Urban Bush Women dance toward liberation

FIRE DANCE: The six-member company of New York’s revolutionary troupe Urban Bush Women are first and foremost dancers. But they are also vanguards, using art to catalyze change. “We look at systemic racism in our society and tell the stories that need to be told,” says Chanon Judson, associate artistic director. Pictured, from left, are Courtney Cook, Samantha Speis, Judson, Du'Bois A'Keen, Stephanie Mas and Tendayi Kuumba. Photo by Hayim Heron

Racism is not a four-letter word.

What is, though? Hair.

It’s “scripted into rightness and wrongness, blackness and whiteness, in our society. The closer hair is to whiteness, the better it is, and that notion is echoed everywhere,” says Chanon Judson, associate artistic director of Urban Bush Women.

A radical, New York City-based nonprofit dance company, UBW unpacks social inequities onstage, transforming the ecology of performance by calling on the honest, sometimes raw experiences of black women. Onstage Tuesday, Feb. 6, at Western Carolina University’s John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center, UBW’s latest piece, Hair & Other Stories, uses the human mane — a seemingly innocuous subject — to create conversation about biases, both patent and internalized.

“Hair becomes the catalyst for us to talk about systemic racism,” says Judson, who goes on to describe the evening-length production as a series of vignettes. “Very episodic,” she says. “We dance, sing and talk. We jump in time and space.”

One scene brings onlookers to a kitchen-turned-salon where four black women — Judson, Amanda Castro, Courtney J. Cook and Tendayi Kuumba — are cutting up. They chat and laugh, exchanging “hair woes” or the trials and tribulations associated with getting their hair done. Cook even enacts what it’s like to get a perm, performing a “fire dance” when the chemicals burn her scalp.

Later, a mother bonds with her son, played by UBW’s sole male dancer, Du’Bois A’Keen, by braiding his hair. He has wild locks and is squirming around, making the whole scene a bit comical. “It reminds me of being a little girl and not sitting still,” says Judson, who developed a relationship with the troupe back in 2001. “Getting your hair done becomes a cultural rite of passage.”

But not all moments are so light. The first time Stephanie Mas, the cast’s only white dancer, talks about her family, she reveals an unsettling narrative. In high school, she dyed her naturally blond hair a bright shade of red. Upset that she would disavow her Aryan features, the character’s father refused to speak to her for three months.

It’s an extreme situation, of course. But the vignette galvanizes a white woman’s perspective of racism: “She realizes the value of her blondness and skin color,” notes Judson. The scene is uncomfortable, and that’s the point.

“There’s tons of humor because we want people to be open and available. When you get people laughing, you quickly build a space of trust,” says Judson. “But onlookers will also be probed and challenged. It’s not an easy piece, and we’re going to struggle inside it together.”

In many ways, togetherness drives UBW. At an organizational level, the company is modeled after a matriarchy. Choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar founded the troupe in 1984. Today, two other women — Judson and Samantha Speis — share leadership. “We are woman-driven — we are not looking at a patriarchal structure where there is one leader at the top,” says Judson.

But UBW also nurtures innovative, inclusive communities through its programming.

BOLD (Builders, Organizers & Leaders Through Dance), the nonprofit’s outreach arm, facilitates workshops that use nonverbal communication to approach topics like racism, diverse experiences and group dynamics. These team-building opportunities are very much influenced by UBW’s 20-year relationship with The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, an international collective that “instructs participants to look at themselves and their community” in addressing social injustice.

Partnering with WCU’s Intercultural Affairs Department, UBW will present an interactive dance and leadership program for students on Monday, Feb. 5. Jill Jacobs, marketing manager at the university, expects the event will resonate with Cullowhee’s diverse campus.

“Modern dance that explores social awareness — body image, race, gender identity, economic inequities and what constitutes freedom and liberation — is an opportunity not found in Western North Carolina too frequently,” says Jacobs. “We are honored to present arts-based opportunities that highlight social issues.”

But it’s evident that UBW wants to do more than point out institutionalized inequities. With more than 30 years to its name, the troupe is out to right wrongs and prevent future trespasses.

“We are helping communities realize that racism affects us all. It’s not just people of color,” says Judson. “But we also push the conversation beyond racism. We ask ourselves and our audiences, ‘How can we set the pace for liberation?’”

Urban Bush Women’s answer? Dance.

WHAT: Hair & Other Stories, arts.wcu.edu/ubw
WHERE: Western Carolina University’s John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center, 199 Centennial Drive, Cullowhee
WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 6, 7:30 p.m. $25 general admission/$20 WCU and Southwestern Community College faculty and staff/ $5 WCU and SCC students


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About Lauren Stepp
Lauren Stepp is an award-winning writer with bylines here in these mountains and out yonder, too.

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