By Andrea Plaid
Gina Torres reigns as the current Queen of Sci-Fi and Sci-Fantasy, true. And if it wasn’t for Nichelle Nichols, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Torres. Or Avery Brooks as Captain Sisko. Or Zoe Saldana as the new Uhura. Or my doing fan-dancing.
Nichols’ iconic status in sci-fi results from a conversation with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Frustrated during her first year on the original Star Trek, she decided to leave the show.
It sounds like you put a lot of thought into the part. Why did you want to quit after the first season?
After the first year, Grace Lee Whitney was let go so it became Bill and Leonard. The rest of us became supporting characters. I decided to leave the show after the first season.
What convinced you to stay on?
I was at a fundraiser and the promoter of the event said there’s somebody that wants to meet you. He is your biggest fan. I stood up and turned to see the beatific face of Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with a sparkle in his eye. He took my hand and thanked me for meeting him. He then said I am your greatest fan. All I remember is my mouth opening and shutting.
What was that like?
I thanked him so much and told him how I’d miss it all. He asked what I was talking about, and told me that I can’t leave the show. We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves.
As I wrote about her on the R’s Tumblr :
Because of this conversation and because Nichols took King’s advice, she inspired generations of people—especially young Black girls—to imagine themselves in space. One of those people is former NASA astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, who is a longtime friend of Nichols.
And Nichols inspires awe-stuck silence in the latest generation of Star Trek stars:
I got a call from JJ and he invited me to lunch and ask me how I felt. He did me the honor and I thought that was unbelievable. I went on the set and they were shooting, and I was being very quiet and then all of a sudden everything stops. I mean the actors just stopped in place. The saw me walk in and they were in their lines, and went like “and sir we have the….” And that was such an honor bestowed upon me. I went “Oh, I’m sorry” and everyone laughed.
Zoe Saldana, who plays the younger Uhura in the Star Trek reboot, said this about meeting Nichols:
Yes, I did meet her, and I was so humbled to have met such an icon. She’s an amazing woman and a strong human being.
What may be lesser known—yet equally inspirational—is that Nichols is an incredible dancer. She started ballet at 13 and moved to Afro-Cuban dance in her young adulthood.
Nichols continued to progress, and was offered engagements at modern dance performances, including the College Inn Hotel, where she was praised by the distinguished French dancer Josephine Baker and, more importantly, Duke Ellington…Truly, Nichelle Nichols dancing career was the envy of many. Her talent provided a springboard on to a star-filled career in show business. [Source]
How I remember hearing about Nichols’ dancing background is that she did a fan dance. I told this bit of info to my burlesque mentor, Brown Girls Burlesque’s Chicava HoneyChild, and she—always in search of info to recover the history of women of color in burlesque—raised her eyebrows in pleasant surprise and asked where. At the time I simply said, “In one of the Star Trek movies.” Let me clarify that: more specifically, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (clip slightly NSFW).
What warms my about-to-be-43-year-old newbie burly-q heart: Nichols did that dance for the film at 57 years old. And with gloriously salt-and-pepper hair. I took up fan-dancing.
And all of this is why she’s the R’s Crush Of The Week.