The lights of Russell Auditorium began to dim as a woman emerged at center stage, singing deep hymns alongside the choir of voices echoing from the speakers. Another dancer emerged from the audience, and the music cut to a modern up-beat tempo as he hopped onto the stage.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” the two dancers said to the audience. “We’re going on a journey.”
With a heavy emphasis on audience interaction, the Urban Bush Women Dance Company presented their concert “Hair and Other Stories,” providing a newfound understanding of the discomfort that comes with social change.
“Hair and Other Stories” creates a narrative around the racial inequality of American beauty standards, specifically through the lens of hair.
All barriers are broken down during the performance. Being “a simple observer” was no safety from the message Urban Bush Women came to instill in the audience.
“I need you to open up your scalp, I need you to open up your mind!” the dancers commanded the crowd. “You don’t have to leave the same way that you came.”
Working to create performances that not only tell undertold stories of disenfranchised people, but invite others outside of this marginalization to learn and grow is exactly what Urban Bush Women was built on.
Founded in 1984 by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the Urban Bush Women Dance Company was developed under Zollar’s dedication to use artistic cultural expression as a catalyst for social change.
The NYC-based dance company has gained national recognition through its 35 years, with an extensive list of honorable credentials and performances across the country.
However, it is through their community outreach programs, such as BOLD (Builders, Organizers and Leaders through Dance), that they uphold their dedication to social awareness and human connection.
“[Urban Bush Women] really work closely with the communities, not as the expert, but coming in and offering tools and ways that we can all work together,” said Love Muwwakkil, a dancer in “Hair and Other Stories.”
Muwwakkil said she is confident in the ability of “Hair and Other Stories” to generate this change among their viewers.
“Whenever we do talkbacks and things, I feel like people have had some sense of personal connection to one part or another in the show,” Muwwakkil said. “I think that people definitely see this as a way to get difficult conversations going.”
Throughout the show, personal narratives derived from performers are expressed through song, spoken text and movement as the dancers mesh both the humor and pain of the topic bringing us all together: hair.
“It’s indescribable,” said Ross Daniel, an Urban Bush Women performer and GC alumni. “It’s a call for question, it’s a call for response, it’s comical, it’s deeply emotional, it encompasses all within that story of hair and beauty standards set in America.”
The dancers demonstrate the prejudices behind African American hair in a variety of spoken parts, ranging from the comedy of “hair hell moments” to the more serious reading from a letter to Madame C.J. Walker, the first African American female millionaire, who earned her fortune from selling hair relaxers.
The movements of the dancers illustrate the different elements associated with styling African American hair, from the intricate finger motions of braiding hair to the suffering of sitting still while a hot comb scraps through the scalp to achieve perfect silkiness.
Contemporary blends of African dance pull the narrative structure towards the “roots” of black hair, as the dancers roll their shoulders, pump their chests and flutter their arms to the rhythm of dueling beats. Movements of sweeping, cooking and domestic work are also played out by the dancers, adding to the images of the black female narrative.
“In creating the work there’s always a deep investigation in movement and what you’re trying to get across,” Muwwakkil said. “Really doing that deep investigative work in the studio and with each other to make sure that there is intention behind the movement; that’s how we’re really trying to get stories across.”
With the development of the show taking over three years, the choreographic development process was extremely complex, according to Daniel, who explained how Urban Bush Women strives for artistic inclusiveness in their shows from all of the dancers.
“[Urban Bush Women seeks] to value everyone who enters the room, to dig deeper into what it is that brings them there and then asks them to contribute in collaboration to the larger vision of the work,” Daniel said.
While the performance aims at giving a voice to its black performers and audience members, the white voice is not to be disregarded.
Daniel plays a white man in “Hair and Other Stories.” His character enables further discussion on white privilege and the ways to diminish it, as he narrates through his personal hair lens and being white.
“If I feel comfortable and safe, then I’m continuing to keep my white privilege intact,” Daniel spoke during his performance.
Being a GC alumni, Daniel was thrilled to be able to come back and share his work in “Hair and Other Stories,” with the school.
“I spent a lot of energy here and I owe a lot of my career to the four years here, so I feel like it’s a really nice experience to come back and share with the community,” Daniel said. “Hopefully adding to the wealth of knowledge that already exists.”
Karen Berman, the chair and artistic director of the theater and dance programs at GC, feels that Urban Bush Women, “embodies the spirit of social justice...something our whole department is all about.”
Berman first saw Urban Bush Women perform in Washington D.C. over 10 years ago, and was henceforth determined to have them perform on the GC stage.
Struggling with funding, Berman and the department were unable to bring the troupe to GC, until the Provost Kelli Brown, Dean of Arts and Sciences Eric Tenbus and President Steve Dorman came forward and provided the needed money.
“I’m actually sitting here even now, not believing that they’re actually here,” Berman said. “To have our students get to witness this group that combines artistry and social awareness really was the big goal.”
Berman feels that having students watch a performance on social justice can be far more beneficial than the traditional college route of attending a class or lecture centered around it.
“As a participant in the audience and in the show, we’re watching these people embody what happens when there is equality and when there is inequality, and when we see it we empathize,” Berman said.
While the two and a half hour show has ended, the discussions of social change it provided are still continuing on, just as Urban Bush Women and Berman hoped they would.
“Nobody is telling you how to behave, or how to feel, but you can’t help by feel something and feel that empathy when you’re in the middle of it,” Berman said. “That’s the way an artistic performance hits you.”
Photos courtesy of Karen Berman