Senior Jmaw Moses instructs his dancers, all in pairs, to be like mother and child. It’s a cold Saturday afternoon in the Auxiliary Gym, but these six women are sweating. He continues: The dancer taking on the role of the mother must protect her child. They begin improvising.
What Moses is hoping to see is a shape, an image, a moment, a focus — something that plays into the struggle and the empowerment embodied in the dance project that he’s creating. This is a representation of his life: his losses, his questions of identity, his sexuality, and, eventually, his discovery of what acceptance really means.
One pair of dancers comes together in a moment of trust, an almost-embrace, after the woman playing the role of the child releases out of her sharp, angular movements. The two face each other, their arms overlapping, raised in soft circles and slowly floating downwards, like they’re seeing the gift in each other for the first time.
Moses stops scanning the room, zeroing in on these two dancers. From the carpeted area separate from the dance floor, he lifts his arms and imitates their movement. Struck by what he sees, he utters “ooh” to himself and quickly makes a note of it.
“It seemed as though each was taking responsibility for the other,” he says. “I think it really plays into the whole theme of this piece, of humanity. We’re all human, so we’re all responsible for building each other and helping each other and trusting each other.”
As Moses sees it, humanity is what we’re left with when the binaries of masculinity and femininity or manhood and womanhood are broken down.
“Men and women are supposed to be different, and then they’re just not,” he said. “Humans put these labels on things.”
His goal is to make an audience come to this realization as well. The final product of the movement, improvisation and choreography that will continue for the rest of this term will be his senior capstone. A total of nine women and seven men — including himself — will come together to compose and perform two complementary dance pieces, in which women will move in masculine ways and men will move in feminine ways.
Through exploratory movement, the dancers will make discoveries about themselves – discoveries that for Moses are reminders of his own: the pain, affirmation, love, fear, confidence and — most importantly — growth.
* * *
Moses remembers the day when, as a senior in high school, a female friend confronted him with a question that made his heart sink.
“Are you a woman?” his friend, Liz, asked.
He was confused. His body stiffened. He had never thought about this before.
But he was offended, too.
“Uh… No. No, I’m not,” he answered. His words were direct, staccato, firm — he didn’t hide his anger.
The two were sitting in the senior lounge of the Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C. and talking about their mutual friend, Ernie, who had been attending class in dresses and heels, an action that stirred up controversy among the teachers and prompted Moses and Liz to conclude that Ernie was, essentially, a woman.
Moses left the conversation upset and within a day realized why he was so offended.
“It was as if she was comparing me to him,” he said. “It was just like, ‘Oh yeah, our friend Ernie, who’s black and gay, is a drag queen — so, obviously, my friend Jmaw is black and gay, so he has to be a drag queen, or transgender, too.’ And I was like, ‘That’s not how that works. I’m my own person.’”
This was neither the first time nor the last that a fellow student — even a friend — would ask him if he thought he was a woman.
“I know that I’m a man. I’ve always known that I’m a man,” he said. “I just also can express myself in what is considered a feminine way.”
At six feet tall and 175 pounds, Moses is lean and toned and almost always well-dressed. In the winter, he can often be seen accessorizing with fashionable scarves.
Moses has known about his homosexuality since the age of 13, when he discovered that he enjoyed pornography that featured two males over any other kind of pornography. But he would have to leave his all-boys Catholic middle school to begin to make sense of his identity.
* * *
In a way, Moses’ passion for dancing was an accident. He came to Knox interested in pursuing theater and as a part of the department’s major requirements, he took Somatic Practice, a course that builds connections in dancers between intellectual self and their physical self.
Trying to find that connection again is something “we also need … to further our education in who we are,” said Jen Smith, Chair of Dance. Smith recalls Moses’ curiosity as one of the factors that led to his budding self-discovery. He began realizing that he could use his body as a tool to express himself.
“What I try to do is understand my mind and my body as a singular unit rather than two different elements to myself. … I might be in a physical location that I don’t want to be at, [but] I’m always comfortable because I have this,” Moses said, gesturing to his body. “And this isn’t going away. This isn’t going to change unless I want it to.”
And in learning about his body, he has learned about himself: where he holds tension; where he could be gentler; that he can tend to be blunt. “I used to be this extremely armored person, and a lot of the confidence and pride that I displayed to other people — it was fake,” he said.
* * *
It’s 2010 again. Moses is still a senior in high school, and his single mother is picking him up from the Metro at the end of the day, as she always does.
His brain spontaneously said: You’re going to do this now.
“Mom, I have to tell you something,” he said.
Just tell her you’re bisexual first. Ease her into it.
“Mom, I’m bisexual —”
You know what, no. She deserves the truth.
“— no, I’m gay,” he added.
It was dark out. About two minutes from home he looked over at his mother to see her expression, but it was too dark.
Ruth Moses remained silent.
“I remember just stiffening up a little bit,” his mother recalled. “I was a little in shock. I wished he hadn’t said it while I was driving.”
The two went their separate ways and continued their routines, Ruth never uttering a word about her son’s revelation. That night they watched TV together, even talking about the show, but that was the extent of the conversation.
It took two weeks before Ruth Moses broached the subject. The information wasn’t easy for her to process. She had grown up in a different time, was raised Methodist and had never known anyone who was openly gay while attending high school. As a mother, she became nervous for Moses, knowing the sometimes rampant discrimination and prejudice toward homosexuals. When she approached Moses, she simply thanked him for telling her. Within two weeks, everything was back to normal between them.
“I always felt accepting of him, so that was never going to change anything. I think, for me, it was a transition period. I think it still is,” Ruth said. “I’m learning to be more understanding of him and that things are different for him.”
For Moses, it was an invaluable lesson. He now applies his mother’s process — taking time, making peace, not expecting to have everything figured out — to his own life.
“When people hurt me or if I just get hurt in general, I look back, I don’t pretend to know all the answers, I think about it as much as I can, and I just let myself release into it and release into the emotion that I feel. And then when that release really does come, it’s sublime,” he said.
* * *
Senior Nicole Spencer understands well the dichotomy of her best friend. “He is that strong, protective man, but he’s also that emotional woman who has feelings and is intuitive,” she said.
That strength is one of his qualities that she most respects. And in their friendship, which has lasted since they first arrived on campus as freshmen, she has seen him grow stronger precisely because of one of his weaknesses: his absent father.
Moses was four years old the last time he saw his father in court for not paying child support. He remembers playing with a wire and bead maze — a child’s toy with looping wires and wooden beads — with his father and that his father had to go to his car to get something. He remembers watching him from the window to make sure that he would come back.
When they entered the courtroom, Moses’s father went to one side while he and his mother went to the other. When they left the courtroom, he never saw his father again.
The pain from his father’s absence still resonates with Moses, sometimes even bringing him to tears. It became a struggle that began his sophomore year in high school and didn’t end until last year.
“There were points in my life where I just didn’t think that men — other men — could love me. And not in a romantic sense, just in general. I was scared. I was really scared,” he said.
During fall term last year, Moses spent a lot of time in Counseling Services and eventually determined that he would see his father over winter break.
Then, in the moment that he desired to see his father so fervently, he stopped.
“It was a really strange sensation where I just stopped caring. I stopped needing him,” Moses said. “I just let it go. I filled that void with people that wanted to fill the void. And that’s all I really ever asked for.”
* * *
It is through Knox College’s Dance Theory and Improvisation classes that Moses has learned to release himself in movement, or what is known as “play” in the dance world. In order to get his dancers to a euphoric state of “play,” he has employed improvisational games, group discussions and a combination that he encourages his dancers to manipulate.
“One of the most rewarding things I’ve done at Knox is the fact that I’ve discovered this way to really just let everything go and then just move,” he said, underscoring a credo that he’s worked to impart to his dancers:
“Just let it happen.”
During rehearsals, before the six female dancers take on the imaginary roles of mother and child, they take turns moving around the Aux with their eyes closed. Moses has them start off by walking. He instructs them to move a little faster. And a little faster. Now, they’re jogging. A little faster.
Spencer hesitates. She’s partnered with sophomore Angela McNeal, who comforts her, saying, “Live in the lost.”
Moses gasps and immediately rushes to make a note of this. He considers calling the women’s dance piece by this phrase — or perhaps even his entire concert.
“That’s like … in four words, the philosophy that all of my professors have been trying to teach me for the past four years,” he said. It means “going into the unknown and doing ridiculous things.” It means “that I still have a lot to learn. … It means I still have a lot that I can do with being curious and finding out what’s new and what’s unknown. And not being scared of what’s unknown.”