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La Femme Dance Festival celebrates black choreographers in ‘dancestry’ program

Choreographer Jasmin Williams (left) talks with dancer Talia Koylass during rehearsal at Harris Park. Williams' work "The Open" will be presented this weekend as part of Le Femme Dance Festival. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

About five years ago, Red Clay Dance Company founder Vershawn Sanders-Ward realized she was repeating herself. “I started noticing that I kept having the same conversation with my peers. That the same issue kept coming up: There was a lack of support for our work. A lack of opportunities for marginalized voices. And by our work and marginalized voices I specifically mean black women,” Sanders-Ward said, during a recent chat.

With Red Clay’s 3rd Biennial La Femme Dance Festival, Sanders-Ward gives those voices opportunities to blossom. Running March 14 – 16 in Washington Park’s Green Line Performing Arts Center, Femme Fest spotlights the creations of five female choreographers of Black/African or Diaspora/African descent. By honoring African “dancestry” (dance plus history plus ancestors), Red Clay amps up its commitment to spotlighting dances that began in the myriad nations of the African continent, spread across the planet via the slave trade and evolved through generations to influence everyone from the Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women to Chicago’s Hiplets to superstar ballerina Misty Copeland.

Red Clay Dance Company’s 3rd Biennial La Femme Dance Festival

When: March 14 – 16

Where: Green Line Performing Arts Center, 329 E. Garfield Blvd.

Tickets: Suggested $10 donation

For more info:

We caught up with all five Femme Festival choreographers last week. Here’s what they had to say about their work, history, identity and what it means to claim your own space in the world.

Brittany Chanel Winters | Provided
Brittany Chanel Winters | Provided

Brittany Chanel Winters

From: Bronzeville

Training: Chicago Academy of the Arts, University of Illinois

Femme Festival presentation: “Yemaya Dela Diaspora”

— On her Femme Festival entry:

“The title comes from Yemaya, an African Goddess who represents the ocean and motherhood. I see mothers as being preservers of African and Caribbean culture.”

— On training in ballet and discovering West Indian folk dance:

“Ballet is more upright. African dance is more bending, it’s more about ground and being down, almost like a groove. With ballet, I felt like I had to change everything about me – my hair was too thick to get into a bun, my body was too athletic and not, like, status quo ballerina.

“My whole world changed when I went to a class at (Chicago’s) West Indian Folk Dance Company. It transformed me. I felt free.”

— On the intersection of art and activism:

“I’m not a vocal person. I don’t speak a lot. I’m more of a mover. When my cousin (Pierre Loury) was killed (by Chicago police in 2016) I felt like I had so much to say. I created a dance to respond to that. A lot of it hurt. But when I made dance, I felt powerful. It felt like I could tell my story instead of having somebody else tell what they think is my story.”

— On what she’d tell her younger self today:

“Everybody belongs. Our voices are as powerful as everyone else’s. Our stories deserve to be shared.”

Lindsay Renea Benton | Shoccara Marcus Photo
Lindsay Renea Benton | Shoccara Marcus Photo


From: Youngstown, Ohio

Training: Howard University, Jacksonville University

Femme Festival Presentation: “What U See/What U Get”

— On getting guidance from Harry Belafonte

“I heard him speak at Howard – I asked him how he decided to be an artist and an activist. He said it wasn’t a choice. That there was no separation, that they were one and the same. That resonated. I was inspired to create a piece about Mike Brown (the 18-year-old shot to death in 2014 by Ferguson police) For me, there’s no point of putting something on stage if I have nothing to say.”

— On the male gaze in dance

“It’s extremely important our stories are told and that there is a female perspective in the narration. In dance, the male voice is extremely loud and always present. Given a choice, I don’t know how many women would choose to dance in a corset for a two-hour ballet. I remember being told at Howard that in dance, women are expected to be the smallest possible versions of themselves. As women begin to have more opportunities in dance, we develop a stronger and more realistic understanding of who we are.”

— On dancing off stage

“There are definitely times when I go out and act the fool at the clubs. And there are definitely times when I tell my students, ‘I need you do this like you’re not in the studio. Dance like your grandma would. Let loose.’”

Jasmin Williams | Ron Himes Photo
Jasmin Williams | Ron Himes Photo


From: Chicago

Training: Indiana University, Dance Theater of Harlem, Hubbard Street Dance, Lou Conte Dance Studio, Claire Bataille

Femme Festival Presentation: “The Open”

—On bringing Chicago flair to the Femme Fest:

“I’m a black girl from the South Side of Chicago. There’s a certain type of way you’d see people dancing if you grew up on the South Side when I did, late 1990s, early 2000s. We’d go to these juke parties – house parties – where you’d see African-influenced moves but mixed with this Midwestern, modern feel. I call it ‘Chicago flair.’”

— On why being selected for Femme Fest is a big deal:

“Women possess things of great value that are often undervalued. When we get our own space, it’s a way of honoring our value.”

— On what she’d tell young, black dancers:

“Don’t apologize for the space that you take up. I’m a very big person. I have a big personality. I have different artistic focusses. And that’s ok, just like it’s ok to be small and quiet. If I could talk to my younger self, I’d say ‘Don’t be afraid of the space you take up.’

“I’d also tell them that there are so many things that are consistently driving us, as black women. There’s a lot of doing in the world, as opposed to just being in the world. It’s important for us to know that it’s ok to just be.”

— On the title of her piece:

“I see it as being about strength and vulnerability. You have to have both – I don’t see vulnerability as a weakness. To me, being truthful and finding out who you are, that takes vulnerability. And that kind of vulnerability – knowing yourself – that makes you strong.”

— On her influences:

“All the biggies have motivated me. Josephine Baker. Martha Graham. I definitely stand for Misty Copeland. She’s not the first black ballerina, but she’s the first African-American woman to do a damn thing at American Ballet Theater.”

L. Graciella Maiolatesi | Rohaan Unvala Photo
L. Graciella Maiolatesi | Rohaan Unvala Photo

L. Graciella Maiolatesi

From: Amherst, Massachusetts

Training: Denison University, Temple University

Femme Festival presentation: “Slow Burning”

— On the title of her piece:

“It’s about black women who are left out of conversations about lynching in America. A lot of it was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, and as a modern-day exploration on the violence that is repeatedly being visited on the black female body. I saw a map of lynchings in the early part of the 20th century. There’s a little dot every place one took place. Whole states seemed to disappear under those dots. I started thinking, ‘We always talk about lynching in terms of men. But you can’t tell me that all the violence didn’t impact women as well.’”

— On how her piece addresses the impact of violence on black women:

“We do this in a few ways. We name women who have been lynched, as a way to pay homage. I call on my dancers — and the audience — to do some reflection. Sometimes I’ll ask them to react to specific words: Woods. Unmarked grave. Sometimes I have them push further physically until we’ve got a movement or a pattern.”

— On how dance has helped her find herself:

“I’ve used dance to explore my identity as a queer, black femme. When I create dances, it allows me to step into that identity. And to explore the intersectionality of art. One of my mentors was Kariamu Welsh. She continually told me to ‘dare to be.’ I was adopted by a white family. And I was a bigger kid. There was a lot of bullying about my size and my race. Mama Kariamu helped me own who I was. She was like, ‘Take up the space you deserve.’ And I did.”

Marceias Scruggs | Genotype Photography
Marceias Scruggs | Genotype Photography

Marceia L. Scruggs

From: Markham, Illinois

Training: Columbia College

Femme Festival presentation: ‘Rebuke It”

— On how the church influences her choreography:

“My [dance] partner and I were doing some improv movement work. We got to a place where he was on his knees, almost in a pleading position. I was standing over him, kind of covering him. The church is the core of a lot of black culture, and I was a praise dancer in middle school, so that came to mind when we were working. But it isn’t a literal ‘I’m rebuking a demon’ thing. I think of the title as a rebuking of the things that stand in our way. Of the things we have to dismiss if we’re going to move forward in our lives.”

— On her training:

“As I kid I loved dancing, but I didn’t have the resources to go to a studio to train. I used what I had – I did praise dancing, then I was on the cheerleading team. I did a lot of musical theater in (Thornwood) high school (in South Holland). As a dance major at Columbia, we were required to study both modern and ballet and electives. The primary emphasis of my study is modern and ballet. I’ve had so many influences. I’ve always loved Michael Jackson, I look up to all of Urban Bush Women’s work.

— On the language of dance:

“Rhythms are naturally in our bodies. They’re in the noises our feet make, and in the sound of breath. Your body is naturally speaking when you dance. I have moments in my work where I use words or sounds or phrases. I want to explore – how does breath translate into a rhythmic sound? Into a conversation?”

— On her hopes for audiences:

“I want audiences to experiences themselves in my work. A lot of the choreography I do deals with my experiences. But with the audience, we’re on a journey together. It’s not like I want them just to witness my performance. I want to be like we’re on this journey together.”

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

Talia Koylass rehearses the contemporary dance of choreographer Jasmin Williams at Harris Park for the La Femme Dance Festival. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times
Talia Koylass rehearses the contemporary dance of choreographer Jasmin Williams at Harris Park for the La Femme Dance Festival. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times