Last Updated 24 Jan 2023

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar: Innovator African American Dancer

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Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world,” and that’s exactly what Jawole Zollar did. As an African American dancer, she wanted to create a company where dancers of all colors, shapes, and sizes could explore expression culturally. This company was going to be a fore front for dancers to use movement to spark social change. In this paper, we are going to delve into the mind of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and dissect her innovations. Zollar is known for breaking into the scene by challenging people’s perception about body types, movement styles, appropriate content, and the community’s role in creation.

Willa Jo Zollar was born on December 21,1950 in Kansas City, Missouri. She was one of six children. Zollar’s childhood was steeped in the ways of popular African American culture. Her mother was a blues cabaret singer. Zollar briefly studied ballet under a Russian dancer but quickly stopped when was made to feel uneasy about her appearance and the fact the she and his sister were the only dancers of color.

Zollar began her official training under Joseph Stevens, a student of the late great Katherine Dunham. Who as Zollar describes had a, “post vaudeville and burlesque,” kind of feel to his movement. So, they were taught this and dance in all different kinds of styles, but it was Modern, and it was not Ballet. She later went on the earn her B.A. in dance form the University of Missouri in Kansas as well as her M.F.A. degree from Florida State University. She then moved to New York City in 1980 where she began to study dance under Dianne McIntyre, the artistic director, as a dancer with Sounds in Motion.

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In 1984, Zollar decided to leave Sounds in Motion to establish her on company which is to be called, Urban Bush Women (UBW). Jawole states she founded UBW because, “I wanted a company that had shared values around making work. I really didn't have any definition of what kind of work, but I did know that I wanted to look at the folklore, the religious traditions, and the culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora.' UBW is more times than naught characterized as just a dance company. However, UBW is far more complex than that, while incorporating aspects of visual imagery, a cappella vocalizations, live music and movement.

In an article, “Urban Bush Women: Dances for the Homeless,” author Ntozake Shange details Zollar’s piece stating, “ The ensemble that Jawole Willa Jo Zollar has assembled and sustained takes women's bodies, racist myths, sexist stereotypes, post-modern conventions and the 'science' of hip-hop and catapults them over the rainbow, so they come tumbling out of the grin of the man in the moon' (Shange 1991). It has been over thirty years since Zollar founded the company and since the beginning, the ensemble participated in building communities and working collaboratively through dance to bring about social change. Zollar states that the name was inspired by jazz album, “Urban Bushmen,” which was intended to evoke “a unique blend of modern and ancestral roots.”

When you think about what an innovator is or what an innovation is what comes to mind? Someone or something that goes against the norm and creates things based on what he or she thinks the world needs? In an interview Zollar state that, “I think of innovations as trying new things and trying new ideas, building up off what you know, but always kind of questioning. There are not a whole lot of new ideas, but are there unexpected ways that you might have an idea come to life?”

When I read this question is it made me think, that honestly everything that has been created in this world is literally a perversion so to say of something that once was. So, a question that keep popping up is a choreographer how do you continue to be innovative without being repetitive?

Zollar has created works that have caused such an uproar of emotions not only for the audience but the dancers as well. One dance that stood out to me would be “Batty Moves and Batty Raps.” This dance was created to challenge the stigma behind body types, ways that women could dance, and what is seen as acceptable for the stage. This dance focuses on self and the movement of the butt. This dance showed acceptance and showcased different bodies moving as one while still homing in on the individual. Zollar continues to push the boundaries with each piece she creates.

One of her newest works is called “Hair & Other Stories,” this work comments on the personal narratives spoken and heard from the kitchen to YouTube, this work argues the what the center of American “values” and praises the ever-fighting story of the African Diaspora. The work explores the perceptions of body image, race, gender identity and more in our everyday struggles to be more of our phenomenal selves in astonishing and ever-changing times.

In the times we live in Zollar is always commenting and challenging the ways that not only African Americans see ourselves but how the world sees and comments on how they see African American struggles. Zollar takes the struggles we face as a people and put them on for the world to see and she does not do it with just an African American or woman body she takes all shapes, all colors, and all genders and give them a voice to speak their truths in a world that forever wants to shut us up.

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