Boston’s Black history: A profile of ‘dancing diplomat’ Aysha Upchurch

BOSTON — Harvard professor. Historian. State Department diplomat. Aysha Upchurch is a lot of things. But first and foremost, she’s a born dancer. She says connecting those interests was the challenge.

“Being involved in work on international issues like child labor, child slavery, child soldiering… I really started realizing that dance now could become the language, become the tool, could become the platform you explore these issues. And so this thing I was trying to relegate to a hobby, actually would be my canvas,” said Upchurch.

Aysha Upchurch was the youngest of four in an artistic family in St. Louis.

At American University, Upchurch studied international relations and musical theater, while dancing in her free time. Feeling conflicted, she says a friend comforted her, by saying she could just be ‘the dancing diplomat’.

Upchurch calls it a defining moment.

“And then low and behold I got a call from the state department to go abroad as a cultural envoy in dance and I was like ‘Oh snap! She was a profit! I’m a dancing diplomat’,” Upchurch recalls.

Upchurch traveled to Honduras and Guatemala, teaching dance and diplomacy. Back at home, she continues her work using hip hop, and contemporary movement to connect communities and teach them the history behind it.

“Black bodies move because they’re attached to this history or powerful stories and so I also think as a teacher, as an instructor, as a facilitator, I’m also trying to help people understand the relationship between the history of the forms,” says Upchurch.

Upchurch teaches ‘Hip Hop Pedagogy in Action’ at Harvard. She’s given Ted Talks and used dance as a form of protest against the racial justice movements over the last year.

“The charge for us is to take all that we’ve witnessed, first-hand or through stories, or even through books… and to put it into action. Movement has to be part of the moment. I say that all the time. I don’t wanna be part of no movement for nothing if you’re going to silence movement. It’s essential. Joy and trauma live on the same coin….different sides. Struggle and joy… they’re there. And so in the moment, we have to expel that tension and then we find that place of joy where the bodies are going. We need that.”