It’s a well-known truism that the past has a way of dictating your present, and professor and former dancer Christal Brown, 33, is no exception. Whether as a sister watching her brother go in and out of prison or as a performer dancing away from her ultimate destiny, Brown’s past currently informs how she raises her 2-year-old son, Gabriel.
In two years, Brown—who is currently an assistant professor of dance at Middlebury College—will chair the school’s dance program. Project:BECOMING, a program Christal Brown developed in 2004 to help turn teenage girls into “self-actualized women” through creative expression, is on the path toward national distribution in the next five years.
Looking back on her life leading up to all of this success, Brown freely admits it took a bit of time for her to “self-actualize” her own dreams. When her friend, prolific dancer Ayo Janeen Jackson, came to see her perform with the Chuck Davis African-American Dance Ensemble in North Carolina, she says she shrugged off Jackson’s attempts to set up an interview with the legendary Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company.
“I was like, ‘Whatever. You’re going to take my photos to Bill T. Jones and what’s going to happen?’” Brown recalls. “And she said, ‘Just give me the pictures!’”
Despite a successful audition, Christal Brown declined an offer to move to New York and perform for the storied company. “I never thought I was good enough to be a professional dancer and the only career I could imagine for myself was as a dance teacher,” she says. “I could only see so far, but God saw much further.”
After a mentor weighed in (“What’s wrong with you? Bill T. Jones is not going to keep calling you you!”) and much self reflection, Brown moved to New York, setting herself on a path to open up her own contemporary dance company INSPIRIT after apprenticing for a year with Bill T. Jones and working as a principal dancer for Urban Bush Women for four years.
“So I moved to New York, I slept on Ayo’s couch for three months until I could find an apartment. I apprenticed with Bill T. Jones for about a year before I auditioned for Urban Bush Women and stayed there as a principal dancer for four years and then built a company.”
Today, Christal Brown is raising her 2-year-old son, Gabriel Grant Jr., or GJ, between New York and Vermont, and will be moving to Vermont permanently once she finishes building her home there.
“When I’m teaching, I feel alive,” Brown says. “I’m able to connect with the kids on a different level than most instructors are, and I think it’s really because that’s the gift God gave me.”
It’s a gift that Christal Brown says has shaped the way she looks at the world and her role in it. “I’ve always thought of myself as more than a dance teacher,” she shares. “I really equate a lot of life lessons to the art of dance with my students. I’ve always been a catalyst for them to go to a different level in their lives.”
Now Brown has a catalyst of her own in the form of her son Gabriel. “When I learned I was going to be a mom, I was grateful and humbled,” she shares. “Having had a termination at 19, I was always skeptical if I would physically be able to have children and if God would bless me with another opportunity.”
Ever the teacher—she’s been at it for years, teaching 5 to 7-year-olds ballet, jazz and acrobatics when she was 14—Brown gushes about the impact Gabriel’s birth has had on her life in terms of lessons and teaching. But she’s also quick to point out that the two—though sharing an instructive quality—are totally different.
“I’m always entering students’ lives at a specific place and now I get to see the beginning, and how all those things that we as human beings collect over the course of our lives translates into who we are,” she says.
The experiences Christal Brown has collected over the years inform the decidedly hands-off approach she has with her son, which, in turn, has already started producing a specific personality.
“He’s very inquisitive, very personable and pretty much fearless,” she says proudly. “He’ll walk out the front door of our apartment and walk up to people going, ‘Hey, how are you?’”
Letting Gabriel toddle about free (within reason, of course) may seem like it comes from a carefree place, but it’s rooted in a deeper and darker pain. Brown’s older sibling has been in and out of prison for half of his life, she shares.
“I try not to be overprotective because I’ve seen so many black males in my family not succeed, and I think part of it is because they don’t have the skills,” Christal Brown says. “And I think those skills are not taught to them because the mothers or the parents in their lives kind of overshadowed their own power.
“What I learned from watching my brother make the same mistakes over and over again was that he did that because my mother and father were always there to pick him up, or he thought there would always be someone to save him,” Christal Brown continues.
“I don’t want my son to grown up in the mindset that he’ll always have a savior. I’m a single parent and I want the best for my son. I can’t always think that I can teach him how to be a man, but I can teach him some core values about responsibility and integrity.”
Brown’s past has created a path to a bright future for her and her son, as they both ready to move to Vermont for the coming school year and beyond. “I hope to share with him that the path for your life is not something you create or something that you neglect,” Brown says. “It’s just something that’s laid out for you. And as long as you can listen and be humble, then everything you need will happen.”
If Gabriel needs a role model for those values, he can look no further than his own mom.
HOW HAS BEING A MOM CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
How has it not? Being a mother has taught me the trajectory of life.
WHAT’S A TYPICAL DAY LIKE WITH GABRIEL?
It differs… We’re in transition, living in an apartment I own in the Bronx with one of my tenants.
Because we’re living in New York [and] going back and forth from Vermont, I’ve been going back and forth for the last four years. [Gabriel’s] been going back for the last two years with me to teach [at Middlebury].
I [also] teach at the Beacon School on 61st Street [so] I get up around 4:30 for my prayer and meditation time. He gets up around 5:30. I get him dressed, he is at daycare by 6, 6:30. And then I’m off to work.
I start teaching most mornings at 8 a.m. And then after that I go and I pick him up.
Like today, we’re going to meet up with some friends, have a little playdate, have a little picnic. Then we’ll come home and take a bath, and he’ll watch his favorite Diego DVD.
We’ll hang out in the bathtub and then he’ll go to sleep around 8:30, 9:00.
WHAT’S THE MOST GRATIFYING PART OF YOUR JOB?
When I can’t take my lunch break because my students want to come and sit and talk to me about their lives. Which happens everyday and I’m like, “Guys, can I eat?”
FILL IN THE BLANK: I LOVE BEING A MOM MOST WHEN…?
I see [Gabriel] interacting with other people. When I see him just really being himself, his personality out of the parameters of yes/no or conditioning. I really love being able to see him with people. He really loves being in the midst of people, and talking—as much as he has the skills to do so—but people entertain him.”
I FEEL MOST BEAUTIFUL WHEN….?
I’m clear about my purpose, my obligations are met, and that I can walk and enjoy being me. My style is about evolution. I remember when my closet used to be 50% suits for going to meetings or corporate things. Then it turned into African clothing and then it turned into jeans and small boutique-made pieces and now it’s like a mix of all those things.
ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT THE MOVE? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE TRANSITION?
Being from the South, I never thought I would raise my child in the city, especially being a teacher here and being inside the school system and being a confidant to a lot of kids. I think the city accelerates a child’s growth in a way that I don’t think is necessary.
So I’m really grateful that this position has come up like this at this time in my life because I really feel like it’s going to give my son a different view of the world. It may be little skewed racially because I’m the only black woman in the entire college but with the time I’ll have off, we’ll get to travel, so he’ll get to see the world for what it is and really kind of create what his place is instead of being told who he is in the city. I fear that the most. Black men are already told who they are and what they can become, especially in an urban environment.
HOW DO YOU DRESS YOUR SON?
I dress him in a lot of Carters stuff. He has some older cousins so he gets a lot of hand me downs. He dresses like an Upper East Side city kid. He has a pair of Jordans, but he’d rather be barefoot all the time. He’s a Carters, sandals kind of kid. He has big, crazy hair.
WHAT PERSPECTIVE OR EXAMPLE DO YOU HOPE TO IMPART ON GABRIEL THROUGH YOUR WORK?
I hope to share with him that the path for your life is not something you create or something that you neglect. It’s just something that’s laid out for you. And as long as you can listen and be humble, then everything you need will happen.
I hope he becomes, first of all, a God-fearing man. I want him to be a man of integrity. I want him to be clear about who he is and not to make exceptions for people to make him comfortable. I want him to be strong in his convictions. I want him to value education, and I want him to be a leader among men. Those are my dreams for him. I think those are probably every mother’s dreams for their children. But I really, sincerely want him to be a man of integrity no matter what he chooses to do to do with his life.