3_11_21 / Vintage
It’s not everyday that you get to meet someone like Erika Belle. The original Madonna dancer, costume designer, choreographer, cancer survivor, reiki healer, art curator and Yohji obsessee sits down with Display Copy to talk about it all.
It’s not every day that you get to meet a woman like Erika Belle. The original Madonna dancer, costume designer, choreographer, cancer survivor, reiki healer, art curator and Yohji obsessee will be seen in an upcoming documentary about 80s nightlife in NYC directed and produced by Serge Becker and Eric Goode of Tiger King. Erika sits down with Display Copy to talk about it all.
Dancing was something various family members did sometimes when enjoying music. I can recall times when the radio was playing a tune and my grandmother, aunt, cousins and I, we’d all be dancing. I thought all families danced together.
I also enjoyed going to ballet performances as a child. My aunt Claire might have sparked the idea for dancing in part as a career idea; she was a friend of Arthur Mitchell, who was the first Black dancer to dance in The New York City Ballet company and he created The Dance Theatre of Harlem.
I saw theater, music and dance performances often with my aunt and other family members. The arts were very important to my family. I was very fortunate in this. I also did formally study, practice and perform as a dancer for many years.
If I’m able to dance to the best of my ability, much of everything else becomes well-aligned in my world.
You have quite a legacy as Madonna’s original dancer. How did the two of you meet? What was it like working with her?
I met her at a nightclub in the very early 80s. She looked terrific, loved to dance, she also adored downtown NYC nightclubs. We became good friends.
I was always impressed with her determination and focus on her goal to be a singer, one with a record contract and success. It’s easy to focus on her determination yet she had the goods for a successful career; Madonna is a great songwriter.
Being able to tour with Madonna (and with our other friends who danced or worked with her behind the scenes) was so much fun! We traveled the world, did track dates, performed on TV shows like Top of The Pops and The Tube, which were popular music TV shows in the UK. No one looked quite like us. It was fun to lay our style upon the world.
It was a time of intersection of art and music and fashion, it was a very dynamic era. The city was dirty and dangerous but it was really cheap and people could work a few nights a week in a nightclub and make their rent. So we had a lot of free time to do interesting things. There were a few clubs and it was a small world, you saw a lot of the same people a few times a week, and in some ways the nightclubs were at the center. The clubs were venues for art and performance as well as for dancing and hanging out and to see bands. They were places to dress up and be seen, to meet people. I had a bar for a while and we had art on the walls by people we knew, and performances. The film my friend Serge Becker and Eric Goode are working on is trying to document that exciting time.
That was all pre internet, so obviously there was no online shopping. My personal style then was an amalgamation of a punky laissez faire, items I found in thrift stores and clothing I made myself. My grandmother taught me how to sew when I was young. I found some of my wardrobe in vintage shops and I also made quite a bit of my clothing. Madonna liked my style. She first asked me to make clothing for our track dates, then to make various items for her videos and for her first tour. I designed and made our clothing for Lucky Star, the white dress she wore in Burning Up, and the infamous black dress with the large holes at the side she wore dancing in a gondola on The Grand Canal in Venice. The key element in everything I created for her was that she had to be able to dance in it.
That aspect, being able to move in your clothes, is a key element in your life as well. Your Instagram handle @dances.in.yojhi says it all! How does Yohji Yamamoto’s work resonate with you as a dancer and an artist?
I’m the daughter of an aeronautical engineer so I’m attracted to many a well constructed and designed thing, be it architecture or clothing. Yohji Yamamoto studied architecture.
I’ve also always loved the color black. It was a rare color to see and difficult to find years ago. This fact always surprises younger people. There were no black jeans, no black t-shirts, which are now as common as birds in the skies. I like that Yohji created clothing in a black palette. It forces the eye to see the uniqueness of the design, the well- considered construction and fabrications. It’s not easy to dye various silk and wool fabrics to achieve a solid non-fading deep black.
Yohji’s prints are wonderful too. No one does a red like YY. I like the historical transgressive and sometimes sinister connotation of clothing in black too.
I worked in his atelier during Paris Fashion Week, so I was in the beautifully designed space of an incredibly very busy and talented man who has a calming presence. During fashion week, Yohji was usually with his collection design and production assistants. I was proud to be a Black woman there and represent. We did have a formal introduction and meeting him was lovely. Fashion work, during and after presentations, always involves a harried hustle, so I did not spend much time with him. We had company dinners after each show, that’s when we could relax and have a talk.
Certainly the one that’s now known as the ‘Wedding Collection’ (Spring/Summer 1999) is a favorite. I adore that Andre Leon-Talley walked in that runway presentation. The show featured a bridal gown that contained the veil, shoes, and bouquet within hidden seams: these items were pulled from within interstitial pockets (by the model Shalom Harlow). How brilliant.
I also liked the men’s collection where the Romani musicians were the models. There was a collection where all or most of the men were in skirts in the mid ‘00s. I was fortunate to have watched many presentations in Paris (during and after working for YY) and seeing the clothing via the runways is always magical.
You collected pieces directly from Yohji Yamamoto but you’ve also found things in vintage stores over the years as well.
I probably first discovered vintage stores in the mid 1970s. It was an easy way to develop your own personal style if you were not a fan of commercial clothing, which I was not then. There was no internet shopping, and it was always fun to hunt for singular pieces to wear. I’m still very fond of singular items, the idea of owning the one and only garment. My dear friend Kimberly collected lingerie from the 1940s. She was the first person I knew who had a penchant for a specific type of vintage clothing, my introduction to niche vintage. My interest in Japanese designers was possibly sparked by seeing the beautiful kimonos she collected from vintage stores.
I was a huge fan of the TV show Soul Train, which featured Black musical artists and had fabulous dancing with dancers with amazing style. I tried to emulate these styles, which were so cool and very individual. Vintage stores were a great resource for my attempt to replicate the chicness seen on Soul Train within a student’s meager budget.
I was the co-owner of a small East Village club called Lucky Strike that also showed art. This was the first spark of working with artists and having monthly shows. I briefly had a gallery in Soho, and I’ve worked with Wooster Projects, which was also a gallery in Soho and Chelsea. I was the curator for group shows or solo exhibitions. I’ve helped artists find gallery support and have aided private collectors expand their collections.
Being a curator requires a rigorous systematic strategy. I miss devising this strategy and placing works in congress with each other within a space. I also miss studio visits with artists due to the pandemic.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a friend of yours. Is there something about him that fails to get acknowledged or celebrated in all the narratives about him?
I actually have a lot to say about my friend Jean-Michel, though it’s not easy for me to talk about him. Jean was much more learned than was popularly believed by the art world while he was alive. He was serious about and extremely dedicated to his artwork. He was dedicated to his work having a specific integrity. Jean was a man who loved Black culture. He deeply adored Blackness and our contribution to American culture, be it in sports, medicine, literature, art, music, he loved the whole swathe of what it means to be a Black American. He wanted to be appreciated and respected as much as his white peers. Sadly, he did not live to see this manifest within his too brief life. As I said it’s not easy for me to discuss Jean. My heart remains broken; he tragically died so young. The passing of time may placate old wounds but does not necessarily heal them. It remains difficult to talk passively about Jean-Michel Basquiat.
I love my Blackness. It has fueled all that I am. The more that Black artists, curators and creatives are in positions of recognition, coupled with financial gain, the more enriched this world will be. Multigenerational wealth needs to happen for us too, as we are integral to the workings of this world in manifold ways. And a fact that has remained true since we forcibly landed on American soil: the state sponsored violence against Black/Brown lives needs to be halted, full stop.
You’re also a Reiki healer. Did you learn that practice before or after you were diagnosed with cancer?
I became interested in Reiki via a friend. She was responsible for helping me recover from a facial injury. I loved how relaxed I felt after the session. Being diagnosed with cancer was life changing and very frightening. Before my first cancer surgery I became attuned and I received the first level in the Usui Method at the sadly now defunct (in Brooklyn) Maha Rose, which is a center for healing.
Reiki instigates a healing within one’s body. It promotes self-healing and also can usher in a serenity. Reiki certainly helped my connectedness with my mind and body during quite a challenging time. It is an otherworldly ability to be able to facilitate healing in another human.
Dancer, Costume Designer, Choreographer, Curator, Reiki Healer... Is there anything you can’t do, Erika?
I would love to be fluent in French, Italian and Arabic. I speak some French and would like to become fluent in the other languages too.