Urban Bush Women explores the nuances of hair – race, body image and freedom – through dance

The Urban Bush Women dance company will perform “Hair and Other Stories” at NC State Feb. 9. The piece is an updated version of “Hair Stories,” which was created in 2001.
The Urban Bush Women dance company will perform “Hair and Other Stories” at NC State Feb. 9. The piece is an updated version of “Hair Stories,” which was created in 2001. Hayim Heron

Having a bad hair day? Wonder what people will think of you? Think you might not have what it takes?

You’re not alone.

When choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the leading force behind the Urban Bush Women dance company, wanted to create a piece about the stories her dancers were telling each other off stage, she made one about hair. She and her company have been at the forefront of looking at issues of identity, race and equality, so she was especially concerned with black women’s hair – what’s spoken about in kitchens, living rooms and hair salons.

“As a company, we were touring, and we’d often exchange stories, and we realized a lot of the stories were about hair,” Zollar said in a recent telephone interview, speaking about how hair is attached to beauty and age and questions like: “Should we cut our hair?”

This was in 2001, and Zollar named her work “Hair Stories.” She recently thought it would be interesting to bring the piece back, but found it dated. With the help of two of her company’s dancers, who Zollar calls the next generation, a new work was created.

“Hair and Other Stories” will be performed Feb. 9 at North Carolina State University’s Stewart Theatre. A pre-show discussion and a post-show dance party also are scheduled, along with other activities that involve the community.

As an African-American woman, Zollar said she always has been interested in what is meant by American values, along with the African diaspora. She said the company’s work is meant to involve the community, so for their residency at N.C. State, Urban Bush Women will hold two community events.

First is a community sing at St. Ambrose Church in southeast Raleigh, open to all ages and abilities and modeled after workshops held by the well-known vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Zollar said the Feb. 7 event is a chance to experience African-American a cappella music, as well as sing together.

The second is a hair party Feb. 8 at Raleigh’s Chavis Community Center, held in collaboration with N.C. State’s African-American Cultural Center. The activity is intended to use hair as a launching point for conversation, making art and exploring guided movement.

“It opens up platforms for people to tell their stories,” Zollar said. “We try to do it in ways that are fun and unique. Each hair party is unique. People are invited into the space, and there’s a little bit of performance to open up the dialogue. It’s more about how we can come together as a community and share.”

The stories we tell, in fact, are the focus of Zollar’s overall work, storytelling that blends movement, singing and voice, along with pushing boundaries.

“It’s what makes us unique,” she said. Being involved with the community, she continued, is “part of how we are, a part of how we think, how we move in the world.”

Isolation, she added, “it’s surely not a good thing.”

Urban Bush Women 2
The Urban Bush Women dance company was founded in 1984 and seeks to “bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance.” Hayim Heron

‘Visceral’ dance

Zollar said her company incorporates what is known as “street dance,” and she explained the company style this way: “It’s visceral. It’s expressive. It’s connected to what’s going on in the world and in our lives. It’s urgent.”

Zollar is a distinguished professor of dance at Florida State University and founded the company in 1984. The company, now based in Brooklyn, N.Y., has six dancers. Two company dancers are FSU graduates, as is the company’s manager and her stage manager.

Despite working from two places and being a director of a touring dance company, Zollar said, “it’s a blessing to have two places I live in and I love.”

“I love teaching,” she added. “I love being in contact with young people.”

During the company’s residency, N.C. State students will have a chance to take part in an Urban Bush Women movement jam class, billed as “Dance for Everybody.”

As for what drove Zollar to create her company nearly 40 years ago, she said she wanted to “create work.”

“Sometimes when you do things in the beginning, you don’t know why you do them,” she said.

In talking about her influences, Zollar said she’s interested in how people resist. Her work, she said, is about “what people have permission to do and what they have permission to address.”

“I’m always inspired by people who are brave and who stand up against incredible odds to tell their story,” she said.

Since the beginning, the company has explored issues of inequality, much in the news these days, particularly related to the #MeToo movement.

“I’m not sure a lot has changed,” she added, speaking of the years since. “But a lot more has surfaced. This is what’s interesting about this moment, how we’re going to handle these things.”

Urban Bush Women

▪ Community Sing: 7 to 8 p.m. Feb. 7. St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, 813 Darby St., Raleigh. RSVP at go.ncsu.edu/UBW.

▪ Hair Party: 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 8. Chavis Community Center, 505 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Raleigh. RSVP at go.ncsu.edu/UBW. Bring magazines for collage making.

▪ “Hair and Other Stories” performance: 8 p.m. Feb. 9. Stewart Theatre in the Talley Student Union, 2610 Cates Ave., Raleigh, on the N.C. State campus. Tickets are $27 to $32. A free pre-show discussion is from 7 to 7:30 p.m. in the Talley Student Union, Room 3222. A post-show dance party follows in the lobby of the theater on the third floor. There will be refreshments, dancing and a chance to share a hair story.

▪ Info: 919-515-1100 or go.ncsu.edu/UBW