Urban Bush Women to explore issues of body image, race and gender in Hancher performance, dance workshop

Urban Bush Women Dance for Every Body Workshop

Old Capitol Museum — Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 6 p.m.

Urban Bush Women: Hair & Other Stories

Hancher Auditorium — Saturday, Sept. 21 at 7:30 p.m.

Urban Bush Women perform ‘Hair & Other Stories.’ — James Morgan Owens

“This process … really predates us all.” Chanon Judson, one of the artistic directors of Brooklyn, New York-based dance company Urban Bush Women, is speaking of the company’s practice of applying culture to dance. “We are all part of a lineage that has been doing that since the beginning of time.”

Urban Bush Women was founded in 1984 by dancer and choreographer Jawole Willa Zollar, who still holds the title of Chief Visioning Partner of the group. Zollar is in the educational lineage of Katherine Dunham, a dancer, choreographer and anthropologist known for bringing African dances into European-dominated spheres while spearheading the field of dance anthropology. She trained with Joseph Stevenson, who was a student of Dunham.

Like Dunham, who led the Katherine Dunham Dance Company — the first (and, at the time, only) African American modern dance company — Zollar forged new space for people of color in the dance world: Urban Bush Women is the first (and, at the moment, only) African American women-centered dance company. Zollar has choreographed 34 works for Urban Bush Women as well as works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco and more.

Since its establishment, Urban Bush Women has been drawing aspects of African and African American culture into dance technique and using their performances to promote social change. Urban Bush Women’s values echo this commitment; “entering community and co-creating stories,” “catalyzing for social change” and “building trust through process” are among those central principles.

Their goals revolve around validating individual stories and celebrating their part in a diverse landscape; lifting up the African diaspora and highlighting the power and strength it innately holds; and advocating for the company’s home in Brooklyn, though they tour internationally. Urban Bush Women, as stated in the group’s mission statement, “seeks to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance.”

Urban Bush Women perform ‘Hair & Other Stories.’ — James Morgan Owens

In 2013, Urban Bush Women kicked off their Choreographic Center Initiative, which expands on the company’s mission statement and core values. The initiative began as a way to directly combat barriers that hinder women and girls of color in the field of dance. This, again, focuses on the individual and how each person’s story can lead to change in a systemically oppressive society.

Everyone involved in the Urban Bush Women, including dancers and staff, is required to attend the Summer Leadership Institute, which is also open to community artists and activists. The 10-day program teaches attendees how successful movements have worked in the past, encompassing experience-based learning, asset mapping, research, navigating assumptions and unraveling racism. It culminates in a performance emphasizing dance and song.

This summer, the institute studied the effect of black women(+)’s leadership in the U.S., incorporating figures like Underground Railroad activist Harriet Tubman and Marsha P. Johnson of the Stonewall resistance. (The construction “women(+)” is used to indicate an expansive definition — the website notes, “we refer to self-identified women, gender-nonconforming people, and non-binary people who would use ‘women(+)’ to describe themselves.”) Creative figures such as author Toni Morrison and playwright Ntozake Shange are studied as inspiration. Both components — social activism and creativity — are considered when examining future catalysts of change.

“While our core values grew very much out of concert work, the Summer Leadership Institute is where we really get to share them outside of the language but inside of practice,” Judson said. The Summer Leadership Institute, which was held for the 20th time in the summer of 2019, trains social justice workers for working with the arts in the spotlight in accordance with Urban Bush Women’s core values.

One core element of the Summer Leadership Institute, the hour-long Dance for Every Body Workshop, will come to Iowa City as part of the Urban Bush Women’s time at Hancher in September. It will take place at the Old Capitol Museum on Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 6 p.m.

Led by some of the company’s dancers, the workshop will teach attendees how to incorporate Urban Bush Women’s techniques while considering components like breath, weight, call and response and polyrhythm. The framework of the workshop is open and ready to be accommodating to experiences attendees bring with them.

“It’s also tapping into the experiences and the knowledge that our bodies carry, and really honoring that,” said Samantha Speis, Urban Bush Women’s second artistic director. “There’s the opportunity there for you to be in charge of your learning. People will be challenged to do things they may have never done before.”

Everybody and every body is welcome, regardless of age and level of dance experience. The workshop will be free and open to the public, but Hancher asks that attendees RSVP on the event page on their website.

Urban Bush Women perform ‘Hair & Other Stories.’ — James Morgan Owens

Earlier on Sept. 17, company members will participate in a lunch discussion at the Iowa City Public Library at 12 p.m. The conversation will center on Hair & Other Stories, the work Urban Bush Women will be performing at Hancher on Saturday, Sept. 21.

Hair & Other Stories, which focuses in on the experiences of black women — including those of body image, gender identity, sexism and economic inequity — with spoken word, dance, movement and song. These issues and others are examined through the lens of the hair of women of color, but especially of black women.

Hair & Other Stories in particular is a creative work that intends to create conversation around systemic racism,” Judson said. “We use art as both a metaphor at times, but also as an entry point to go into this conversation. Often times, instead of audience members asking questions of the dancers, we want people to leave wanting to have new conversations. We want black folks in the audience to feel celebrated and validated.”

Tickets for Hair & Other Stories start at $25 for adults, $10 for college students and youth.

“The values [of Urban Bush Women] speak to how to live in a just society,” Judson said. “They’re not just useful to folks of African descent, but they’re really looking at how we can work together as a collective of humans.”

Urban Bush Women perform ‘Hair & Other Stories.’ — James Morgan Owens

Elaine Irvine is a senior at the University of Iowa studying journalism and art, and has worked with KRUI and Fools Magazine on campus. She was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and is the mother of a 2-year-old (cat) named Juniper. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 270.

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