The Passionate Pursuits of Angela Bowen

Topics: BIOGRAPHY, black classical dance, activism, teachiing
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Funds Needed for Completion: $ 60,000.00
Estimated Completion Date: 05/20/2009


Documentary films rarely tell the stories of the complexity of black women’s lives, let alone black feminists, which renders black lesbians practically invisible.

While there is a trend to examine the intersection of race, class, gender, age and sexuality, we rarely see or hear how these forces manifest in one woman’s life to shape her experience and purpose as she pursues her passions: classical dance, activism and teaching.

For over six decades, Angela Bowen has pursued her three passions: classical dance, activism and teaching, influencing thousands. How has Bowen keep her passions alive, even in the face of poverty and the ugliness of racism, sexism, ageism and homophobia? What kind of strategies has she devised? How have her choices affected her life and the lives of those closest to her?

Passionate Pursuits will introduce audiences to Angela Bowen, an extraordinary ordinary woman and is intended to inspire many people from diverse backgrounds to pursue their passions, but not for themselves alone, a concept that Bowen learned early in her life, passing it along to all who would listen. And it is this philosophy, which informs Bowen's decision to candidly share her stories and experiences in Passionate Pursuits.

In Theorizing Black Feminism: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women edited by Stanley M. James and Abena Busia, James says that black feminism "is rooted in Black communities and nourished by them even as it challenges those very communities to address issues of internal oppression." This theme appears and reappears in Passionate Pursuits through Bowen's stories and in those of the many people whose lives she has influenced.

Passionate Pursuits brings us into Bowen's worlds: the world of black dance performance and teaching, beginning in the 1950s and taking us to the stages of Boston, New York and Europe as well as into two schools for Black dance and culture, one in Boston and one in Connecticut; the Black Arts, Women's Liberation, and Lesbian and Gay Liberation movements from the late seventies to the early 1990s; and into classrooms at California State University, Long Beach where Bowen has been teaching in the Women's Studies Department for over a decade as her department's first black professor in its thirty year history.



Project's Financial Needs

The funds are critically needed to work with an editor to create a trailer and narrative timeline. There are over one hundred tapes catalogued. $1,000 dollars is needed to transfer four historic super-eight videotapes containing Bowen's choreography and student/company dance performances to DV.

Other financial Support

I am a UCLA Research Scholar based on this project. Hoff Foundation, Post Production, $1,000 one of three awardees summer 2008

Current stage of production


Estimated Completion Date



When Angela was barely two, her father Charles died from a heart attack, leaving his young widow Sarah Allen Bowen to support her three boys and four girls by working as a domestic during the day and scrubbing floors in Boston hotels at night. Sarah taught her children by act and deed to believe in themselves even when other people didn't, to fight injustice, to think for themselves and to live their lives for themselves--but not for themselves alone. An avid reader, Angela seldom was without a book, and by the time that she was eight years old she was helping neighborhood children learn to read.

"My mother always asked what good it was learning and knowing something if you couldn't share it with others" – a question that Bowen continues to ask, passing it along to all her students.

Bowen's first love was classical dance which she discovered after her mother brought her to the only black dance school in Roxbury, Massachusetts in the 1950s as a way to improve her daughter's poor posture. Bowen fell in love with the challenge of the dance when she was fourteen.

Says Bowen, "Dance turned my world from gray to technicolor." Bowen says: "Our teacher, Elma Lewis, told us that Anna Pavlova once said that dancing ballet was like experiencing God and sex at the same time. At 15, never having experienced either, I nevertheless totally understood the concept."

Bowen danced and taught at The Elma Lewis's School of Fine Arts until her early twenties, when against the wishes of Lewis, her mother and her English teacher, she auditioned for and then toured Europe with the historic all-black performance troupe Jazz Train. Bowen loved performing, but discovered that touring wasn't the life that she wanted to live. She wanted to teach and pass along what she knew, the philosophy that her mother instilled in her at a very early age. Before leaving for Europe, she had met Ken Peters, a conga player who used to play for Bowen when she danced at Lewis's School. Ken was smitten with Bowen and pursued her while she was on tour through daily letters, eventually winning her over and marrying her in the early sixties. Bowen convinced him to leave Boston to open their own school.

One of the critical transitions in Bowen's life came after the devastating death of her first child. The Bowen-Peters School had been opened for only a year at the time of his death. Bowen was in a severe depression and wanted to close the school. A promise that she made to a talented young dancer before the accident led her to keep the school open for the next nineteen years.

Even before her discovery of the feminist movement, Bowen understood gender discrimination. When Olatunji, the world-famous African drummer refused to teach the girls at Bowen-Peters how to drum, her response to him was that unless he taught the girls as well as the boys, he could no longer be part of the school. Bowen helped her female dancers take themselves seriously as classical dancers and also as girls, forbidding them to be cheerleaders because of the impact on their bodies, but also asking them why (no "to") didn't boys cheerlead for girls' sports?

Bowen was raised with the belief that she had the right to live her own life, even while she "moved the line forward." Bowen-Peters grew to become a major cultural institution in the State.

Despite the success, Bowen's discovery of the feminist movement in the 1970s led her to face serious choices about the life she was living. In the 1980s, Bowen began a new phase in her life, participating in and influencing feminism, black feminism, and the black lesbian and gay movement. Then, at middle age, Bowen made another significant transition, by going back to school to finish her undergraduate degree and eventually leading her to become the first woman in the country to graduate with a free-standing PhD in Women's Studies and to the university where she teaches as an out black lesbian.


Bowen's colorful stories are juxtaposed with candid interviews from a diverse group of artists, activists, university colleagues, former dance students, recent university students, and family members (her son, her daughter, her foster daughter, her ex-husband, and her life partner) whose lives have intersected with Bowen's in very different ways. Among the interviews are Elma Lewis, Bowen's intrepid dance teacher and mentor, (Lewis, one of the first to receive a MacArthur Genius Award, died in 2002) and Kenneth Kamal Scott, Bowen's dance partner with whom she toured Europe after challenging the unwritten rule about "no Blacks on Broadway." Bowen says, "We knew they wouldn't hire us, but we would sign up for the audition just to shame them for their blatant racism."

Bowen's former dance students, (two of them now judges in Connecticut) talk about Bowen's influence. Traer Price, an international water choreographer, talks about how watching Bowen's creative process informs her to this day. A. Billy S. Jones, co-founder and first chair of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, one of several key activists interviewed in the video, talks about Bowen's contribution to the one-time all male organization. Interviews with her university students reveal Bowen as a demanding professor who challenges her students' concept of themselves, particularly students of color and from working class backgrounds who do not consider themselves "college material" and certainly would never consider themselves as PhD candidates. One university student speaks about how his life ambition of being a truck driver changed to being a professor as a result of Bowen's mentoring.

Historic photos and footage (Bowen's dancers and her choreography and television excerpts of her as an outspoken national activist) are accompanied by an eclectic blend of classical, jazz, country, and black popular music.

Target Audience

I anticipate that Passionate Pursuits will be of great interest to the different communities Angela Bowen has been part of and has served. Black Arts, The Women's Liberation and The Black Lesbian and Gay Movements.

The video will be an important contribution to black feminists and lesbians and gay men whose personal, political, artistic and academic histories have for the most part been absent or hidden.

The video will be a unique resource for Women's Studies, Gender Studies, Lesbian and Gay Studies.

The story of The Bowen-Peters School, its struggles and its influence is extremely relevant today in the face of dwindling dance, art and music programs in the schools. A special mission of the filmmaker is to send a message of both support and warning to minority communities who have created and tried to sustain art and cultural programs in their neighborhoods.

The video will be appropriate for film festivals appealing to diverse audiences. Audience outreach will include: youth art and media centers, black non-profit arts organizations, public libraries, and senior centers. One goal is to reach a national audience via public television and/or appropriate cable channels.

For the past three years my distributor has been Women Make Movies. They have had great success in distributing my first award-winning documentary, The Edge of Each Other's Battles: The Vision of Audre Lorde, to a broad and diverse audience and have expressed interest in considering Passionate Pursuits for distribution when it is completed.

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