It was freshman year, spring semester, and I was a part of a graduate student’s thesis work. Some of the faculty members were coming to watch the progress that we had made so far, and Marcus showed up. At the time I didn’t know who anyone was, but I could tell he was articulate, evaluative and thought-provoking. He was the first Black intellectual I had seen in college. He was someone I wanted to know.
The person who walked into the Arizona State University Dance studio that day was Marcus White. He was an assistant professor of dance at ASU and an artist/scholar who dedicated his career to working in the long legacy of the Black radical tradition. Marcus passed away suddenly—and far too soon—on May 14, 2020.
I could tell by his commentary that day that Marcus was invested, and he spoke out of genuine interest in the work. I would later find out that this was how he was in everything that he did. I knew that my four years would be a lot different having this man around, and they were.
Photo by Carlos Funn, courtesy of Clare Croft
Reflecting on White’s passing, the International Association of Blacks in Dance noted that “everyone Marcus reached has been blessed by his incredible perspective, voice and talent.” White reached many. A native of Clinton, North Carolina, he began dancing at Quisan’s Dance Academy with Quisan Parker, who would become a lifelong mentor to White. He attended University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on a prestigious Coca-Cola scholarship but eventually transferred to University of North Carolina, Greensboro: a shift he made to be a dance major. After graduation, White moved to Detroit, founded his company White Werx and earned his MFA from the University of Michigan in 2015.
White developed a range of classes, first as a visiting assistant professor at Penn State Altoona, and then at ASU. He joined the ASU faculty in 2016, teaching choreography, jazz, modern and hip hop at all levels, and mentoring students in the undergraduate and graduate programs.
Marcus was a prolific artist and collaborator for both stage and screen. He founded the Moving24 FPS film festival with Carlos Funn and often worked as both filmmaker and film curator. As a choreographer, White drew on what he described as an Afroqueer lens, creating works like Mas(k) or nah 2.0, Da Line UP and Pearls. He also made work with students as a guest artist at UNCG, the University of Montana and Penn State-Altoona, among others.
University of Michigan dance chair and White’s thesis director Christian Matijas-Mecca wrote on the department’s Facebook page, drawing from an earlier Facebook post by Michigan professor Amy Chavasse: “Curiosity and imaginative problem solving characterized everything Marcus did. He energetically opened possibilities for his collaborators through a steady, but sensitive stream of prompts and encouragement. Under his direction, the rehearsal space became alive and buzzing with possibility.”
Photo by Carlos Funn, courtesy of Clare Croft
The biggest lesson I received from Marcus was “doing the work”—as in understanding what it is I needed to do, finding the steps to achieve my goals and then moving forward with confidence. His work ethic was humbling, because there was no hesitation; when he walked into the room he was ready to commit. He would show up to everything, every dance performance as well as the rehearsals; he would come to all the outside events in the community. At many of the events, you could tell that Marcus was helping in some way, shape or form. He knew that preparation was a big factor in being an artist, that you have to “stay ready” at all times.
Marcus was bold and explorative, and he wanted to make sure that we took our time to find who we were in our artistry. He always had tools to help us accomplish that, and questions to help us look through different lenses. He had an unwavering faith that we would succeed in whatever we set out to do. Even when I did not have confidence in myself, he never doubted me.
Artist Marguerite Hemmings says the key to White was his oft said comment, “Let’s be clear.” “Every conversation I had with Marcus included that phrase, ‘Let’s be clear,’ ” Hemmings says. “Marcus’ mentorship was thorough and meticulous. He asked the questions that pushed an idea or a thought into real, concrete, accountable, excellent existence. His mentorship was about accountability. Why are you doing, and who are you doing it for? And what ethics, what analyses are behind what you’re doing? And what are the checkpoints or people you have in place to ensure that what you’re doing still aligns with your values? Marcus’ mentorship pushed us all toward a radical honesty and radical transparency.”
Once I was getting to my junior year, my classes were hectic, and I did not get to see Marcus as much. But whenever he saw me, he made sure to check in on me. That brought me reassurance as I was coming into myself as an artist. I remember how I was always wanting to experiment and dance after class, so one day, I went into a studio to see if it was open. He was there, practicing his movement. He was one of the few professors who I saw still working on their craft. He always said he had his own work to do, as well. He let me join in on his session. We did not say anything; he just played music and went into his own world and let me dive into mine. Even though we were both dancing, I could tell that was a still moment for us.
He saw his students as multifaceted artists, and by junior year I was really seeing that in myself. As I graduate from ASU, I’m finding that I am complex, explorative and able to move with the utmost confidence—a lot like Marcus.
Clare Croft also contributed to this story.