In the cannon of documentary films, stories exploring the complexities of black women’s lives are rarely told: black feminists are seldom heard nor seen, and black lesbians are practically invisible.
This is the story of a black girl who came of age during Jim Crow in inner city Boston – her discovery of dance, and where that led. When she was married with two children and running a dance school in the heart of the black community, she discovered feminism and soon realized her desire for a different life, leading her to a new city and a new identity.
Bowen’s stories reveal how the challenges of race, class, gender, age, and sexuality played into her decisions and strategies for survival.
Her stories are unique, candid and funny. Bowen’s former dance mentor, her family, former students — dance and academic, activists, educators, and colleagues, show the depth of her Influence and bridge her passionate pursuits across the decades.
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About Angela Bowen
For six decades Angela Bowen has pursued three passions – dance, activism and teaching- thereby influencing and inspiring untold numbers.
Passionate Pursuits is a feature length documentary that begins with Bowen’s accidental discovery of dance when her mother enrolled her in The Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in 1952 to improve her posture. This chance encounter with classical dance, at 14, turned into her passion which she pursued relentlessly. “It was the first time I couldn’t do something. I was awkward and tall with stiff legs and a bad back, and totally self conscious,” says Angela
With Lewis as her mentor, Bowen began seeing steady improvements in the exercises necessary to dance. Within the first year, Lewis selected her to dance in the opera, Faust. Angela says, “It was the first place that I ever really heard classical music in its entirety and connected it to the costumes and the movement and began not to be so self conscious of my body and actually thought it was beautiful.”
Bowen emerged as Lewis’ prima ballerina, and danced some of classical dances most coveted roles including Swan Lake at Boston’s John Hancock Auditorium. “Dance turned my world from gray to technicolor,” says Bowen.
“She was a very exciting performer; ” says Lewis, “the audiences waited for her to appear. “ Lewis’s school grew from a living room in a rented house to a large studio. ”When I saw that she could teach what she learned, I made her my assistant teacher,” says Lewis.
When Angela was in her early twenties she wanted to pursue a professional dance career. Lewis urged her to remain at her school and continue teaching, and her mother wanted her to finish college. Angela assured her mother that one day she would finish college but that she had to dance while she was young.
When Angela was only two years old, her father died and Mrs. Bowen was a young widow with seven children. She worked two jobs working as a domestic during the day and scrubbing hotel floors at night. “My mother told me that I had special gifts, but asked me what good are they unless you can share them. She also told me I had the right to live my own life.”, philosophies Angela has practiced all her life. Unfortunately Sarah Allen Bowen did not live to see the success of her daughter. Mrs. Bowen was 53 when she died.
After mourning the loss of her mother, Angela left Boston and made her way to New York to begin her life. She was 22. She met up with Kenneth Scott her long time dance partner from the Lewis school who had already left Boston with the hope of performing in New York. Bowen and Scott confronted the unwritten policy of No Blacks on Broadway and repeatedly auditioned for ballet companies or Broadway shows knowing they would be dismissed. “We knew they weren’t going to take us, but we auditioned over and over again just to be in their faces. It was our job,” Bowen says.
When Bowen found out about an opportunity to try out for a review touring Europe, she and Scott went to the audition and made the cut. “They wanted us to do all styles of dance, says Bowen.” They joined the Jazz Train tour, which offered them opportunities to travel and perform on stages in Europe including the La Scala Opera House, in Milan.
Angela loved performing, but once the show was over, she felt very alone and unfulfilled. After nine months, she decided that the touring life was not the life for her. When she returned to Boston, she knew she wanted to open her own dance school. She married the young drummer, Ken Peters, whom she had met at Lewis’s studio. Bowen researched New Haven, Connecticut, a small city between Boston and New York, and she and her husband set out for the city with their 2-year-old son and $360 dollars in their pockets.
The Bowen Peters School of Dance opened in a small storefront near the projects right behind Yale University. “We had 14 students when we began, and 7 of them were unable to pay. We just wanted to get them in there.”
The school held its first recital in 1963, and the community was awed by the quality of the dance and the music – both classical and contemporary. Shortly after their first recital, however, a drunk driver ran into their station wagon killing their three-year-old son. Bowen’s deep depression put everything into question. After several months, she pulled herself together because of a promise she had made to a very talented young man who had wanted to dance on Broadway. On that promise, the school re-opened and Bowen Peters went on to nurture the talents of children and parents in the community. Over the years, many of her students have opened up their own dance schools, or have gone on to teach dance themselves while others credit her for inspiring them to believe in themselves and for awakening their creativity.
The school grew in size and reputation throughout the state and beyond. After nearly two decades of teaching, however, and a serious illness, Bowen knew that she had to change her life.
She had discovered the writings of black and white feminists and determined that she had to find her way out of one life and into another – one that would allow her to discover her other talents and develop them. She continues to do this even now at the age of 76. At middle age, Bowen completed her Bachelor’s degree, keeping the promise she had made to her mother, and went on to become the first recipients of a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies and African American History at Clark University.
Bowen recently retired from teaching at CSULB in the department of Women’s Studies where she taught for 13 years. Bowen is an Audre Lorde Scholar and has written and spoken nationally and internationally about the connections between and across social justice movements.
Angela Bowen has kept her passions alive across the decades, even in the face of poverty and the ugliness of racism, sexism, ageism and homophobia. She has nurtured and cultivated the next wave of young people assisting them to have faith in themselves, to discover their own talents, and to realize that each have something unique to share with the rest of the world.
The Passionate Pursuits of Angela Bowen illuminates Bowen’s experiences through her richly layered lens as a black lesbian feminist artist, activist, mother, and teacher while tracing the major influences, challenges, disappointments, tragedies, accomplishments, and critical transitions in her life.
Passionate Pursuits is Bowen’s living legacy. It will inspire audiences to pursue their dreams with tenacity and courage not only for themselves alone.
The film is dedicated to the artists and educators who nourish our communities and to students who hunger to fulfill the passions inside them.
“Abod’s vision and artistic dexterity spans a beautifully complex arc of time that brings Angela Bowen’s genius to light. See Passionate Pursuits again and again and remember to spread the word.”
M. Jacqui Alexander, Women and Gender Studies, University of Toronto
“There are tons of great music choices, interviews, photos and archival footage shots. But most importantly, you’ll feel like you truly know a brilliant woman that should be on everyone’s radar.”
Daniela Costa, After Ellen
“This film is amazing. This film not only chronicles Angela Bowen’s evolution, but the shaping of a time and details to the path to advocacy and social activism.”
-Marc Loveless, Executive Director Coalition for Justice Chicago, IL
“Women LOVED the film. Were thrilled, inspired and engaged! Great conversation was sparked!” -Rain and Thunder a Radical Feminist magazine, Northampton, MA
“Passionate Pursuits is a compelling portrait of an important figure in the evolution of contemporary Black Feminist history in the United States. The film highlights vital aspects of 20th century African American history, Women’s history & LBGTQ history. Abod’s film is inspirational, informative, complex, and humorous.”
Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Professor Women’s Studies, Spelman College
“A wonderful documentary!”
Andy Vaca, Department Chair, CSULB Department of Dance
“My students couldn’t stop talking about the film and I know that it spoke to some of them in very personal ways regarding both sexuality and race as young dancers. In addition to showing it to my students this year I hope to use it in my curriculum for years to come.”
Alison Hart Dance Director, Renaissance High School for the Arts
“The city presented a screening of the excellent documentary ‘The Passionate Pursuits of Angela Bowen’…with Professor Bowen and filmmaker Jennifer Abod in attendance. The film was met with a rousing and sustained standing ovation and we were thrilled and honored to include it as part of the Lesbian Speakers Series.”
Corey Roskin, Social Services Specialist, City of West Hollywood
“Fantastic, informative, moving.”
Linda M. Perkins, Director Applied Women’s Studies, Claremont Graduate University
“An unflinching eye to a life’s journey…of an exceptional black feminist, dancer, mother and social justice organizer.”
Emery Grant, Stonewall National Museum & Archives