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The Journey of Jawole

By Ellen Ashdown

Got Hips?


Get wild-and wise with this gifted denizen of the dance world.

If a good story leaps off the page, does a good dance leap off the stage?

Most definitely, if Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and her six Urban Bush Women are the leapers-who also spin, kick, shake, sing, shout and tell stories like the famous, rule-breaking dance troupe they are.

Art that gets off the stage and into everyday life is what Jawole Zollar set out to create more than 20 years ago. Her vision began taking shape when she was a graduate student in FSU's top-ranked dance department in the late '70s. In 1984, in the form of a company named Urban Bush Women, it took New York dance by storm. The same exuberant vision brought her back to Florida State University in 1996 as artist-in-residence and professor.

But this is no round-trip journey. For the far-sighted Ms. Zollar, it simply means she now has two very connected points of departure: the New York company where she builds her work and her alma mater where she helps build new generations of dancers-and rebuilds her own creative energy.

She is emphatic: “I love teaching. I'm good at nurturing creative talent, pulling out of people what they don't know they have, breaking through the mask. But New York students constantly flow in and out. In Tallahassee they commit for a definite time. And I make discoveries with them. If you're constantly on the road, you don't have time for the creative process.”

You Move, Girl

If you haven't been lucky enough to see Urban Bush Women (UBW), live or on television, whatever you're imagining right now doesn't do them justice. As New York Newsday 's critic put it: “given the breadth and freedom of their art . . . Urban Bush Women are in a category unto themselves.”

Breadth is right. Early New York audiences weren't used to seeing dances that might combine stripped-down modern dance movement (“no affectations,” Zollar says), African ritual, Caribbean styles, hip hop, street games, jump rope, club dancing, bursts of a capella song, on-stage percussion, brilliant improvisation, and Zollar on a stool telling her own arresting stories.

But first things first. Zollar is a dancer; dance starts with the body; and every choreographer starts with her own.

Jawole (JAH woe lay) Willa Jo Zollar, 51, is small, compact, powerfully low to the ground-yet anything but earthbound. So much suppleness and strength lie coiled in her limbs and torso that her floor-skimming leaps cover yards and her mobile rib cage seems untethered from her spine. Even her face has movement. An actress's face, it can be whatever it wants but naturally chooses warmth. Her smile won't quit.

Zollar's role in the company is no longer full-out dancing, but you wouldn't know it watching her teach. In a class at FSU, she demonstrates (and repeats and repeats) a long sequence including “ice skater” turns, direction shifts, quick jumps, backward shuffle-kicks, and a final, one-legged relevé balance (on the toes). She looks free. The young dancers (incredibly skillful, plus enthralled) look posed.

Jawole sees it: “What I'm getting is too clean. You're showing me shapes. Be fluid. Listen to the jazz. Get into its weight.” They do.

Hips and All

Zollar's body is central to her art in other ways: It is African American and it grew up in urban Kansas City, Missouri. In her fierce and funny works, both the body-types of many black women and the positive power of community are exhibited, examined, challenged, and triumphantly celebrated.

Batty Moves leaves no flesh unjiggled in its joyous flaunting of how eloquent ample curves can be. (Batty is the Jamaican word for butt.) Shelter, performed to Zollar's own narration about New York City homelessness, is a searing study of what happens when people fail each other-and don't even see they have.

Zollar's upbringing rooted her deeply in African American art and traditions. Because her mother had been a dancer and singer and played piano, Jawole at a young age took dance classes in a community center. She learned Afro-Cuban dance that was all about timing, flow, pure movement.”

Perhaps to calm pre-show butterflies, Jawole's mother sent her onstage with “Go for what you know”-a piece of sage advice that became the title of an hour-long segment of Free to Dance, a PBS Dance in America special about African American achievements in modern dance. “What I know,” Zollar elaborated on camera, “is my history as an African American woman.”

Not until her bachelor's study at University of Missouri/Kansas City did she discover modern dance and take ballet, and though she reveled in her dance major, she kept true to what she knew: “Everybody was so neurotic about their bodies. I suddenly became aware of this whole idea that my body wasn't right. But the African idea is that you celebrate yourself through movement. If you had hips, that was a good thing because you had more to move.”

Color and Character

The Urban Bush Women come in all shapes, sizes, and shades. They are thin, ample, stocky, petite, tall, elegant, scrappy-but all commanding, triple-threat virtuosos. Like Jawole, they dance, sing, and act.

Over 18 years, UBW's members have necessarily changed, but not their vibrant mix. “I look for people comfortable bringing their individuality to the table. I like opinions, strong ones.” At the same time, she asks those who join her to “be vulnerable, be vested in the group.”

All of these characteristics are important in Zollar's collaborative approach to making art. Her fertile creativity conceives an idea-a performance piece about black women's hair, for example-but the whole company brings it to life.

“I didn't intend an all-woman company,” Zollar reflects. “I originally worked with male dancers, but they're greatly in demand and go on to more money. Also men aren't as process oriented.” And process, for Jawole, means journeying into the bush.

What's in a Name?

Urban Bush Women is a terrific name. Intriguing, memorable, even humorous, it also gives off a whiff of aggression. Or if that's too strong, certainly a proud identity, people set apart. Jawole doesn't take credit for it: “I knew I wanted a concept name, not 'The Jawole Zollar Company.' When I heard an ensemble of Chicago musicians who called themselves Urban Bush Men, I said, 'That's good,' and asked permission to use it.”

What she did with it is now dance history. “I think of our name in the sense of 'bush' as incredibly dense, tangled growth; deep forest. Growing up in the inner city, I was also in a dense, thickly populated place, rough. But people tried to make gardens out of it. When they did, it became something else entirely.”

That transformation is cultural and spiritual unfolding-and art. Switching metaphors, Jawole says, “I call the process diving for pearls. The journey down into yourself and life's problems is dangerous; you can get stuck. But going into that muck is how UBW finds each work.” She quickly adds, “I don't mean it has to be an unhappy place. But it's working through something; it's creativity. Too much today, kids are trained to arrive somewhere-get to an end-not to value the journey.”

From Humorous to Harrowing

UBW's internal travels produce a huge range of performance art. Soul Deep is an evocation and penetration of African American heritage and life-its subjugation, gaiety, despair, escapism, spirituality-told through finally triumphant poetry, get-down dancing, and music. Created with composer/musician David Murray, it toured 10 U.S. cities.

HairStories, Zollar's new evening-length work, is an amazing multimedia exploration of “the concept of nappy hair and its relationship to images of beauty, social position, heritage and self-esteem” (press release). Well, yes, but you learn it through sizzling gyrations to the “Hot Comb Blues,” women's video confessions of I-hate(love)-my-hair, a vignette of bitchy elevator hair-staring, and that's just the tip of the 'fro comb.

Nancy Smith Fichter, retired head of the FSU Dance Department who watched the student Jawole's “exact and striking” works and lured her back to teach, believes Zollar's art “addresses the human condition and so it is full of wit and grief and silliness and depth, and always compassion. Her choreography reflects the person herself.”

High Purpose, Wide Net

As celebrated and award-winning as Zollar and Urban Bush Women are, their critical reception was hard-won in some quarters. When asked what makes her art rule-breaking (a frequent description), she gives a wry laugh: “I'm just glad people now recognize that I know the rules. One New Yorker came up to me after seeing Shelter and said with amazement, 'Why that had a choreographic structure; you're trained.'”

The literalness of UBW can look deceptively unsophisticated. Instead, the articulate and erudite Zollar knows what she's doing. For one she wants to “demystify art”-show people how much it saturates their lives. For another, she learned from her inner city upbringing the value of “directness and communication”: the more people who read your message loud and clear, the more connected and stronger you are.

Last, there's an African proverb: Given a hunter and a lion, the history each tells will be very different. The hunter's is familiar. The lion's still needs to be told.

The Lion's Tale

When the Lions Tell History is UBW's “community engagement program.” Zollar and the whole company work with local people in bringing out a place's “untold and undertold stories”-and turning them into a unique performance.

Take Dixville, a minority neighborhood next to Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2001, for six weeks in residency (and a year in planning), Zollar, UBW, a videographer, and a musical director drew out Dixwell's stories.

“Themes kept emerging,” says Zollar. “The Caribbean migration there, the church as community foundation, Amistad-the African slaves who revolted on that ship were imprisoned in New Haven. Also the meeting places lost through urban renewal (urban destruction really), drug problems, and yet strong, unifying community life.”

The final work was Dixwell, premiered as part of the New Haven International Festival of Arts and Ideas. But don't picture UBW alone on stage, with Dixwellians sitting passively in the audience. Picture, and hear, a local jazz band, two knock-out neighborhood singers (a teenager and a woman who works for the police department), seven dancers from Dixwell, slides, video-taped interviews, drummers, and a finale with 100 drill team dancers who showed the applauding, shouting spectators Dixwell's energetic future.

Through choreography, text, and song, Zollar and UBW gave history form, but the story was thoroughly Dixwell's own. Dance magazine's reviewer was impressed: “Ultimately, the audience and the performers' sense of fulfillment . . . distinguishes pieces like Dixwell from standard art or entertainment. Dixwell included both of these, as well as sincerity and inspiration. It was a performance that left a trail of thoughts, ideas, and memories in its wake.”

Doctor, Professor, Artist

Work like Dixwell is one of the reasons that FSU gave Zollar, in 1999, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Distinguished Service Award. The award committee noted that Zollar not only epitomized King's goals but was unique among nominees in her fusion of art and social change.

The university is simply one more location for Zollar's zesty living-out of art that changes life. She may satirize academic extremes in her HairStories character of “Dr. Professor” (an expert in “Nappology”), but her participation in education is total. Prestigious universities, MIT and UCLA among them, seek her out as visiting artist and lecturer.

“It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the role Jawole plays in the department, “ says FSU dance chair Elizabeth Patenaude. “As an artist with a New York company, she's a barometer that what we're doing here is relevant to the professional world. Besides teaching-pushing students' movement range and creative vision-she's also part of planning, policies, entrance auditions.”

Other universities are looking closely at FSU's hiring of Zollar because, Patenaude explains, “We've become a model for the field, far more successful than usual artist-in-residence programs. I've been asked to chair a panel at the DanceUSA conference about wedding academics with the profession: what we're doing, why it works. One reason is simple. Jawole is completely invested in the students and other faculty.”

What Quest Next?

Since Jawole Zollar's gift is turning people's stories into dance, how would she choreograph herself and Urban Bush Women?

Surprised for only a moment, she answers, “A dance with a lot of struggle and resistance, a dance of fighting back. But what I'm learning is to flow.” Offering a surprise of her own, she goes on: “When I was studying low-flying trapeze [trapeze too?], I learned about the sweet spot-when you reach for the bar. Find the spot, and you go up with no problem. Without it, the impact is jarring. I don't mean times won't be hard, but I'm learning to struggle less. “

Financial struggles are uppermost. In the U.S. every dance and theatre company is money-starved-hungry for commissions and awards, competing against other committed artists.

Certainly Zollar's creative struggles aren't mellowing. In July at New York's Lincoln Center she premiered Shadow's Child, a collaboration with Mozambique artists that takes on racial prejudice between African Americans and Africans.

She's reading The Elegant Universe, a book about string theory, because “I have it in the back of my mind to do a project with a physicist.”

She's meditating on visionary artists, “mostly classified as schizophrenic,” because “I'm very interested in what we call mental illness, how other societies deal with it as a creative or spiritual state.”

Daunting goals indeed while company solvency cries for her time. In the past, anxiety could overwhelm Zollar. Now, acceptance reigns: “It can be done. I'll just have to work my butt off.” Believe in it: batty power.