What's Your Story?
What choruses can learn from a dance company that uses its art form to help communities tell their own stories.
From its beginnings in 1984, the New York City-based dance company Urban Bush Women (UBW) has been intent on telling the untold and under-told stories of disenfranchised people. “I wanted a company that had shared values around making work,” the group’s founder and artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar says. “I really didn't have any definition of what kind of work, but I did know that I wanted to look at the folklore, the religious traditions, and the culture of African-Americans and the African Diaspora.”
The dance performances that came out of this inspiration were athletic and beautiful, and quickly gained UBW a loyal following within the New York arts scene and beyond. But members of the company noticed that people like themselves—women, people of color, working class folks—often were not in the audience. While on the road, the troupe members began to invite people who worked at their hotels to come see the shows. Or they would put on a dance class at a local school and invite the people they met there to come.
Some called that “outreach” and congratulated the company for doing it. But Zollar and the dancers never much liked the word. “They felt like the underlying idea of ‘outreach’ was that they were reaching out, but really down, to people for the sake of checking off boxes or filling in the numbers of people served,” says Maria Bauman, who joined the company in 2002 and now directs UBW’s community engagement work. “That is when Jawole adopted the term community engagement, rather than outreach.”
Over the years, Urban Bush Women has fine-tuned their methodology and gathered together a network of people who are passionate about using art to address community issues and challenges. B.O.L.D.—Builders, Organizers and Leaders through Dance—became the name of their community engagement initiative, under the larger UBW umbrella. Some 29 B.O.L.D. facilitators travel nationally and internationally to conduct workshops and projects that bring the histories of local communities forward through performance.
Along with her colleague Vincent Thomas, Bauman will give attendees at Chorus America’s June 2014 Conference a live taste of the B.O.L.D. approach during the final plenary session. We spoke with her beforehand to find out more about how Urban Bush Women leverages its key assets—movement and dance—to help organizations tell their stories and engage their communities.
The title of your Chorus America Conference plenary session is “Animating our Stories.” Why is being able to tell your own story or the story of your organization so important?
One of Urban Bush Women’s core values is validating the individual. Our individual histories are authentic in and of themselves. And collectively our histories and identities create a rich palate from which to work. Every individual has a powerful contribution to make.
The chorus world feels to me like a very community-driven process. When I think chorus, I am thinking collective, community. In order for that art to resonate powerfully, there has got to be a balancing of individual identity with collective solidarity. When I think about deepening the work of choruses or of any ensemble, I think about digging into what is unique about each person, rather than skipping to the melting pot part. Historically, in our country that has been a way that folks have been encouraged to assimilate to the detriment of their own culture.
We are always saying, what is the balance between working in community and holding on to individual stories? Can our community collaborations in fact be more authentic when each individual recognizes that they are seen and heard?
When Urban Bush Women works with an organization or group of people to help them tell their own stories, what happens?
We always do a lot of preparation when we go into a community. It is important how you enter a community: with humility, with a sense of listening. We do not come in with an assumption of participation and a project theme or goal. We ask what people want to see addressed. We plan together. We ask how each partner can be strengthened at the close of the work.
During the project we often have story circles, an activity taught to us by Junebug Theater, where people tell their own stories, both verbally and through movement. Our work is holding space for folks to uncover what’s important to them and then helping them turn that into art. The ideas spring from the folks we work with. We bring the facilitating skills for them to dialog about it, research it, bring in experts, look at themselves as experts, examine what it is to be an expert—and then present the information artistically.
Having a performance at the end is a big part of what we do. It is cathartic, full of display—it is a manifestation. But it is just one of the goals, not the end goal. The end goal is people organizing and working together. The project always ends the day after the performance with a “next steps” debriefing meeting.
Give us some examples of communities in which you have worked.
We were just in Tampa for an intergenerational community engagement project on the theme “building community through dance.” They wanted to bridge the gaps they feel between their own neighborhoods. We worked with a group during the day at the University of Tampa and in the evening with another group at Taproot Community Cultural Center. We did that to get a wide range of participants and to include people who worked during the day or elders who couldn’t drive at night. Then we brought them together in the last few days to create a culminating performance based on all of their work together. Our youngest participant was 16 and our eldest was 88. They were a mix of folks—those up walking around and folks in wheelchairs. It was multi-racial and also involved people from different income brackets. That was a real pleasure to work on.
After you have worked with people in a community, what is left behind? What is the end product?
In Tampa, already we are seeing ripple affects. A lot of folks did not know about the Taproot Community Cultural Center. It is fairly new, beautiful, and underutilized. They want to activate their space. Folks said, “Oh, now I know about Taproot. Can I hold my young men’s meeting here?” That led to others saying, “What, you guys don’t have funding? Well, here are some places you should go.” The whole goal is cross-pollination within the community, encouraging whatever needs to be brought out, so that after we’re gone, people can work together with some level of authenticity.
We think of ourselves as being a “catalytic visitor.” I live in New York, but it is not until someone visits me from Florida, that I say, “Oh, let’s go to the Statue of Liberty. Let’s go to the Whitney.” Suddenly, I want to go to all of the places that are here all the time but that I don’t take advantage of when I am in my normal routine. We have started to think of ourselves that way. What we do is hold space for folks to come together, space that would not be part of their daily working, living routine. We help them bring their own assets to the surface, take advantage of those assets, and then organize together.
So people are telling their stories, and then creating something out of that. That is different from just sharing stories, which can be therapeutic.
Exactly. There is nothing wrong with just telling your story. But our medium is always a creative report back of the research for lots of community members to experience.
A chorus thinking about its story might at first say, “Well, our story is that we sing beautiful music.” How would you encourage that chorus to dig down a little deeper?
It bears repeating that Urban Bush Women is a performing dance company and ideally we perform beautiful dances! But I think what we are known for is that there is depth to that. In all we do, we are seeking to lift up untold and undertold stories, particularly from the perspective of women and people from the African diaspora. So the dance-making is rooted in an identity. It comes from a particular context of time and place.
When you are making art from within the dominant culture, the onus is not on you to explain the context of your art in the same way. But in fact, every dance, every song, comes from somewhere, from a particular group of people. Our goal at Urban Bush Women is to be more explicit about that, thereby validating all of our stories.
So if you’re a chorus preparing the Bach B Minor Mass, there is a context to that, too?
Right. That work is from a very specific time, place, person, system of aesthetic values, and also subject matter. Then the question is, what is the purpose for a community? How does that choice relate or not relate? That is what we want to be deliberate about.
If we are singing Bach, wonderful. Is that because that is the aesthetic value of our chorus or that it is recognized as a great work? Who feels really excited? Who doesn’t? It may not be about being completely simpatico with what the community wants. Sometimes we are trying to push. Sometimes we are saying, “Maybe you’re not so interested in this but here is why we think it is interesting. Hopefully we can present it in a way that gives you a way in.”
So we’re not necessarily saying, “Oh, this is what you like. Let’s do it.” The point is to be really clear and think about the way our art engages or doesn’t engage the folks that we are interested in drawing in.
Is there something important about having people step into an artistic form that they are not familiar or comfortable with?
I think so. Most of our community engagement projects involve people who are not dancers. It is really important for us that people get to inhabit their own bodies. We live in a culture that rewards a sedentary lifestyle. We are based on that factory model so it’s not in our culture to say, “Oh you are valued because you are creating something new and it is different every time.” We are valued for casting a die so that you can replicate, replicate, replicate.
So it seems important just from a sense of personal freedom to reclaim our bodies. That is why we encourage everyone to dance and why we really train our facilitators to know the difference between teaching a pre-professional or professional dance class and facilitating “Dance for Every Body,” which we offer at the Summer Leadership Institute. The point is that everybody moves and we share our core values and it is joyous and it is about health. It is not about getting your leg up higher. We bring in other modalities also because, as with any good facilitator, you want to push people a little bit and also give them a comfort zone. We work with creative writing, with singing, with lots of different things, so people find their own way in. But everybody dances.
So a chorus might use singing as a way to engage the community in a similar way to how you use dance.
Yes. We should all sing together because we all should get in touch with our own voices, literally and figuratively.
What dancers and singers have in common is storytelling. The feeling that folks are used to when singing together—experiencing unity through shared humanity and catharsis—we hope to create that with folks at the Chorus America Conference through the body in a large movement chorus.
There are different ways we can bring our stories across. Our way as a dance company is always going to be through the body, but I hope chorus people can take a simple portion of what we do and use it in their own work, which is also through the body.
Kelsey Menehan is a writer, psychotherapist, and longtime choral singer based in San Francisco.
This article was adapted from The Voice, Summer 2014.