Pure ‘genius’: FSU Dance’s Jawole Willa Jo Zollar named 2021 MacArthur Fellow

Photo courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, a professor at FSU’s School of Dance and founder of Urban Bush Women (UBW). Photo courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Florida State University’s Jawole Willa Jo Zollar has received the 2021 MacArthur Fellowship — also known as the “genius grant” — for using the power of dance and artistic expression to celebrate the voices of Black women and promote civic engagement and community organizing.

Zollar, a professor at FSU’s School of Dance and founder of Urban Bush Women (UBW), will receive the $625,000, a no-strings-attached award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, granted to talented individuals in a variety of fields who have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits. She is the first FSU faculty member to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.

“We are thrilled that Professor Jawole Willa Jo Zollar has been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship,” said FSU President Richard McCullough. “She is a national treasure and so deserving of this prestigious grant that recognizes exceptional creativity.”

Over the past 12 months, Zollar’s work, through UBW, has also received backing from The Ford Foundation and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

“This is an incredible honor for Jawole,” said Sally McRorie, provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs. “Florida State University is privileged to have such an extraordinary artist, educator and humanitarian as our colleague, friend, devoted teacher and mentor.”

Zollar founded the celebrated New York dance company Urban Bush Women in 1984 and joined the faculty of the FSU School of Dance in 1997.

“Professor Zollar has made a truly distinctive mark as an artist and a leader,” said James Frazier, dean of the College of Fine Arts. “The MacArthur Fellowship is a profound and well-deserved honor, the result of decades of commitment to her vision of the Urban Bush Women and her stellar accomplishments as the founding artistic director of the ensemble and as a celebrated choreographer of iconic dances that resonate with emotional integrity and prioritize resilience and transcendence.”

Urban Bush Women’s “I Don’t Know, but I Been Told, If You Keep on Dancin’ You Never Grow Old” | Photo Credit: Ian Douglas
Urban Bush Women’s “I Don’t Know, but I Been Told, If You Keep on Dancin’ You Never Grow Old” | Photo Credit: Ian Douglas.

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. UBW is known for its ability to weave contemporary dance, music, and text with the history, culture and spiritual traditions of the African Diaspora. The company galvanizes artists, activists, audiences and communities through performances, artist development, education and community engagement.

“Movement is the foundation of life,” Zollar said. “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.”

This summer, Zollar’s UBW received a $3 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott — one of 286 high-impact contributions from Scott, part of $2.7 billion in donations, given to organizations and communities that have been historically underfunded. And, in October 2020, UBW received a seven-figure award from the Ford Foundation as part of an initiative to recognize Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous arts organizations negatively impacted by COVID-19.

Throughout her career, Zollar has also received numerous accolades, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009 and the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Award at Florida State, the highest honor given by the FSU faculty to one of its own. In October, she will also be presented with Dance Teacher magazine’s 2021 Award of Distinction, which is given to outstanding educators for their contributions to their field.

“We, at FSU, are exceedingly fortunate to count her among our own because she is equally committed to her work as a faculty member, bringing to bear the breadth and depth of her thriving professional experience to her engagement with students and with faculty colleagues,” Frazier said.

For more information, visit https://www.urbanbushwomen.org/ or https://www.macfound.org/fellows/class-of-2021/jawole-willa-jo-zollar.