Featured Artist - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

Apr 5, 2010

Personal Information

Born Willa Jo Zollar on December 21, 1950, in Kansas City, Missouri; daughter of Alfred Jr. and Dorothy Delores Zollar; children: Elizabeth Herron.
Education: University of Missouri, B.A. in dance, 1975; Florida State University, M.F.A. in dance, 1979.
Memberships: Association of American Cultures; International Association of Blacks in Dance.


Urban Bush Women dance troupe, founder and artistic director, 1984-; dance pieces include: Girlfriends, Bitter Tongue, Batty Moves, Transitions, Self-Portrait, Hands Singing Song, I Live In Music, Soul Deep, and Hair Stories; troupe has performed across the United States, in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Latin America; pieces have been set on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Philadelphia Dance Company; Florida State University, faculty member, 1977-80; National Endowment of the Arts Choreography fellow in 1992, 1993, 1994; Mankato State University Worlds of Thought program, resident scholar, 1994; UCLA, Department of Dance and Worlds Culture, Regent's lecturer, 1995-96; Florida State University, professor of dance, 1997-.

Life's Work

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is the choreographer and artistic director of Urban Bush Women, a primarily New York-based ensemble of dancers who blend contemporary idioms and the folklore and spiritual traditions of African Americans to create dance/music/theater works that celebrate the struggle, growth, transformation, and survival of the human spirit. The troupe has been described as a blend of modern and jazz choreography, Caribbean and African Rhythms, tribal chants, gospel testifying, and ghetto swagger. The Urban Bush Women dance to percussive music and their own stomping, claps, and street speech--often concerning homelessness, oppression, and survival. Zollar's dances reflect a variety of heritages in our multi-ethnic society. "The melting pot will be supplanted by a gumbo pot," she told People. "Rather than trying to boil everything down to make this one soup, we'll say all of these ingredients are needed to make it interesting. America is going to have to accept itself."

Willa Jo Zollar, who later became Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri where she was steeped in the sacred and secular aspects of popular African-American culture. Her mother was a cabaret singer in the blues tradition. The third of six children, Zollar grew up in an inner city environment. Zollar recalled in a speech she gave at Mankato State University in 1993, which was posted on the university's website that, where she grew up, "everything was black...I thought Kansas City was all black." She and her sister briefly studied ballet in a school run by a Russian teacher but she was made to feel uncomfortable about her body, plus she and her sister felt uneasy about being the only black students in the class. They soon left the school.

Began Dance Training

She began her real dance training with Joseph Stevenson, a student of the lengendary anthropology-influenced dancer Katherine Dunham. "He had kind of come out of the post vaudville, burlesque kind of period," Zollar reminisced in her Mankato State University speech. "That's what he taught us. So we learned dancing in all different styles, but not modern and not ballet. We eventually were part of an act that performed in night clubs...We got $25 dollars a show, and that was pretty good for an eight-year-old kid. Also, on top of it, you got money for how you performed during your improvisational solo." Zollar quickly learned that a dancer should be paid for performing and that the better the performance, the more money the dancer got. "Anything to do with dance, my sister and I did it," she said in her Mankato State University speech. "We made up dances for people...Anytime we'd hear of an event, 'Oh your parents are having a birthday? We'll make up a birthday dance, and you can pay us and we'll come over and do it." And so, Zollar and her sister began their own small business.

During her high school years Zollar danced in talent shows. When she went to college she was amazed that she could major in dance, and earn a degree in something she truly loved. In her Mankato State University speech Zollar observed, "I was making dances....I was part of a black theater group, but I was always engaged in dance and politics and experimentalization." This, she recalled, was a period when things were congealing inside her head. Around that time, she received her Bachelor of Arts in Dance from the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

Founded Dance Troupe

Zollar went on to earn Master in Fine Arts in Dance from Florida State University at Tallahassee where she studied ballet and modern dance to expand her knowledge of her craft. But something was absent. "What was lacking was who I was," Zollar told People, "It was someone else's vision." In 1980, she moved to New York City to study with Dianne McIntyre at Sounds in Motion. With the realization that powerful dance could emanate from the history and culture of her own people, she founded Urban Bush Women in 1984. In her Mankato State University speech she recalled, "I broke every rule they taught me about composition. I did everything they said you don't do, in terms of making a piece. I was trying to find out, what was my voice? What did I have to say? How could I merge all the things I was interested in into one area? I know I was really looking strongly at my culture as a sense of focus."

Zollar's work with the company has earned her ongoing support from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has created 19 works for the Urban Bush Women, including Girlfriends, Bitter Tongue, Batty Moves, Transitions, Self-Portrait, Hands Singing Song, I Live In Music, and Soul Deep. In 2001, Zollar premiered Hair Stories, an evening-length piece that blended text, dance, and music, while exploring the concept of nappy hair and its relationship to images of beauty, social position, heritage, and self-esteem.

Many of Zollar's pieces are earthy, confessional, impromptu, and vigorous, and have earned high praise from critics. Kay McLain wrote in The Herald Sun, "The Urban Bush Women are unabashedly unapologetic about what they are: fierce, feminine, militant, aggressive, sassy, funny and proud." McLain continued, "This is dance to be experienced, both for its sheer physical force and the obvious dedication of the dancers...They are synchronized, strong, graceful and accomplished."

According to Self magazine, in Batty Moves, one of Zollar's popular dances about the batty, which is Jamaican for butt, the dancers "tout the tush with biographical raps and proudly suggestive swivels and bumps, reinforcing the down-home wisdom that behind every great woman is a great behind." Zollar's revealing dance, Self-Portrait, presented the audience with a simulated dance rehearsal. The New York Times, observed,"One of the great pleasures of 'Self-Portrait' is that one can enjoy it as a piece about a dance rehearsal, the making of a dance or a kaleidoscopic (and political) portrait of women in general and black women in particular." Debra Cash of The Boston Globe commented on the spontaneity of Soul Deep, noting that "Vitality let loose his its own virtues." Cash described the dancing as "downright carnal," with intriguing shifts in energy and weight. Cash concluded, "It's a feel-good shout of reprieve...[which] leaves its audience on a high."


The recipient of several awards, Zollar has become a well-known name in the modern dance world. In 1992, Zollar and Urban Bush Women received a New York Dance and Performance Award (BESSIE) for their collective works from River Songs (1984) through Praise House (1990). In 1998, Urban Bush Women received one of the first Doris Duke Awards for New Work from the American Dance Festival for Hands Singing Song. The message in this piece--served up in a wonderfully uninhibited way--is that much can still be done to eliminate racism, sexism, homelessness, disease, and other social ills. The piece ends with "Hand to Fist," which asks why the Black Power movement lost its power. In 1994, the Company received the Capezio Award, a $10,000 prize for outstanding achievement in dance.

Aside from choreographing works for her dance company, Zollar has created pieces for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Arizona, Philadanco, University of Maryland, University of Florida, and others. In 1992, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed Shelter, a piece created by Zollar in 1988. The Ailey company made it part of their touring repertory and performed it in 1993 before an audience of 15,000 people in New York City's Central Park. Zollar also created the movement for the original productions of House Arrest by Anna Devere Smith at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. C-sharp-Street-B-flat Avenue, which includes the writings of Ntozake Shange, has also become part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater repertory.

Zollar has also collaborated with artists from other disciplines. For 1988's Song of Lawino, based on the poem by exiled Ugandan writer Okot p'Bitek, Zollar worked with director Valeria Vasilevski and composer Edwina Lee Tyler. Zollar collaborated with co-choreographer Pat Hati-Smith, composer Carl Riley, writer Angelyn DeBord, and visual artist Leni Schwendinger on Praise House in 1989. For Bones and Ash: A Gilda Story (1995), Jewelle Gomez adapted a script from her book, The Gilda Stories.

In addition to performing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, Zollar's company has danced at the Dance Theatre Workshop, the 9nd Street Harkness Dance Center Playhouse 91, The Kitchen, and the Joyce Theater, all in Manhattan. The troupe has toured all over the United States, as well as in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and Latin America. Also, the company has taught classes in Tallahassee at the Urban Bush Women Summer Dance Institute.

New York Dance and Performance award,1992; University of Missouri in Kansas City, named Outstanding Alumni, 1993; Capezio award for outstanding achievement in dance, 1994; Florida State University, Alumna of the Year award, 1997; American Dance Festival, Doris Duke award, 1997.

High Demand as Lecturer

Zollar has been a speaker and honoree in both the world of dance and academe. She delivered keynote addresses at the 1990 Dance Critics Association meeting in Los Angeles and the 1995 annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. From 1993 to 1994 she served as Worlds of Thought Resident Scholar at Mankato State University. The following year, Zollar was a Regents Lecturer in the Departments of Dance and World Arts and Culture at the University of California at Lost Angeles (UCLA) and in 1996 she served as Visiting Artist at Ohio State University. She has also been granted tenure at Florida State University. Zollar was named Alumna of the Year by both the University of Missouri (1993) and Florida State University (1997). In 1999, she received the Martin Luther King Distinguished Service Award from Florida State University.

Yet, despite the demand for her as a lecturer and educator, Zollar has remained committed to her career as an artist, noting that art is a powerful and unique tool by which she can communicate her message. "Sometimes all the speeches in the world have no effect on people," she told Essence. "Art gets to them in another place. There's something very powerful we can do as artists."

Tags: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, dance, Urban Bush Women

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