Jawole Willa Jo Zollar has used the power of dance to tell heartfelt, transformational stories throughout her entire career.
The Florida State University professor’s own story was honored by The Bessies —the Tony Awards of the dance world — as she received the 2017 NY Dance and Performance Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance during a ceremony Monday night in New York City.
Zollar founded the celebrated New York dance company Urban Bush Women in 1984 and then joined the faculty of the FSU School of Dance in 1997. She is the recipient of numerous accolades for her work as a dancer and choreographer, and she is a Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State, the highest honor given by the FSU faculty to one of its own.
“Any time you get an award that is voted on by your peers, it really means a lot,” Zollar said. “The company has been around 33 years now, and that’s no small feat to keep a company alive and productive. It means a lot to be recognized for not only sustaining a company but for the good work that we’ve done.”
Like thousands of young girls, the Kansas City native grew up taking dance lessons at a local studio. It wasn’t until her college days at the University of Missouri at Kansas City that she realized she could major in dance. It was then that a whole world of possibility opened up for Zollar.
“I realized how rigorous and serious studying the discipline is — like when people major in music or theater,” Zollar said. “You’re doing more than learning how to execute the form. You’re learning philosophy and aesthetics and critical thinking and design — all of those things play a part in how a choreographer thinks.”
She went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in dance at UMKC before arriving at Florida State in 1975 to pursue a Master’s in Fine Arts. She studied under longtime FSU dance department chair Nancy Smith Fichter, who is now retired.
Fichter said while she knew Zollar was extraordinarily diverse in all of her gifts and talents, it was the stretch of her imagination that really stood out.
“You can be proficient in a lot of ways, but if you don’t have that unusually active and continuously growing imagination, it doesn’t amount to much,” Fichter said. “She wasn’t the traditional, perfect ballet or modern dancer. She was much more than that, she was beyond that.”
Florida State had been integrated in 1962, but Zollar said race relations were still fairly hostile. She credits Fichter for creating an inclusive environment at the School of Dance.
“When I listened to the stories of my friends who were in other departments, I realized I was having this completely different experience,” Zollar said. “It was very warm, welcoming and accepting, and at the same time challenging me to find my uniqueness. It was embracing.”
Fichter encouraged Zollar to find a way to tell those stories through dance and use them as a catalyst for social change.
“She really helped me to process and understand this was the world I was living in, but I could have an impact — I could make my art,” Zollar said.
That was Zollar’s goal when she founded Urban Bush Women 33 years ago — to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance.
“We’ve come a long way in many ways, yet the fact that we haven’t really told these histories keeps a lot of troubling things under the surface,” Zollar said. “I think it’s important for our country to tell its history.”
Fichter lauded Zollar’s involvement in social justice.
“She really doesn’t draw a line between her work as an artist and her work as a human being who is interested in reconciliation and bringing the world together,” Fichter said.
When Fichter lured Zollar back to Tallahassee to join the Florida State faculty in 1997, the 1979 alumna said it was the thrill of a lifetime to continue the legacy of teaching.
“What I love about teaching is helping each student find the unique gift they possess,” Zollar said. “They have a unique point of view, a unique set of gifts that they bring to the table.”
As she continues to teach at FSU and create works with Urban Bush Women, Zollar is clear that she isn’t looking for cookie-cutter dancers.
“I’m looking for creative thinking and critical thinking,” Zollar said. “I’m interested in people who are engaged in the world and who want to have a sense of impact on the world through their art.”
And, while a lifetime achievement award may signal a swansong for some, Zollar said she is just getting started.
“They’ll just have to give me another one in another 20 years,” she said.