Jamal Josef's Children’s Book Encourages Boys of Color to Embrace Dance

December 23, 2020

Many young men face some sort of pushback when they decide they want to become a dancer. This rings true disproportionately more for Black boys—and was particularly true for dancer, choreographer, and creative director Jamal Josef, who’s worked with artists like Raphael Saadiq and Jordin Sparks, and is one of the masterminds behind Beyonce’s iconic 7-11 performance at Coachella 2018.

Growing up around people who viewed boys dancing in a negative light led Josef to work to dismantle these social stigmas by writing a book. Black Boys Dance Too: Darnell Enters a Talent Show highlights a Black boy named Darnell who is passionate about dance, but has a hard time being accepted by his peers.

For the holidays, Josef is launching a special “Sponsor a Child” campaign: For every $10 donated, a child in need will receive a free book and two virtual beginner hip-hop classes from Josef that they can take as many times as they want. His goal is to sponsor about 2,000 children.

Be sure to keep up with his (and Darnell’s) journey on Instagram @JamalJosef. —Nyamekye Smith

Dance Spirit
This was your first-ever book. When and how did the idea to branch out into this new space come about?

Jamal Josef: Honestly, just sitting during COVID-19, I wanted something to do that was different. I had the idea to make a film first, but thought maybe I should write a book first, then turn it into a film.

: You learned animation during the process of creating the book. How was that?

JJ: Oh my gosh, stressful! I never got it down completely, but it was like a 10 or 11 hour process for me because I’ve never done it before.

How would you say the main character Darnell’s experiences parallel that of your own?

JJ: When I was done writing it, I realized that our stories were pretty much the same, except my childhood was mixed with a bit more church experiences. I remember dancing as a little kid, and people would tell my dad ‘your son will turn out this way or that way.’ At the time, I thought if I danced, I wouldn’t be able to get a girlfriend. So, there were a lot of things I found myself compromising to do. I played basketball, tennis, swam, and ran track. It was like you had to do these things because you “gotta look like a man” or because you want that varsity jacket or whatever else came with it.

courtesy Josef

: How do you think this book will positively impact boys’ confidence when it comes to approaching dance?

JJ: I’ve had a lot of parents tell me their child has read the book 5 or 6 times now! It’s gonna make boys proud to say “I dance” and give them something to look at and say “Wow, that’s me!” I think that’s a really cool thing.

: What made you think to do a children’s book instead of just a book?

JJ: I’m a big kid! Plus, I can barely sit down to read a full book sometimes. So I thought it’d be cool to do a children’s book, especially since it’s a market that I haven’t tapped into yet. It’s also how I thought of making the original book into a coloring book. Everyone likes to color!

: How different do you think your path would have been if you had an encouraging book like this one growing up?

JJ: I think it would’ve positively impacted the people around me. Had boys dancing been normalized when I was growing up, it wouldn’t be such an issue to make dance a career path. I think that more parents would believe that it could be a career path instead of just a hobby.

: What do you personally like to read?

JJ: Books about Black movements, Black history, untold stories, and anything mythology related. Mostly nerdy stuff, but other than that, I like to read a lot of affirmation books!

: What perspectives or beliefs do you feel like you’ve challenged with this work?

JJ: I’m challenging the belief that boys shouldn’t dance, and that those who do should only dance certain styles, but I’m also challenging how the Black family is seen. There are a lot of norms in the book that you don’t usually see when hearing Black stories.

: In your mind, what happens to Darnell after the book ends?

JJ: In my mind, his parents started to put him into a lot of things like ballet and tap classes. He goes to an audition, he gets headshots, and he starts to really explore how to dive into this career because he knows this is what he wants to do for life.