Urban Bush Women

Lorena James ’21

Staff Writer

Members of Urban Bush Women perform in Duke Family Performance Hall. Photo by John Crawford ’20.

In late February, Davidson had the great pleasure of hosting Urban Bush Women (UBW), a Brooklyn-based dance company founded in 1984. Their mission is to spread the undertold and underrepresented stories in American society. 

UBW focuses on the stories of African-American women; as an African-American woman myself, I felt personally connected to the events that took place at Davidson though UBW. From a masterclass in Baker to a lecture in Union and an interactive performance in the Duke Family Performance Hall, the artistic community engagement that took place here on campus left a lasting effect on all participants and observers.

The first event UBW held was their masterclass. Approximately twenty students attended this vibing celebration of movement and diversity. While many attendees were members of Gamut or Dance Ensemble, some were also curious members of the student community with open minds and bodies. With only an hour and a half to spend, we quickly worked through a warm-up exercise—which seemed like a piece of choreography itself—and an exploratory group improvisation piece involving hopscotch and other childlike “anti-gravity” movements. 

While all of the movements held the title of  “abstract,” a term often associated with modern dance, there was a technique to everything that UBW members presented to us. The technique was a mixture of hip-hop, jazz, and funk. Their bodies moved with rhythm and ease and we were encouraged to follow suit. 

This masterclass carried a theme of “hiking the horizontal,” a phrase introduced to us by the members of UBW. The act of “hiking the horizontal” involves questioning what is “technique.” Technique in dance is traditionally understood as ballet, as being “neat” and “pretty” and “graceful.” UBW works to emphasize that there is a technique to all genres of dance from jazz to Irish step; no genre is any better than another. 

Instead of viewing different dance genres in a hierarchical format, UBW believes that they should be viewed equally on a “horizontal” plane. The act of “hiking” this plane as a dancer alludes to the difficulties UBW members face in telling their stories as dancers and as minorities.

A lecture in the 900 Room addressed these difficulties directly. While one can call the presentation—from Chanon Judson, the Associate Artistic Director of Urban Bush Women—a “lecture,” it was dynamic and interactive in nature. Through strong, swift movements of her body and words, she told us the story of UBW: how Jawole Willa Jo Zollar founded the company in 1984 as a method of telling untold and undertold stories and how UBW is a method of community engagement and a way to connect with those in minority communities through something we all share: the human body. 

Even allies to those in these underserved and underrepresented communities are meant to share in the artistic experience that UBW creates. To be the minority, one hikes the vertical; but to be an ally, one “hikes the horizontal.” 

An ally must come face to face with the hardships the minority experiences. An ally must come to see how they may be a contributing factor in such hardships and realize that, by merely recognizing these factors, they have made immense progress in supporting the minorities in their community.

Such concepts came to a cathartic head at UBW’s interactive performance in the Duke Family Performance Hall. With a diverse audience of students and faculty, townspeople, and city dwellers, everyone was able to share in the mourning and celebration of UBW stories. A mixture of dance, film, and call and response, this performance left the audience contemplating stories of hair, colorism, sexism, ageism, and racism.

As an institution of the south, such stories sat heavy on the shoulders of all audience members, no matter their outward appearance. UBW is a dance company, but they are also a company of social change and community engagements. 

Such innovation in art found applause from the Davidson community in the week UBW was on campus. Similar discussion must continue on this campus, and I look forward to seeing how the Davidson and Davidson Arts Community will continue to support such conversations.

Lorena James ’21 is an Environmental Studies major from Buffalo, NY. She can be reached for comment at lojames@davidson.edu.

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