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Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

Choreographer and dancer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was born in 1950 and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. One of six children, Zollar grew up in a family that was steeped in African American culture. She grew up listening to jazz music and imagining movement in her head. Her first dance teacher was Joseph Stevenson, a student of American dance pioneer Katherine Dunham. Having earned her B.A. degree in dance from the University of Missouri in Kansas City and an M.F.A. degree from Florida State University, Zollar moved to New York City in 1980 to study dance with Dianne McIntyre at Sounds in Motion. In 1984, she left McIntyre’s studio to establish the internationally acclaimed dance company, Urban Bush Women in 1984.

Zollar’s dance company, Urban Bush Women, uses live music, cappella vocalizations and movement to interpret the religious traditions and folklore of the African Diaspora. Her work with Urban Bush Women has earned five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Zollar has also garnered accolades as a teacher and speaker. These include receiving a New York Dance and Performance BESSIE Award in 1992, the Alumni Achievement Award from the University of Missouri in 1993 and Worlds of Thought Resident Scholar at Mankato University in 1993.

Zollar has created works for Alvin Ailey, the American Dance Theater, Ballet Arizona, Philadanco, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and others. Zollar is Artist in Residence at Florida State University. Her other university commissions include Florida A & M University and the University of Maryland, College Park. She has lectured at such prestigious universities as MIT and UCLA. In 1999, she received the Martin Luther King Distinguished Service Award. Zollar’s company was prominently featured in the PBS documentary, Free to Dance. In 2002, Zollar was awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia University.

Urban Bush Women continue to tour extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Zollar resides in Tallahassee, Florida and Brooklyn, New York.

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Middle Name

Willa Jo


University of Missouri, Kansas City

Florida State University

Central Academy of Excellence

Search Occupation Category
Speakers Bureau


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Kansas City



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Fall, Spring



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Go For What You Know.

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Short Description

Artistic director and dancer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (1950 - ) was the founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women, a performance ensemble and dance company based in Brooklyn, New York.


Sounds in Motion

Dance Repertory Theater at Florida State University

Florida State University

Favorite Color


Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar lists her favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar explains why she changed her name to Jawole</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her mother's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her mother's education in Kansas City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her mother's career as a jazz musician</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her maternal grandmother</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar talks about her mother's previous marriages</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her father's family background, pt. 1</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her father's family background, pt. 2</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes how her parents met and married</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her personality during her childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her education in Kansas City, Missouri</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes the role of religion in her childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her childhood community in Kansas City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her awareness of race as a child</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar recalls facing racial discrimination in Tallahassee, Florida</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes classes that influenced her at Central High School</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar talks about wearing short, natural hair</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar recalls her experiences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar talks about her influences as a dancer</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her graduate work at Florida State University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar recalls moving to New York City to pursue dance</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar recalls her decision to found a dance company</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes the feminist themes in her choreography</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes what inspired her work in the 1980s</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar explains why she chose dance as a career</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes her social activism</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar talks about the African American arts community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar reflects upon her life</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes how she would like to be remembered</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar imagines choreography based on her life</a>







Jawole Willa Jo Zollar recalls her decision to found a dance company
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar describes the feminist themes in her choreography
When did you, let's say, get your own wings? I mean, did that happen in 1983 when you started--$$Eighty-three [1983] I was starting to think about it, and, but I didn't feel like interestingly enough, I thought, but what role models do I have? Who's been successful? Dianne [HistoryMaker Dianne McIntyre] was having a hard time financially. Alvin Ailey was losing his mind literally, I mean, he'd had had several mental breakdowns that were public and, you know, [HistoryMaker] Eleo Pomare was, you know, had terrible drinking problem and I was like well what makes me think I can do this because this is clearly really hard, so how am I possibly gonna do this? And then I had several events that helped me to do that. One is that I went to a folk art exhibit, a visionary art exhibit at Brooklyn Museum [New York, New York], and when I went to that exhibit, one of the things that struck me is that these were all people who were doing their work not from some idea of being successful, but they were doing their work out of an impulse they had to do it. They had some calling late in life, some revelation, some vision that made them become artists, and when I saw the power of this work and I was like, they're not worried about all those external things, they're just doing their work. And so that was one revelation moment. Another was a dream I had which was a very powerful dream. My mother [Dorothy Zollar Hoover] and father [Alfred Zollar, Jr.] who rarely appeared in the same dream, like almost never, they had both passed away by this time. We were sitting in a circle in the ocean, you know, we were just like sitting, me and my family all in a circle with plates of food like right in front of us. And, you know, we were just sitting there and then my father got up and sang this song to the tune of 'Oh Mary Don't You Weep,' but the vamp was, "Success is not the test, success is not the test." And he sang this song about--you know, because he lost his business eventually through alcoholism and neglect, and he talked about that he got caught up in external things as opposed to looking at, and wanting to prove himself on an external place as opposed to, look, working from an internal place and he was cautioning me against getting caught up in what were external measures of success. And then he--you know, he sang this song and then he sat back down with the family, then this huge wave came and turned over all the food into the ocean, and I knew that dream was really profound. And it was lucid, you know, it was one of those dreams that even though, of course, no, you can't sit in the ocean, it was just--it had a logic to it and it was in vivid color which is usually when dreams come to me like that, they're giving me other information. And so that was like, okay. Then a woman who was working at Sounds in Motion who was Dianne's cousin, Loyce Stuart [ph.], pointed out to me 'cause I was working for Dianne, she said, "Every time you kind of facilitate one of Dianne's concerts, I noticed that you go into a deep depression," 'cause I was having these really deep depressions, and I said, "Yeah." She said, "It's 'cause you're not doing your own work." That you, it's--you need to have your own company, your own work. And so kind of those things then I, I formed the company [Urban Bush Women].$So two things I wanted to talk about. I--in hearing about your past, I hear that you were equally as much influenced by women as men?$$Um-hm.$$I'm wondering why you chose in the work, the dance, to primarily speak about women and women's issues.$$Well, I didn't originally choose to. (Laughter) Originally before I had a name, as I was forming this company and looking for a name, I had men working with me. But, you know, men are more scarce (laughter) in dance, I guess, and so they would--you know, we would be rehearsing and then they'd get a better job and off they were. Then I'd get another man in and we'd get other men in and then they would work with us and then, they were gone--got a better job. And I was really influenced by Sweet Honey in the Rock and Women of the Calabash, and so I thought, well why not have a company of all women? Because there was this group of women who were committed and while the men were, you know, coming in and out, there was this core group of women who were not coming in and out, so I thought, well, why not? So that's how it became all women. And I think the women's issues just came about 'cause that's who we were. Had it been a group of all men that I worked with, it probably would have been different issues but, you know, I had been interested in feminist studies and feminist ideas, so that was part of my education and background as well as I had been--always been a spiritual seeker, so that was part of my background, so that went into the work. The social justice concerns had been a part of my background so that went into the work. So, all of the things, my interest in anthropology, that went into the work. So all of that just went into--so rather than being fragmented, it was the first time I felt like I could do something, make something that was about all of my different interests and I didn't have to keep my feminist side over here and my spiritual side over here and my political side over here.$$So when you are identifying yourself in your own private world, are you black first or woman first?$$I can't do that. I just can't do that. I don't think there's--you know, I can't separate those things. I think that I was aware of double standards very early on. I remember proclaiming to my parents [Dorothy Zollar Hoover and Alfred Zollar, Jr.]--I must have been about ten, and I have no idea where this came from, I said, "I'm never gonna change my last name if I get married 'cause I think it's unfair that," you know, "why should women change their names," (laughter) you know, and I like my name, Zollar [HistoryMaker Jawole Willa Jo Zollar]. What if I married a Smith and I would become a Smith and I have not--I'm not gonna become a Smith for, I'm not gonna lose my name Zollar, so. I somehow--but then I remember, now I'm just remembering my mother used to always say, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander." So maybe that put those notions in there early on. So I don't know that I can separate any of those things because they're really tied to my identity.$$When you were coming up with names for the company, and let's just put in periods, the '80s [1980s], Reagan's [President Ronald Wilson Reagan] president, there's a crack epidemic that's starting to spread throughout the country. I mean, dismal days for African Americans. Why Urban Bush Women?$$Well, the name has a history. In 19--late '60s [1960s], there's a jazz musician named Gary Bartz who I really loved his music. He had an album called 'Harlem Bush Music,' and he talked about bush as being this concept of the inner city, you know, that Harlem [New York, New York] was like this--another kind of bush. That instead of being--it was thickly, you know, it was densely populated, it was thick, it was creative, it was dangerous, it was fertile. So that, you know, the inner city was another kind of bush, so he had this album 'Harlem Bush Music.' And so when we were looking for names for the company, and when I was--I was over at a friend's house, John Armwood, and we were, you know, we were talking and drinking and laughing and just, you know, putting on music and just, you know, brainstorming names and I picked up an album by the Art Ensemble of Chicago called 'Urban Bushmen,' and I held it up to him, I said, "Urban Bush Women," (laughter) "Urban Bush Women!" And he knew the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and he called them and said, "I have this friend who wants to, you know, name her company Urban Bush Women, is it gonna be all right?" And they said, "Yeah, yeah, that's fine, that's cool." So, Urban Bush Women.