time," he said in a recent interview.
Poe's lack of time is his own fault: He performs all around the country. Last year, he represented Philly for the SCUBA National Touring Network for Dance, a program that helps choreographers kick off their touring careers. This allowed Poe to bring his work to cities such as Seattle and Minneapolis. He received a grant from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage's Dance Advance to develop "Private Places."
His inspiration for the piece was twofold.
As he traveled around the country for dance, Poe became obsessed with the image of flight attendants, people who work in tight spaces, cater to the needs of those in their care and stay calm in high-stress situations. At the same time, he became fascinated with J-setting, or bucking, a type of dance that originated with majorettes at historically black colleges in the South but has more recently been embraced by the gay community.
The beat-switch movements from Beyonce's iconic video? That's all J-setting. The movements are imbued with attitude and energy, but they're accessible, even when used in a formal dance piece like Poe's that is expressing larger ideas.
"I think he's going to be a nationally recognized artist and ["Private Places"] is the first step to getting his voice out around Philly and getting him involved in projects around the country," said Craig Peterson, director of Philly Fringe and the LAB, a program meant to hook young artists, particularly locally, with resources. Poe was part of the 2010 class of LAB Fellows. "Private Places" is his first Live Arts show.
Poe moved to West Philly from California with his family when he was 14. His parents were very into the Pan-African scene and put a high value on education.
"Growing up in an environment so concerned with community influenced the way I think about dance and using it as a social tool, as a means of connection and communication," Poe said. "It's so powerful and you don't have to speak. Coming from a family where there are so many words all the time, it's great not to speak."
He formed idiosynCrazy in 2008 with Shannon Murphy and Shavon Norris.
"I'm drawn to his ability to relate movement to a social context," said Murphy, who dances with Poe in "Private Places." "We take a movement and relate to state of being, and that relates to an experience."
Communicating that experience with the audience is what creates great dance, Peterson said, adding that this is one of Poe's strengths.
So how has Philly held on to Poe? Why hasn't he jetsetted off to other dance meccas? Because Philly is home. "I can travel as much as I want to fulfill my creative desires and always come back," Poe said. "It's nice that there's a place to come back to."