Jawole Willa Jo Zollar Fuses Dance and Activism

Today, FF2 celebrates the exemplary career of dancer, choreographer, and teacher Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. On this day in 1988, Jawole and her dance group Urban Bush Women performed in the multidisciplinary show Heat, staged in one of New York City’s most established avante-garde theaters, The Kitchen. Heat combined dance, poetry, and drama. Both the achievement and ambition in staging Heat would become constants throughout Jawole’s dance and teaching career.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was born in Kansas City on December 21, 1950. Starting at seven years old, Jawole trained in multiple forms of dance and movement, including Afro-Cuban style. She continued her studies in higher education, holding a Bachelor’s in dance from the University of Missouri at Kansas City as well as a Master of Fine Arts in dance from Florida State. 

At thirty, Jawole moved to New York City in order to study under acclaimed choreographer Dianne McIntyre. She stayed with Dianne’s company for four years before starting her own in 1984. Jawole founded Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women as a means to fuse together dance, activism, and community engagement. On their website, the Urban Bush Women group call themselves “a performance ensemble dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change.” 

Urban Bush Women represents the first major dance company in the world made up of only Black women dancers. In their performances, they forefront the experiences of Black women through a style of dance influenced by Black traditions. Under Jawole’s direction, Urban Bush Women became recognized for performing in a mixture of modern, Afro-Cuban, Haitian, and Congolese dance. 

In her article on Jawole, FF2 contributor Anna Nappi wrote, “From a women-centered perspective, UBW uses its core values to create a space for underrepresented communities and beyond to come together.” Jawole created thirty-four performances for Urban Bush Women, many of which dealt with bold, controversial topics such as racism, sexism, and abortion. Jawole’s dance strives to tell the stories previously erased not only in the dance world, but in American society at large.

Jawole currently serves as the director of Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute. The institute seeks to grow the connection between the dance group and community organizing. Their 2022 theme, “Are We Democracy?”, explored how citizens can exercise their democratic values beyond voting alone. Today, Jawole also teaches at her alma mater, Florida State, where she works as the Nancy Smith Fichter Professor of Dance.

Jawole has received numerous awards and recognitions throughout her career. Only a few of them include the 2006 New York Dance and Performance Award, the 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the 2017 Bessies Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 2021 Martha Hill Dance Fund Lifetime Achievement Award. She has received fellowships from the U. S. Artists, the Guggenheim Memorial, and, in 2021, was a recipient of the MacArthur genius grant. 

The $625,000 MacArthur fellowship is widely-known as an unparalleled achievement. However, only one year later, recognition of Jawole continued when she was awarded the Gish prize. The prize is explained as $250,000 given to individuals who have made an impact on the “beauty of the world”—making Jawole the perfect recipient. 

These recent, immense successes of Jawole’s highlight the necessity of her continued presence in the dance world. Though decades into her career, with all the current praise and interest surrounding Jawole, it still seems she is only getting started. With the funding of both the MacArthur fellowship and the Gish prize behind her, we can be sure that there will be many more successes to come from Jawole in the future.

Today, FF2 celebrates an artist whose creations go past the bounds of self-expression into direct activism and social change. We stand in awe of you, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.

© Reese Alexander (9/22/23) Special for FF2 Media


Read Anna Nappi’s article on Jawole here.

Read more about Jawole and her accomplishments on the Urban Bush Women website.

Read the New York Times article on Jawole here.

Visit Jawole’s Wikipedia page here.


Featured Photo: Portrait of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Photo Credit: © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Source. Used with permission under Creative Commons license CC BY 4.0.
Tags: Dianne McIntyre, Gish prize, Heat, jawole willa jo zollar, MacArthur Fellows, MacArthur Genius Grants, urban bush women

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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