Commencement 2015: Biographies - Jawole Willa Jo Zollar


Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, dancer, teacher and choreographer who is the Nancy Smith Fichter Professor of Dance and Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University and the founder of Urban Bush Women is awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degree during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 159th Commencement on Sunday, May 17, 2015.
Photo by Kelvin Ma/Tufts University


You bring to life the untold stories of the African diaspora with vibrant and expressive choreography, portraying history through folklore, myth, and the personal tales of lives lived. You force us to confront the major issues of our times through performances that explore immigration and migration, displacement and inequality. The energy of your own dancing and the talent of your collaborators in the Urban Bush Women give these moving tableaus enduring impact. Your work has challenged assumptions about the nature of dance and performance art, demonstrating how choreographers can address social and political issues, and opening new opportunities for black performers. You have reimagined traditional dance forms such as ballet, and led us to rediscover jazz as a vehicle for confronting life’s challenges.

For your contributions to our nation’s social history and its artistic legacy, and for creating new pathways for the future of dance, Tufts is honored to award you an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.

Photo by Crush Boone


Visceral, politically charged, swaggering, defiant, and poignant are just some of the words that have been used to describe the work of dancer and choreographer JAWOLE WILLA JO ZOLLAR, the Nancy Smith Fichter Professor in Dance at Florida State University. Her dance troupe, Urban Bush Women, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last year. Their performances portray the untold stories of the African Diaspora in America, using live music, a cappella vocalizations, and movement to interpret history, religious traditions, and folklore.

One of her recent works, Hep Hep Sweet Sweet, explores the music and culture that emerged in the jazz clubs of Kansas City and elsewhere during the Great Migration, when some six million African Americans moved from the rural South to the industrial Northeast, Midwest, and West between 1910 and 1970.

Zollar’s parents took part in that migration, and in 1950, she was born in Kansas City, Missouri, known as one of the cradles of American jazz. Some of Zollar’s earliest memories are of listening to jazz recordings after school. “I would race home and put on music. I would play jazz, and I would imagine choreography,” Zollar said in an interview. “My mother was a jazz singer and pianist. Jazz was all around.”

Her childhood was the inspiration for Urban Bush Women, which she founded in 1984. “I envisioned a company founded on the energy, vitality, and boldness of the African American community that I grew up in,” she said. “I wanted a company that brought forth the vulnerability, sassiness, and bodaciousness of the women I experienced growing up in Kansas City.”

Over the past thirty years, Urban Bush Women has changed perceptions about body types, redefined what performance can be in terms of both form and content, and most importantly, shown how choreographers can address sociopolitical issues and involve whole communities in making art.

Examples of that work include dark swan, choreographed by Nora Chipaumire and restaged for Urban Bush Women, which reimagines classic European ballet in a modern African context; visible, about displacement and citizenship related to immigration and migration; and her most recent work, Walking with ’Trane, Chapter 2, inspired by the life of John Coltrane and his seminal jazz suite A Love Supreme. In addition to her work with Urban Bush Women, Zollar has created performances for Alvin Ailey, the American Dance Theater, Ballet Arizona, Philadanco, and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, among others. 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.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in dance from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and an M.F.A. from Florida State University. Her first dance teacher was Joseph Stevenson, a student of the American dance pioneer Katherine Dunham.

Zollar has been a visiting artist at The Ohio State University and the Abramowitz Memorial Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2013, she received the Arthur L. Johnson Memorial Award from Sphinx Music at its inaugural conference on diversity in the arts, and the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. Last year, she was awarded the Meadows Prize from Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts.

“I am interested in being relevant in the world in the time that I am living in it,” Zollar said in an interview earlier this year. “Some things that are going on currently make it more directly onto the stage than others, but my intent is to make work that moves people.”

Tufts will award Zollar an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.