Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

Choreographer and Dance Entrepreneur Class of 2021
Portrait of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

Using the power of dance and artistic expression to celebrate the voices of Black women and promote civic engagement and community organizing.

About Jawole's Work

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is a choreographer and dance entrepreneur who has forged a style of dance-making and artistic leadership that tethers dance to cultural identity, civic engagement, community organizing, and imperatives of social justice. Zollar is the founder and visioning partner of the performance ensemble Urban Bush Women (UBW), which she founded in 1984. Through community building, leadership development, and a body of work exploring the culture of African Americans and the African diaspora, she has created a sustainable movement and organization that centers the perspectives of Black women.

Zollar’s choreographic works often include spoken or sung text, and her movement vocabulary mixes elements from postmodern, modern, and Africanist dance styles. In such pieces as SCAT! (2018), an autobiographical musical set during the Great Migration, and Batty Moves (1995), a provocative and joyful exploration of the Black female body, Zollar constructs narratives that celebrate Black culture and promote community advancement. At the same time, UBW exemplifies a deep commitment to social change through cultural expression. Many of its works address important contemporary issues. Shelter (1989) delves into homelessness and displacement, and Visible (2011) focuses on the immigrant’s search for home and a sense of self. Zollar’s artistic practice includes engagement with community—both place-based communities and the community of dancers with whom she works—through residencies, workshops, and mentoring/education forums. The 2001 piece Dixwell grew out of a series of residencies and workshops led by Zollar and members of her company in the Dixwell neighborhood of New Haven, where they recorded oral histories and worked with local artists to understand the history of the community. Hair Stories is a multimedia work about notions of beauty, gender, and body image that has continued to evolve since its inception in 2001. It incorporates personal stories from participants at workshops in churches and community centers across the country. Walking with ‘Trane (2015) is a deep dive into the life, music, and legacy of John Coltrane. It continues her commitment to exploring jazz music and the pedagogies inherent in its theoretical frameworks for dancers and choreographers.

Zollar is also deeply invested in holistic leadership development. UBW dancers contribute to other facets of the organization to grow professionally and build equity both on and off stage. Zollar draws on UBW’s experiences with community engagement at the Summer Leadership Institute, which highlights values that center a community organizing approach—such as asset mapping to enter and exit a community—to help strengthen artists’ cultural organizing abilities, and foster awareness of social issues. In 2013, Zollar founded the UBW Choreographic Center Initiative (CCI). She designed CCI to be both a research center focused on Black women and their role in society as well as a development program for choreographers who are women of color. CCI brings attention and support to artists through alliances with individuals and organizations. Zollar is a resonant, ever-evolving testament to the power of artistic practice, and her authentic and impactful mode of community engagement echoes in many choreographers and artistic companies’ work today.


Jawole Willa Jo Zollar received a BA (1975) from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and an MFA (1979) from Florida State University. In 1984, she founded Urban Bush Women (UBW), where she continues to serve as the founder and visioning partner and director of UBW’s Summer Leadership Institute. Zollar also serves as the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor and Nancy Smith Fichter Professor of Dance in the School of Dance at Florida State University. In addition to the works she has created for UBW, Zollar has produced work for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, Taylor Mac, and many universities. Her company has performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, and Kennedy Center, among other venues.

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In Jawole's Words


Black woman in white clothing with one arm gesturing forward. Text below photo: Movement is the foundation of life. Dance takes this human imperative to an expressive imperative that supports our ability to make meaning and deepen our understanding of this world.


Movement is the foundation of life. Dance takes this human imperative to an expressive imperative that supports our ability to make meaning and deepen our understanding of this world. Through this lens I work to build leadership, choreograph new works, and create strategies for community engagement and organizing. I am inspired by how, when, and under what circumstances people move.  It is never ending. As I said in a 1989 work I choreographed for Urban Bush Women, I Don’t Know But I Been Told If You Keep On Dancing You Never Grow Old.

Published on September 28, 2021

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