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╬Teaching the world to be a bush'

Urban Bush Women combines dance and music to spread their message of female empowerment. They also hold workshops on movement, song and dance in each city they visit.
By Lindsay Walker
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday March 27, 2003

Almost every type of performance group has a purpose, a mission, a goal that they set out to achieve. There are groups whose intent is to entertain and get the audience laughing. There are groups who hope to spark thought among the members of the audience and produce puzzled looks. And then there are those people who want to change the world.

Urban Bush Women, an African/African-American performance art troupe, wants to do it all. Founded in 1984 by Jowale Willa Jo Zollar, Urban Bush Women has a mission all its own and holds onto this mission for dear life. Fusing the arts of music, dance and storytelling, Urban Bush Women seeks to not only bring its culture and heritage to the public eye, but also to shout out a message.

The three words in the name Urban Bush Women indicate what the group stands for. Zollar comes from a very urban community where she has seen minorities, particularly women, being continually suppressed. A bush is something that you can try to cut but continually grows back. Zollar named the group Urban Bush Women because her intent was to show that no matter how many times people are cut off from society, they should relentlessly try to come back, and come back fiercely.

Kwame Ross, the associate artistic director for Urban Bush Women, describes the group as successful in its quest to reach communities with a strong message.

"[Urban Bush Women is] a social, political voice that moves in ways that can truly touch humanity, that speaks through the body, that speaks through the familiar," he said. "It has a way of airing out dirty laundry, sometimes in a very raw way; yet within that rawness, there's a gentleness also there."

Urban Bush Women achieves this communication in many ways. First of all, the organization has an institute in Tallahassee, Florida called "New Dance for a New Society." Here the group and others teach dancers traditional and contemporary dance. One of the major points of training is to show the dancers how to become part of their community and share their art form with their community.

The group also shares its convictions with others simply through its actual on-stage performances. "Shadow's Child," the work that Urban Bush Women will be performing tonight at 7:30 at Centennial Hall, is about a young girl who moves from Mozambique to America. The piece is essentially about learning to find yourself even though the world around you may be cold, unfamiliar and seemingly hopeless; these are key components to the group's message.

Ross hopes that audiences will apply to themselves what they see in the performances.

"[I hope audiences] allow themselves to look at the work with another possibility of exploring the landscape of creativity, and exploring the possibilities that you can do it too, that it's not just about a dancer being a dancer, or a type of person being a dancer, but it's about really breaking away the norms to see themselves in the work."

One of the most important ways that Urban Bush Women hopes to connect its audience to its art is to do lots of residency work in the area of its performances. The members of the group do various workshops and activities to involve the community in their work. Sometimes they gather in a circle with people from the community and teach the group African songs, and in return, they ask the group to teach them songs. Some members run master classes or dance workshops to show others how to move like they do on stage. While in Tucson, the group has already held and will continue to hold classes and workshops for specific groups like high school students and "Big Brothers/Big Sisters."

However, any group can do residency work. One of the unique aspects of Urban Bush Women's work is that the group really strives to "know the community."

Anthea Scouffas, Community Engagement Director for UApresents, believes that this is integral to the group's success.

"The Urban Bush Women ... interrelate with the people they meet in each community they are in," she said. "They don't just pop in for a class and pop out; there is a real person-to-person quality to all of their interactions."

Ross says that much of the time, Urban Bush Women picks residency work that will conform to the particular community for whom it is performing. For example, if the group is in a community with many unwed mothers or teenage pregnancies, it likes to put on the workshop "Rhythm and You," which emphasizes the rhythm inside every person and how to find it.

Ross believes that the heart of Urban Bush Women's work is within the communities, interacting with the people as individuals and demonstrating that every person is important.

"It's very much about coming in and listening to the community, not telling them to listen to us."

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