Being changed by being there

Urban Bush Women
The Urban Bush Women create a community wherever they dance. The troupe danced last weekend at the Yard in Chilmark. Photo by Sally Cohn

By Anna Marie D'Addarie - August 23, 2007

At the end of the Urban Bush Women's (UBW) performance last Friday night at the Yard, I rose to my feet, but my standing ovation was somehow not enough. After all, these dancers had moved me almost to tears. With joy and celebration the UBW ended Friday's show with a piece titled "Batty Moves." Batty is a word used in the Caribbean meaning buttocks. But don't let the humor fool you. These women mean business and never let you forget it's all about the dance.

The company's mission is interesting because they are dedicated to creating dance as well as creating a community. They were founded in 1984 by choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and since that time have told stories of people who often don't speak for themselves.

The UBW company is based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and their touring schedule has taken them to Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America. Later this year the troupe will journey to Africa to collaborate with Comagnie JANT-BI of Senegal. The UBW have more than 32 works in their repertoire, choreographed by Ms. Zollar. UBW produces an annual summer institute to train artists and activists. More than 300 people have participated in the seven summer institutes.

Ms. Zollar was born in Kansas City, Mo., and received a bachelor of arts in dance from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and a masters of fine arts in dance from Florida State University. In addition to her works for the UBW, Ms. Zollar has created pieces for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Arizona, Philadanco, and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, to name a few.

Among her many awards, Ms. Zollar received the Martin Luther King Distinguished Service Award from Florida State University and an honorary doctorate from Columbia College, Chicago, Ill. Ms. Zollar received a 2006 Bessie (New York Dance and Performance Award) for her choreography of "Walking With Pearl...Southern Diaries," a dance performed twice last week at the Yard.

Pearl Primus, the inspiration for Ms. Zollar's recent work, was born in Trinidad in 1919. Her dances focused on black cultures and figures, and she interpreted poetry with her dances.

In tribute, Ms. Zollar used Ms. Primus's words to create "Walking with Pearl....African Diaries" (2004) and "....Southern Diaries" (2005). Last Friday "....African Diaries" was performed at the Yard. The audience was taken on a journey transcending time and space to the continent of Africa, its majesty and beauty laid at our feet like precious gifts from an exotic land. One moment we were on a mountain top, the next we were crossing a desert, and soon the sun was setting, washing us with an orange glow. I say "we" because at every turn the dancers took us into the dance. We were not merely spectators, but willing wanderers, sharing the joy and the pain of Ms. Primus's words. Dancer Catherine Dénécy's sang a poignant song, which still haunts me. I have been changed by experiencing this dance.

After intermission the company got funky with "Flashback/Flash Forward...Cool Baby, Cool" (2007) which premiered in New York City in May. The music, "P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)" provided the vehicle for a bit of 70s cool.

The next piece, "Chicken Soup," was danced by Marjani Forté. It was originally conceived, choreographed, and performed by Blondell Cummings in the early 80s and restaged by Ms. Cummings for UBW in 2006. "This dance is an intimate portrait of a Mother whose focus is on her family and on her own self-care," said Ms. Cummings of "Chicken Soup." Part performance art, part theatre, but always dance, "Chicken Soup" is a woman's diary in movement, making it the perfect companion piece for Mr. Primus's work. Ms. Forté let us inside with graceful movements and a wry sense of humor. Contestants in the Skillet Toss at the Ag Fair could have taken a few pointers from Ms. Forté who used an iron skillet in her dance.

Ending the show with "Batty Moves," the company brought the audience to a rousing, uplifting peak. In last week's Times I said "Run, don't walk" to see UBW. For those who didn't take my advice, I hope you have another opportunity to see and possibly be transformed by the Urban Bush Women.

For more information on the Urban Bush Women, visit For more information on the Yard in Chilmark, visit or call 50-8645-9662.