Alumna of the Year

World-renowned dancer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar found her career path at UMKC

All her life, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar danced. As a girl growing up in 1950s and ’60s Kansas City, she took lessons from Joseph Stevenson, a student of American dance legend Katherine Dunham. She performed in musical revues and on a drill team.

But she never considered making dance her life’s work. Until she attended college.

“I didn’t realize that I could major in dance and choose it as a career path until I came to UMKC,” said Zollar, who graduated in 1975 from the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. “Once I decided to major in dance, it was the only career I ever thought about.”

Zollar, one of the most internationally renowned names in dance, is also one of the most decorated. She has won numerous awards and accolades, and in 1984 founded Urban Bush Women (UBW), a performance ensemble based in New York City dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change. Because of her innovation, her trailblazing in the world of dance and her dedication to education and her art, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is the 2014 Alumna of the Year for the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Not bad for a woman who never thought she could make a career in dance.

“There were not a lot of role models – particularly in the ’50s — for dancing professionally,” Zollar said. “It just wasn’t something I even thought was a possibility.”

Zollar’s earliest memories of music were of jazz. Her mother sang and played piano at home. Her father owned a tavern in Kansas City, and she remembers it as a place where people gathered and told stories. She has tried to use that story-telling device as a form in some of her work. And her formative years in Kansas City have informed much of Zollar’s art and work. When she founded Urban Bush Women, she thought of her upbringing.

“I wanted a company that brought forth the vulnerability, sassiness and bodaciousness of the women I experienced growing up in Kansas City,” she said. “My goal was to use those experiences as a vehicle for my choreographic voice.”

Growing up during tumultuous times impacted Zollar deeply. “Kansas City in the late ’60s and early ’70s was a very politicized city,” she said. “The black power movement was coming to the fore.”

She remembers people boldly challenging the status quo and demanding change.

“I saw a very strong black community that had a very strong sense of itself that had been very self-sufficient, that had taken care of itself and was starting to rise up and say, ‘wait a minute, we need to be a part of this picture of Kansas City.’”


She remembers the spirit, style and swing she learned as a girl. “When I grew up in the community, it was a community of possibilities, not a community of despair.”

After leaving Kansas City, Zollar earned a master’s degree in dance from Florida State University. In 1980, she moved to New York City to study with Dianne McIntyre at Sounds in Motion before founding the now-legendary UBW company.

And the honors followed. In 2013, Zollar received the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. She also is a past recipient of a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. She has toured the United States and five continents sharing her works through live performances; a PBS special, “Free to Dance,” which chronicled African-American influence on modern dance; and was a representative of the U.S. State Department’s inaugural cultural diplomacy program. 

Zollar’s career includes performing and creating works for Alvin Ailey and Philadanco, and collaborations with Compagnie Jant-Bi from Senegal and Nora Chipaumire.  She has been designated a Master of African American Choreography by the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center.

Just last month Southern Methodist University named her the winner of its fifth annual Meadows Prize, given to pioneering artists and scholars by the university’s Meadows School of the Arts.

“Jawole’s work with the UBW embodies the incredible impact that innovative artists can have on their communities — an invaluable lesson for our students at the Meadows School and our broader Dallas community,” Meadows dean José Antonio Bowen said.

Zollar developed a unique approach to enable artists to strengthen effective involvement in cultural organizing and civic engagement, which evolved into UBW’s acclaimed Summer Leadership Institute. She serves as director of the Institute, and currently holds the position of the Nancy Smith Fichter Professor of Dance and Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University. 

For Zollar, the remarkable career that started at UMKC and thrives today would not have been possible without her willingness to take risks. She often thinks of advice given to her by one of her mentors, Louis Roberts, who ran the Clark Center dance space in New York City: “You have the right to succeed and the right to fail,” he told her.

“Remembering this advice allows me to take risks and explore unknown territory,” she said.

Zollar’s award, and those of the other alumni honorees, one from each school and the five university-wide awards of distinction, will be presented at the 2014 Alumni Awards luncheon on April 24. For information and tickets for the event, visit the 2014 Alumni Awards web page.


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