The scene: A Duke University dance studio on a frigid Thursday evening. The weather has cut into a two-week residency by Urban Bush Women (UBW), but drums resounding in cold air prove this master class is still on.
Two alums from the venerable New York-based dance company, Paloma McGregor and Bennalldra Williams, throw Afro-modern moves that look as natural as breathing, yet they turn out to be deceptively difficult for these Duke dance students. Take a little jogging shoulder roll: The students muscle or jerk it, while the professionals start it deep inside, rolling not just their shoulders but their chests, their spines and their moods.
It's not that the students aren't good dancers, but they're young, while McGregor and Williams are unmistakably adult. They have weight and experience, and they're not afraid to use it.
"This—it could be pretty, yes it could," Williams says, showing a lifted balance. "But we're making a choice not to make it pretty." Pretty is a prime goal of most young dancers, to whom anything else can be a threat. But students on this night are game.
When they step into Walking with Pearl... Southern Diaries, a major 2006 work by UBW founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, they start to work. Williams shows the students a down shuffle, heavy but rebounding.
"You're on the plantation," she tells the class. "If you had to do that movement all day, what would you need to do it?" By the last run-through—drums pounding, floor bouncing, sweat flying—the students have found their weight and their freedom, taught to them by the dance itself.
The Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women was founded by Zollar 30 years ago. Two days after the master class, Zollar was rehearsing her company in preparation for two public performances this weekend, Feb. 7 and 8. The three pieces on the program are Hep Hep Sweet Sweet, Dark Swan and Walking with 'Trane.
"You always learn the experience from doing," Zollar says during a rehearsal break. "When you can access your life, you're going to have depth," she adds.
This entrance is what she and her company members offer dance students—and it's what UBW, as an expressly woman-centered and African-based troupe, offers audiences. Nonetheless, their art speaks across those categories.
"What we're talking about is the human condition, through a specific lens," Zollar says. "The specificity makes it available. I don't like this term 'universal,' but we have human dilemmas, and we have those dilemmas through specific lenses—of history, of culture, of race, of gender.
"If I read Tolstoy, do I feel I can't understand this because I'm not a Russian?"
Urban Bush Women will perform this Friday and Saturday, Feb. 7–8, at Duke's Reynolds Industries Theater. Their performance weekend coincides with "Dancing the African Diaspora: Theories of Black Performance," a three-day academic conference exploring the influence of African dance forms.
What does an academic conference mean to an artist like Zollar? "I'm not a person who writes papers, but what I enjoy and value is the ways [academics] are imagining our future and connecting the past to the present," she says. "I'm really stimulated by hearing how theorists pose questions."
One question might be what Zollar still wants for her company after three decades. For her, though, performing is just one part of UBW, which also supports new choreographers (including former company member Nora Chipaumire, who choreographed Dark Swan) and includes teaching and outreach. Residencies are a service and a source for UBW, Zollar says.
"It's great having a chance to experience the life of a community we're going to be performing in."
Attendance fees vary; some events are free for all, including a film screening of Ana "Rockafella" Garcia's All the Ladies Say, showcasing the lives and work of women in breakdance. The conference schedule is here.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Carrying the weight."