It’s rare to have a video call with a bunch of strangers these days that leaves you feeling redeemed, uplifted, and joyful. Yet after speaking with some of the women of NEFER, an international dance collective, that’s just the sense you get. Actually, simply calling them a dance collective doesn’t do their work and ambition justice. According to their Instagram, NEFER is “a global movement dedicated to empower and celebrate women and girls of color within dance, music, art, and fashion by creating a platform to share our passion while building meaningful relationships through connection and collaboration.” Hearing them share their story, it’s clear the foundation for this platform is being built true to the principles it holds itself to.
The call featured six of the sixteen NEFER women—though the number of NEFERs is constantly growing. Those present were NEFERs Toyin, Tatiana, Nubian NéNé, Dinita, Jihene “JN Grey,” and Niki collectively representing the US, France, Nigeria, Sweden, Ethiopia, Switzerland, Haiti, and Canada. Together, they shared some of the NEFER story, how they build community through competition, and the importance of celebrating and fostering sisterhood. Celebration is at the core of everything they do: celebrating individual and shared histories, celebrating opportunities for expression, and celebrating the chance to watch others thrive. They hold virtual sessions, retreats, dance classes, variety shows, their own battles, and have a whole host of other ideas waiting to be brought to life. These women are lighting the path for a new way of thinking about dance—luckily there’s room for all of us to join in and lock step.
Nefers in above photo from left to right: Queensy, Tiffany, Dinita, Leah McFly, Kosi, Toyin, Foxxy, Nedda, Nubian Néné, Kiki, Tasha.
THE ORIGINS OF NEFER
“Our headquarters is somewhere in the center of the Atlantic Ocean,” Jihene “JN Grey” says with a laugh from her home in the suburbs of Paris. There is no one city, no one place that NEFER operates from. Its creation may best be dated to 2018 at the “Summer Dance Forever” event in Amsterdam when the unsuspecting future members descended on the capital city from all across the globe.
Toyin wanted to put together a fun video with a few dancer friends—that idea grew to become the “Black” video, which would launch the movement. “A lot of the girls knew of each other, heard of one another, or met in passing, but hadn’t really spent time together until this experience,” Toyin says. “All of us felt a certain flexibility and fluidity in our connection. There were moments [there] where I stood back and was like, ‘whoa.’ It just felt so meant to be.”
The result was a choreographed video that was chalk full of some of the world’s best dancers exuding genuine spontaneous joy. As Dinita says, “I don’t know what happened, but we definitely broke the internet. It was just amazing.” The unplanned event was so impactful for viewers—no matter their race, sex, ethnicity, gender, creed, or class—that it surely couldn’t be just a one-off. And thus NEFER was born.
The name, NEFER, means “beautiful on the inside and out” in ancient Kemet (Egypt) and exalts mental, spiritual, and emotional beauty as well as physical. It was an arduous process to decide on a name but when NEFER was suggested by Toyin, it stuck. “I feel like we represent this,” she says. “We put it to our name like our ancestors did and it serves as a reminder—that this is the power we wield and to sit in that strength. Own it. No matter where we go. We are powerful.” By the consecration of Instagram, the newly named NEFER introduced itself to the world.
BEING WOMEN IN THE INDUSTRY
The concept of NEFER wasn’t blatantly clear to the dance community right away. The styles of dance that many of the members participate in are predominantly male-dominated (such as house, hip-op, pop, jazz, afrobeat, and freestyle to name just a few), and a new group of women entering the scene was seen as somewhat suspicious. Were they a supergroup? Were they a new crew? Were they causing trouble? “There was a weird fear of us, people not understanding and not trusting why a group of women would come together like that,” says Tatiana. Dinita adds, “The powerful thing about Nefer is that we all know who we are—as women and artists. We’ve all been dedicated to our craft and what we represent on and off of the dance floor. Because of that, our presence can intimidate a lot of people.”
Of course, this narrative wasn’t one NEFER perpetuated, but one assigned to them by onlookers and misogynistic societal norms. “Happily, we don’t pay attention to that. We’re not here trying to prove anyone wrong. If I may say, we spend so much more time getting to know each other and finding our connections,” says Nubian NéNé. This approach is seemingly rare in the dance world—coming together without the sole goal of dominating the dance floor. But just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it’s impossible. “The first thing people try to do is pin you against each other like ‘oh, she’s the best dancer,’” says Dinita. “But for us, we all are great.” For NEFERs, it’s not about only growing in contrast to your fellow dancers, it’s about improving together and feeding off one another’s talents.
A WELLSPRING OF SISTERHOOD
The bond between the women is clear, even through a screen and multiple time zones. Their connection is more than friendship, it seems to be a sort of alchemy. Early in the conversation, Niki jokes that they’re “the witches of the dance floor,” but it is true NEFER exudes a subtle sense of sorcery. Not only in their movement but in their union. The social and political track record of the world is not very kind to women—that goes doubly for women of color—and the intention with which these women care for each other and welcome strangers carries an element of magic. When thinking about her relationship to being in the group, Niki states, “It felt like myself and the rest of the girls were remembering parts of ourselves that we’ve lost. It could be parts of our culture, our feminine energy, feminine abilities, being a woman and what that is like. Being together was a lot like remembering ancient knowledge of who we actually are. How we actually move. How we actually do things.” All the others nod.
To remember who you were is to embrace who you are. That can be a hard thing to do on your own, but becomes a little easier when you have a small army of like-minded women on your side. “To fully represent what we are through the lens of women, not through a man, I think that’s something that’s really important for me and for all of us. Sisterhood for me in general—and definitely with NEFER—is that support system,” says Tatiana. “It gives us that power to move forward, even though we’re away from each other, we feel that support in what we do. Whatever it is, we’re not alone.” After pausing for a moment, she adds, “That support system heals.”
Nubian NéNé recalls an instance at a “Rituals” show in which they realized it was one of the NEFER ladies’ first time on stage, despite her being deeply involved with the dance community. “So then there was The NEFER Effect,” she explains. “We made sure she had a safe space and that she was supported and that we were all present with her. We are supporting each other through sisterhood, through conversation, through different steps of our lives — we’re here for that.”
COMMUNITY THROUGH COMPETITION
The NEFER effect, a support system that heals, witches of the dancefloor—it’s funny that a movement based on rejuvenation and abundant validation was born out of the world of competition. But then again, it does make sense. Though the underlying purpose of dance competitions are combative, they are also communal gatherings—oftentimes reunions of sorts. A dance dojo where peers can come and train together, improve themselves in an arena that asks for more. According to Nubian NéNé, “At the end of the day, I’m not competing against anybody in front of me, I’m competing against myself. I’m competing against who I was a few minutes ago. And that I am making sure my freedom is spoken. I want to be better on a daily basis. If that is my practice as a human being, that has to be my practice also for my dance.”
Using the battle mindset as a way to confront flaws—engage and, literally, dance with them—seems tantamount to therapy. If you strip away the rankings and the awards and the titles, the concept of competition is an amazing platform for simply being honest with your personal skills and areas for improvement. For NEFER, that concept is a gift. “Beyond the battle, art is something precious, necessary and we need to do it for ourselves. Or against our traumas, fears, or shortcomings,” Jihene “JN Grey” shares. “Competition is just an environment where you can go to face them.” It isn’t about winning, it’s about improving. On stage, off stage, in your own mind and heart. NEFER was born at a competition, but not out of competition. They want all people—especially women of color—to find their avenues for self improvement and to feel safe, supported, and creatively stimulated on that journey. Dance is simply their main catalyst for doing so. “You can talk about a thing all you like,” says Toyin. “But getting the message across to people for them to feel it, is another thing. We stand in our truth and we try everyday to be authentic to that, but we understand it’s still a work in progress.”