Dance, at its core, is beautiful rhythm and movement; however, for dancer and choreographer Vershawn Sanders Ward, founder of Red Clay Dance Company, it is also a powerful and inspirational art form whose purpose goes beyond entertainment. “Dance can bring to [both] young people and adults, self-esteem, confidence-building, self-advocacy, and of course, the health and physical benefits of movement and expression.”
Red Clay Dance, now in its 7th year, is based in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood; next month, for one night only, the company will present a series of works at a fall concert entitled #SayHerName. Here, Ward discusses the concert, dance as a tool for development, and the disparity of dance and the arts in Chicago.
Black Chicago Woman: Red Clay Dance is now in its seventh year; what has made you the most proud about the company’s growth and place in the community?
Vershawn Sanders Ward: I’m most proud of the different communities that we’ve been able to impact in Chicago. We’re primarily based in and work on the South side but we have also worked in schools and community centers on the North side and the West side. I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve been able to come into these communities and bring high quality art right to their doorstep so they don’t have to travel far to experience it, watch it, or learn it. I’m really grateful we’ve been able to make that kind of impact, that people see us as a community resource and as we move forward, we’re now looking to grow our national and international and presence and brand into other communities outside of Chicago.
Black Chicago Woman: As part of Chicago’s dance community, how would you describe the city’s status in the world of dance and the arts, in general?
Vershawn Sanders Ward: I think the city’s dance scene is very diverse and robust. There’s a lot going on in a lot of the different spaces in the traditional theater, but also in some non-traditional spaces. I think Chicago has a lot to offer for any artist coming into the city who’s looking to create dance or be a part of a dance organization, but it’s just [a matter of] how do we, across the board, tell the audience to support the work so that people see dance as an art form that’s worthy of being supported just like music or visual art or theater? Again, I think it’s a very robust community, but to be honest, if there was more support equally amongst some of the mainstream dance organizations and maybe more culturally-specific organizations—I feel like there’s still a disparity in the city in that regard. And I think that this is a national conversation; this is definitely not just in Chicago. Sometimes, the neighborhood and racial lines are drawn very clearly in this city and it affects the dance community. I’m looking to see how we can continue to try to gray those lines and build in some equity for all dance organizations regardless of their size or the type of work they produce.
Black Chicago Woman: What is important to note is that you give back to the community by holding open dance classes for a nominal fee. How have these sessions fared for Red Clay Dance?
Vershawn Sanders Ward: This is really our third year of pushing our own dance classes and programs outside of other organizations. When we first started, we were housed inside of other non-profits like youth centers and such and we are now going into our third year with our partnership at Fuller Park. We’re now able to offer programs in our own space and so part of that work has been really getting into the community and finding out where the audience is and where the people are that want to take dance. For me, that work just continues to grow and it builds our audience overall, giving them an appreciation for dance.
Black Chicago Woman: Your fall concert, entitled #SayHerName, is inspired by the social media movement surrounding the death of Sandra Bland; however, it also a tribute to the diversity and the general plight of black women across the diaspora. Tell us more about it.
Vershawn Sanders Ward: I’m excited about this concert. It’s so important that the experience and the life that we live as black women in Chicago and outside of it, is heard and seen—and that our stories are told and people understand the complexity of what it’s like to have agency in our bodies, to really be able to stand in who we are as educated women, and as women with dreams and hopes and aspirations. When you look at Sandra Bland, it’s just having that agency and knowing that regardless of historically what people have said about black women, we have something to say and we are really the backbone of our community. That’s what I’m excited to celebrate and to uplift in this concert.
Black Chicago Woman: Will any other works that will be presented at #SayHerName?
Vershawn Sanders Ward: We have a new work, DevelopMino, that’s being choreographed by Amansu Eason, a young, up-and-coming choreographer from Gary, Indiana. His work is about the Amazon warrior women of Dahomey, and just looking at how strong those women were and the sacrifices they made to be able to protect a kingdom, I think about women today, and the sacrifices that we make to protect our communities.
Black Chicago Woman: What do you want audiences to take away from a Red Clay Dance Company experience?
Vershawn Sanders Ward: My hope is that people walk away enlightened to the beauty and power that the art form of dance can bring to everyone’s lives, whether it’s through performance or taking a class or watching it on video. There’s a need to continue to support this art form and particularly, there’s a need to support minority and black companies so that we can continue to survive and exist and give back to the communities we come from. I want people to walk away with a feeling of connectivity, responsibility, and agency, knowing that our history is important and us telling our own stories is important.
Red Clay Dance Company’s #SayHerName will be performed Saturday, Nov. 14 at 7:30pm at Rich South High School, in south suburban Richton Park; for tickets and other information, please visit the website.
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