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Daily Inspiration: Meet Tula B. Strong

Today we’d like to introduce you to Tula B. Strong.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I grew up in the Inland Empire and was raised by a single mother who immigrated to the country from Liberia in the 1980s due to the Liberian Civil War. So much of my mom and her experience of having to flee her home country shaped who I am. When I was growing up, she would always tell me and my sister something along the lines of “at any moment, everything can be taken away from you. Money, cars, homes, etc. But there is one thing that no one can take, and that is your education,” Knowing that this was truly a reality for my mother and so many of her family, I kept her words close in mind growing up.

Growing up, I never saw someone from a community like my own ever get to a school like an Ivy League, so going to a college like that never even crossed my mind. Even further, I am almost certain that if I wasn’t by chance placed into a college readiness program in middle school & high school, I would have been absolutely clueless about the things I would need to even get to any college. But, by chance — and for me, I say by the grace of God – I was in those college readiness programs, I had a mother who stressed education, and I was fortunate to be going through high school during a time where there were many great scholarship programs that kids from low-income backgrounds could apply to. It was through the perfect storm of all of these elements that I applied to the QuestBridge Scholarship program and ended up getting into Princeton University on full scholarship!

I spent four years at Princeton, and it was there where I really encountered what I do now: dance & experimental performance. Although I had been involved in dance throughout my life to varying extents — for example, I cheerleaded & danced South Pacific Dance Forms at my local community centers/high school — it wasn’t until I got to Princeton that I saw dance in another light. It was there where I learned that dance could be so much more than just the beautiful movements & amazing steps. The cool steps & beautiful movements truly are amazing. But, even more than that, I learned that dance could be a discipline where I could really process what was occurring in my life and the world. It became a discipline where I could actually combine all of the other artistic interests I have — like singing and theatre. For me, dance also became a place where I was able to engage with my faith in a new, really powerful way. I became hooked on choreographing at Princeton, and I was lucky to have amazing professors who saw so much in me as an artist even when I didn’t always see the same thing in myself.

Upon exiting college, I made the decision that I would like to continue pursuing choreography and that I would like to move back closer to home. So, through the help of the Gates Millennium Scholarship that I had also received in high school, I enrolled in a two years Masters Program in Educational Studies at Loyola Marymount University where I studied how to bring arts programming to working class communities like my own. That was my “day job.” Outside of school & study hours, I took dance classes in L.A. whenever I got the chance and started to prepare for applying to a MFA program in Dance — where I felt I could get more support as an emerging choreographer. Two years later, I was granted admission to the UCLA World Arts & Cultures/Dance’s MFA in Dance Program. I have spent the last approximately 3.5 years at UCLA and recently graduated in the thick of COVID in Dec. 2020. I am now pursuing my work as an artist outside of the academy!

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
It has not been a smooth road at all! One example that comes to mind is my experience while getting my MFA. While I absolutely adored my MFA program & learned so much while in it, the life circumstances I was confronted with throughout my MFA program made that season of my life incredibly difficult. I was exhausted so often, and there were countless, countless moments where I didn’t know how I would make it through the next few days, let alone the rest of the quarter. My mantra would become, “I just have to take one step at a time. As long as I don’t give up, and I just take one step at a time, I’ll make it through.” That was also a period of my life that I prayed so much just asking God for the strength to keep going. I’m grateful because I know those prayers were truly answered. In the exact moments where I felt like I was on the verge of giving up, I would somehow get just enough strength within me to push through and keep going. I’m grateful to be at a place where I can now look back on this struggle and say that I absolutely got through it. I’m on the other side. I’ve completed the degree! And while the journey was hard, I am proud of how strong I became for going through it.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
I am a performance artist who weaves dance, storytelling through music and faith. I create multidisciplinary performances that deal with the everyday experience of BIPOC individuals throughout the U.S. & beyond and the interweaving stories of love, wellness, and radical encounters with the Spirit of God. As an artist who deals with spirituality in my work and as someone who identifies as follower of Jesus, I am extremely passionate about presenting faith in a light that is anti-discriminatory, anti-racist, and full of extraordinary amounts of love. My work is rooted in verses like 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God does not give a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.” Directly rooted from a verse like this, my utmost desire as an artist who follows Jesus is to forcefully push against the narratives of fear, shame, condemnation, and discrimination that has unfortunately been used throughout the history of Christianity when teaching or speaking about faith. Instead, I hope to share spirituality within my work as a space of radical love, hope, power, and peace.

Currently, I am working on a show called TESTIMONY, which is a 3-day virtual dance & music experience centered around a community of Afro-Diasporic women, their journeys of trauma, healing & faith. Tentatively premiering Early 2022, the TESTIMONY weekend will feature free virtual movement & dance fitness classes, wellness sessions & curated conversations that audiences from all over the world can join in on from the comfort of their own homes. Plus, the core of this experience is the three nightly premiering dance-music theatre pieces, which I have conceived, directed, & choreographed alongside my collaborators. These three performance pieces are entitled “TESTIMONY: The Live Album”; “I tried so hard for you”; and “There is a River.” As a collective, these pieces deal with sharing the narratives of Afro-Diasporic women, reflecting on generational experiences of trauma, pursuing communal healing, and encountering the Spiritual as a site of radical healing. In a nutshell, each of these works reinforce the theme of the TESTIMONY weekend: uplifting Afro-Diasporic women and our multi-ethnic/gendered allies. I would love to invite the readers of VoyageLA to sign up to watch & stay updated on TESTIMONY’s premiere! Readers can do that by visiting: https://bit.ly/testimony2022.

Here’s one “interesting fact” about TESTIMONY — this show was originally designed to be my Final Live Concert to complete my MFA in Dance degree at UCLA. But like so many others in the performing arts industry, COVID postponed my concert & eventually canceled it altogether. In the past year, COVID has forced me onto a journey of self-producing this work. I am incredibly proud of myself for not giving up on this show because BOY this journey has not been easy in the slightest! One of my biggest challenges was transitioning the show from a live production to a filmed, virtual one. The filming & virtual production process has added so many costs to the project that I never could have expected. I am always pursuing some means of fundraising to help my team & I successfully produce the vision of this work. If any reader is interested in supporting TESTIMONY, we at the TESTIMONY team would be extremely grateful. Donations for the project can be made via Paypal at paypal.me/bstrongchoreo or via Cash App at https://cash.app/$Bstrongchoreo.

Where do you see things going in the next 5-10 years?
The L.A. Concert Dance scene took a big hit with COVID. Many of the staple studios where we train or rent affordable rehearsal space were forced to close, and countless performances were canceled or postponed indefinitely. Though the impact of COVID has been hard on the industry – and on concert dance across the nation in general – COVID has also brought one silver lining for the industry. I have experienced that the shift to virtual programming has started to make concert dance more accessible to diverse populations that might not otherwise have access to these shows or companies.

As an artist of color from a working-class background, I am extremely passionate about the industry of concert dance — and experimental performance in general — reaching diverse ethnic and socioeconomic populations. The tool of virtual programming that we have all tried to hone over COVID actually makes me excited that the performing arts industry can become one that is even more inclusive to diverse populations within the next 5-10 years.

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Image Credits:

Marcus Brown Jr.; Taso Papadakis; Bentley Drezner

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