Somewhere, We Dance Forever
In this stunning work of visual poetry, writer and performer Kai-Isaiah Jamal teams up with filmmaker Emily McDonald to create a film based around two of Jamal’s recent poems. Combining movement and verse, the work explores themes of queer identity, creativity and vulnerability, finding liberation in the genderless spaces of poetry and dance. “It takes so long to come home to your body for some of us,” describes Jamal. “This project finds the beauty in feeling your body and living inside of it.”
Somewhere, we dance forever.
Somewhere, there’s a never-ending jukebox.
Somewhere, there’s a dance floor for us only.
I swear, I’ve heard it. I’ve heard the bass under my skin.
In the video you dance and recite poetry. They’re both very expressive practices, but one is more physical and the other more intellectual. How do they relate to one another?
I think they give me the same feeling. I feel weightless when I dance and I feel weightless when I write. It’s almost the only time that gender isn’t so prevalent and so restrictive. There’s no expectation of what my body has to be as a masculine figure when I write, and that also happens when I dance. They’re polar opposites, but there are so many parallels between them. Not only what they give to me, but also what I can use them for, namely this idea of creating something personal
and being able to evoke somebody else’s emotion through the medium.
Can you talk about the poems you perform in the film?
A lot of it came from how I was feeling in regards to my transition. I was at this point where I was on hormones, and they were really changing not only my physical being, but also my emotional being and my emotional relationship to my physical being. It was the first time that I could experience my body in this new sense of moments of euphoria.
I really wanted to start writing about arriving at this new point of my transition and a new point of being able to view my body. The more masculine my body appeared, the less constructs and confines I was putting on it. There were things before that I couldn’t ever wear, because they were too femme, whereas now because my body was changing, and wasn’t being read as femme, I could wear them.
So I was like: “OK, let me write something about it,” and I realised that the feeling I was trying to explain, this euphoric feeling, was also something that I feel when I dance. Dancing is another state of forgetting my body and forgetting the expectation of my body and what it means to somebody else.
There are also so many times where our pain is the only representation that trans people have. Trans people die, and trans people don’t have access to healthcare, and trans people have really high suicide rates… there’s no depiction of us in euphoric moments, and having this joyous moment of the mundane. Us
dancing, and that being this small paradise moment in which we don’t have to only talk about our identity through elements of unsafety and uncertainty.
When I spoke to Emily about wanting to make this, there were so many visuals that came into it. It became a conversation, and I realised that I really enjoyed that. She was making a visual response to my literal writing, and that in itself created another conversation about bodies and language.
Were you and Emily friends before this project? Had you worked together creatively?
Though we hadn’t created something together, there was a friendship and some sense of shared experience. This was a chance to work with someone who not only shared a community but could also authentically explore what I wanted. I knew she was the director that I wanted to use because there were so many things that I didn’t have to explain to her. It was like we were speaking from the same place.
We didn’t meet that long ago, so it was quite surreal to let this person into my deepest, darkest secrets. My poetry is so much about me in a non-explicit way, that I wonder what it looks like when I meet somebody who understands what I’m trying to say. And that basically looks like the project that we made.
You’ve been doing a lot more modelling work lately, and clothes play a big role in the film. What is your relationship to clothing?
After words and language, clothes are the second most important thing in terms of affirming myself and my gender. I used to describe my gender as combats, because everyone would always be like: “Oh, are you a boy or a girl?” So I’d find all these different ways of talking about my gender. I’d say: “My gender is combats.” Combats were always the first garment that I felt were my allowance into masculinity - the first garment that I ever realised was ungendered and not specific.
In the project we went by these three types of dance: krump, vogueing and contemporary, and obviously the clothes had to fit into the dynamic of the movement. That made me think even more about fabric and how fabric clings to bodies - this idea of clothing being like a second skin that you’re putting on. I really wanted to highlight the importance of clothing and the importance of the trans narrative and clothing.
Can you talk about the experience of performing your poetry?
I have a love/hate relationship with performing poetry. I used to really enjoy it and feel like there was an exchange of energy, and the only time that I was ever comfortable was onstage. Now I’ve arrived at this place where I’ve got new mechanisms in my life that allow me to be vulnerable, so writing isn’t solely that space for me anymore.
In the context of queerness and especially trans identity, there is a lot of my life in which I am performing something. Often there are times where I’m not even existing in my masculinity; I’m performing my masculinity in order for it to be a safety measure, or in order for me to be passable or read as a man. So I think that also changes the dynamic of performing and the desire to want to.
How was the experience of making a film different to performing in person?
Everyone used to say to me: “You need to record stuff and put it on the internet,” but I was always very skeptical of doing it, because there’s something very valuable in being in a room with somebody whilst they’re performing, and I was always worried that you wouldn’t be able to capture that. I think this is the first time that I’ve realised that you can capture this essence of people being in a room without them actually having to be there. In the film, it doesn’t feel like it’s this singular experience of solely mine being depicted. It felt like everyone in that room had an imprint on it becoming this collective narrative.
There’s also something extremely important in creating something that exists online - using that as the stage and this video as the performance. Not only does it allow access for those with differing abilities, it also transcends borders and time zones and physical travel. A lot of my work is rooted in that, so making this piece feels like I’m accomplishing something big.