April 15, 2024
Florida Icon: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

Photo: Kyle Froman for Dance Teacher Magazine

"You swim upstream. Some people notice. Some people don't," says Zollar, 71, an FSU dance professor and founder of Urban Bush Women dance company.


Florida Icon: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

(FSU dance professor, MacArthur “genius grant” winner, founder of Urban Bush Women dance company, Tallahassee; age 71)

Art Levy | 2/8/2023

Dancing was definitely a hallmark of my childhood. My sister and I danced at our local dance studio, and we started performing fairly young as part of a revue. These revues in the Black community usually had a comic MC, a flash act like the Nicholas Brothers, a tap dancer, an exotic dancer or a stripper, which was kind of like post-vaudeville burlesque. My sister and I, we were part of the kiddie act. I did that probably from age 7 or 8 until about 16 or 17.

I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, in a time of de facto segregation in what was referred to as the inner city. The whole environment was Black. My teachers were Black. I was immersed in Black culture, which set up a point of view, a way of looking at the world. I didn’t have any social contact with white folk until college.

After I graduated from FSU with a master of fine arts in dance, I met a woman named Dianne McIntyre. I saw her dance company perform at Florida A&M, and I knew I wanted to study with her. So, I moved to New York and was on scholarship at her studio, but I had all kinds of different odd jobs to support myself. I was coat-checking. I cleaned offices. I cleaned apartments. I did market research surveys on the phone. I did odd jobs even after I formed my own dance company. I moved to New York in 1980, and I would probably say I was not making my living entirely from dance until maybe 1988. What kept me going was the love of it.

If I have any regrets, and I don’t have a lot of them, it’s that I didn’t live overseas for a longer period of time. The longest was a month. I think you learn more about yourself and your American-ness when you see yourself in the context of other cultures.

What I’m so drawn to about folk artists is they don’t create because they are trying to exhibit in an art museum or gallery. They create out of an innate need. Before starting my dance company, I had to ask myself, do I need to do this, or do I want to do this? My answer was I need to do this, and if I need to do it, then whether it’s successful or not is not the issue.

Dance was always a struggle for me. I didn’t have the flexibility, but I just loved doing it. I was also a hard worker. It took me longer to pick up steps, but I loved performing. I felt completely focused and free on the stage.

Before the pandemic, a third of my life was on the road, a third of my life was teaching at FSU and a third of my life was in New York. Now, there’s no pattern because I’m still catching up with projects that were postponed because of the pandemic. This year, I’m going to be premiering an opera that I’m directing and choreographing for the Houston Grand Opera.

I’ve always been a curious person. I want to hear other sides. Early in its work, the Urban Bush Women, we did a lot of work in rural white communities, and we were in fellowship with those communities. They were different than us, but we were able to talk, and it was OK.

You swim upstream. Some people notice. Some people don’t. But the MacArthur fellowship, it’s like someone saying, ‘I’ve noticed what you’re doing, and it’s important.’ The MacArthur is not about stars. It’s not about celebrity. It’s about people noticing that you’ve had an impact in your field, which definitely feels good. I thought I was too old to get a MacArthur. I thought I kind of aged out, but I think if I would have gotten it when I was younger, I would have felt the pressure to live up to it. But not now. I’ve done the work. I’m doing the work, and I’m going to continue to do the work. This came at the right time.

I’m a little bit of a foodie. It’s funny. In New York, I rarely cook. In Tallahassee, I rarely eat out. There are good restaurants here, but you have to drive. In New York, I just walk two or three blocks and I’m there.

When I’m dancing, I feel totally alive. I feel totally connected to myself. There’s a kinesthetic sensation that connects mind, body and spirit, so it’s the unification of myself is what I feel when I’m dancing.

As a child, I was a bookworm. I loved reading the old encyclopedias. You could look up a country and learn about the culture, the national dress of that country, the history and more. I loved that!

I remember my first spring in Tallahassee, and it was like if there was a crack in the sidewalk then there would be something blooming out of it. I’m still excited to see the blooms.

Discomfort is very much a part of the learning process. I’ll put this in dance terms. If we don’t exercise a muscle, that muscle atrophies. If I only did everything as a dancer that made me comfortable, then I’m not going to learn.

Approval is a slippery slope. I’ve made a conscious decision not to focus on being successful because it feels like a rabbit hole and a trap. It’s really about the experience and the learning. Otherwise, you’re allowing other people to tell you how to live the life that you are creating for yourself.

Tags: Florida Icon, Feature

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