On The Ground: Urban Bush Women and the Shapes We Know

For a new initiative called On The Ground, the Dance Presenting Series engaged five Chicago-based writers to be present for week-long residencies by companies at the Dance Center. In addition to performances, the writers also attend activities such as community workshops, discussions with students, and master classes. Zachary Whittenburg reflects here on Urban Bush Women’s latest visit to Chicago and the Dance Center, February 25–March 2, 2019.


On a Monday morning, half a dozen artists from Urban Bush Women (UBW) guest-teach Advanced Contemporary Technique to about two dozen students, faculty, and community members, assembled onstage at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. The class progresses along lines familiar to most who’ve recently worked in the field. “Follow the leader” is the rule for low-impact, standing exercises designed to lubricate trunk-adjacent joints; participants are asked to make small, circular movements of their hips and shoulders. Phrasework on the floor, sequenced through supine and sitting positions, gives way to standing, traveling phrasework comprising rhythmic patterns of gliding steps and slow turns on one leg.

Three-year-old Aminata Mariama Balde Top toddles up the aisle near where I’m sitting, then back down. She wears a grey T-shirt printed with the words “SHAPES I KNOW” above six captioned examples: circle, square, triangle, heart, star, and moon. Aminata’s mother, UBW associate artistic director Samantha Speis, is one of two lead choreographers of the evening-length touring production Hair & Other Stories (2018), three performances of which are the centerpiece of this Brooklyn-based company’s Chicago visit; the other choreographer is UBW associate artistic director Chanon Judson, who’s leading the last part of the class.

“When you’re off to the side, that’s when you can go through [the phrase] for sequence,” Judson advises the students. “When you’re inside of it, that’s when you can do your mapping. You can map for all sorts of things — map for focus, map for inspiration.” Judson invites the dancers to seek threads that bind together these disparate actions. “Find an item in this movement that’s connective tissue for you.” Then, encouraging the dancers to push beyond their comfort zones: “Find the thing that feels like a reach for you.”


That Monday afternoon, Judson and UBW apprentice Cyrah Ward are with a dozen students for another class, Teaching I, which begins with the students introducing themselves and voicing a current point of interest. Haley is interested in “tactile movement and contact improvisation.” Orlando is interested in “introducing a new technique to a person, and them feeling comfortable within that movement.” Britney is interested in “keeping students in the room engaged, especially if there are a lot of distractions.” Associate professor Dardi McGinley-Gallivan, who typically leads the Teaching I class, “definitely would love to get more information about that first engagement with a new group of students.”

Through first verbal, then movement-based tasks, Judson and Ward stress the importance of active decision-making when the goal is to elicit an active response. “Remember,” says Judson, “you’re not abandoning your own exploration to be in partnership with someone else. The juice of the partnership is going to come from you being rooted in your own exploration.” These words — plus quotes from Frantz Fanon, Nia Love, and UBW alumna nora chipaumire, handwritten on an oversized pad of paper — seem to help the students find moments of specificity as they cross the studio, two by two, improvising solos along parallel paths. “The shape is the truth of your statement,” Judson calls out. “See the ways you can navigate that statement through the room…all the places you can go with that anchor as a place of truth.”

Teaching I students at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. Photo by Zachary Whittenburg.

Teaching I students at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. Photo by Zachary Whittenburg.


Monday’s activities conclude with a “Hair Party” hosted by the Black Student Union at The Loft. I’ll learn later that this “Hair Party” previews many of the scenes in Hair & Other Stories, and I’ll be struck retroactively by the ease with which the work in performance maps to a workshop setting. This 90-minute session is impressively generative; UBW artists Courtney Cook, Ross Daniel, and Tendayi Kuumba ask a mix of students in dance, theater, and other subjects to spitball lists of hairstyles they’ve worn, of their earliest memories of images of beauty, of the core values they’ve brought with them into the space.

The long list of hairstyles — I counted 39 — is, of course, also a list of shapes one might recognize even if only seen in silhouette: Afro, bob, Mohawk, pigtails, Bantu knots, box braids, dookie braids, dreadlocks. “We might rock the same style but call it two different things depending on where you grew up,” Kuumba notes, and it goes without saying that certain shapes travel with copious baggage to certain places.

Cook asks the students to pull out their identification cards and focus on the way their hair appears in the card’s photo. “What led to your hair looking the way that it does? Pair up and tell your neighbor what was going on with your hair that day.”

One student recalls her look was the result of heat, anxiety, and a “swoop” to her haircut; UBW artists encircle her immediately and strike three cartoonishly exaggerated positions.

“I’ll be the heat!”
“I’ll be the swoop!”
“I’ll be the anxiety!”

Urban Bush Women artists Ross Daniel, Courtney Cook, and Tendayi Kuumba, from left, with Columbia College Chicago students for a “Hair Party” at The Loft, hosted by the Black Student Union. Photo by Zachary Whittenburg.

Urban Bush Women artists Ross Daniel, Courtney Cook, and Tendayi Kuumba, from left, with Columbia College Chicago students for a “Hair Party” at The Loft, hosted by the Black Student Union. Photo by Zachary Whittenburg.

Momentum builds in the room as the party’s call-and-response finds its rhythm, gently and expertly conducted to a crescendo by Cook, Daniel, and Kuumba. I don’t even notice who turns on the music (a Claptone Remix of Gregory Porter’s “Liquid Spirit”), or when, but before long, the entire group is on its feet, following along to a simple pattern with a 90-degree rotation after each set, à la the “Electric Slide.” The call rings out: “Where are you going?” The response follows: “To the beyond!” And then, in time with the music, the dancing group sings together:

The beyond is over here
The beyond is over there
Said it’s right here
And it’s one-two-three now turn it out


Beginning around noon on Tuesday, bodies of all sizes squeeze into the translucent Thought Barn at Sweet Water Foundation, situated between Washington Park and the Dan Ryan Expressway. Most are young students from the nearby Chicago Free School in Hyde Park–Kenwood; Columbia and Sweet Water staff members and volunteers, artists of UBW and Chicago’s Red Clay Dance, and others fill in the corners and crannies around a modular dance floor, made of four-sided half-hexagons, handbuilt by artists convened by Project Tool choreographer Onye Ozuzu, former dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts at Columbia College Chicago.

The Thought Barn at Sweet Water Foundation. Photo by Zachary Whittenburg.

The Thought Barn at Sweet Water Foundation. Photo by Zachary Whittenburg.

Repeating a mantra delivered by Kuumba the night before during the “Hair Party,” Judson informs the kids (and the grownups) that “Safe space doesn’t mean comfortable space,” as she uses her fingertips to toss droplets of water from a mason jar like a benediction. “We clap our hands, we stomp our feet, we lift our voices because we are able,” Judson intones. “Each of you is charged with being present and that’s how we get collective action. And collective action is how we get change.” Heavy stuff for kids in primary school but they’re right there with Judson, rapt, as well as with Du’Bois A’Keen, another company member, male, wielding a tambourine and wearing a T-shirt that says “KEEN THINKER.”

The week so far has revealed all of the UBW company members to be exceptionally strong singers but especially A’Keen and Kuumba, both blessed with bright, pitch-perfect voices that, like nets of golden thread, collect the attentions of everyone present. (Judson will later touch upon UBW’s relationship with Bernice Johnson Reagon’s Sweet Honey in the Rock, initiated in 1997 via the dance company’s Summer Leadership Institute.) “We put our voices into space and we change the molecules in the space,” Judson says. “This was very necessary technology during the civil rights movement, when folks didn’t always know who was going to walk into the room and what their energy was going to be. They were creating resistance in the space with their voices — arming the space with what they needed to be surrounded with.” Then, to connect that past with our present, Judson reminds the students of their power to shape space and themselves: “We will leave this room differently than we came into it.” We file out of the pleasantly toasty Thought Barn and back into a frigid February.

Urban Bush Women artists with Chicago Free School students in the Thought Barn at Sweet Water Foundation, from left: Du'Bois A'Keen, Love Muwwakkil, Cyrah Ward, and Chanon Judson. Photo by Zachary Whittenburg.

Urban Bush Women artists with Chicago Free School students in the Thought Barn at Sweet Water Foundation, from left: Du'Bois A'Keen, Love Muwwakkil, Cyrah Ward, and Chanon Judson. Photo by Zachary Whittenburg.


It’s fascinating to see how many elements of the week’s residency activities reappear, with varying degrees of modification, in the two-hour-plus stage production of Hair & Other Stories. In many ways, it’s a workshop-as-performance (or performance-as-workshop), explicitly informed by UBW’s engagement with the Undoing Racism® curriculum, developed by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. A growing number of Chicago arts and cultural organizations have board and staff members who’ve participated in these intensive sessions, including mandatory trainings for all Columbia faculty and staff; recently some have turned to the nonprofit Crossroads as an alternate provider, which since 2011 has operated locally via C-ROAR (Chicago Regional Organizing for Anti-Racism). Programmatically, there are numerous examples of institutional responses to this movement, such as pathways for people of color toward administrative and creative leadership, and resources earmarked for underrepresented artists and forms of expression. Curatorially, race and racism are frequently the subject matter of live performances across disciplines; some weeks it seems shows that don’t address race are in the minority.

Urban Bush Women in  Hair & Other Stories,  from performance at Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans. Photo by James Morgan Owens .

Urban Bush Women in Hair & Other Stories, from performance at Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans. Photo by James Morgan Owens.

Safe space doesn’t mean comfortable space.

Historically, racism is a constant shape-shifter, making it hard to see for some who benefit from it — or easy enough for them to ignore. Hair & Other Stories belongs to the lineage of creative works that opt in response to shine a light brightly and steadily at that insidious, omnipresent chameleon. As with the similarly multidisciplinary, participatory works of genderqueer performer Taylor Mac, your experience of the work will be definitively different from another’s in direct relation to any differences in your gender identification, race, age, or physical ability. I do not stand or follow other instructions directed by the performers only to women of color in the audience, nor do I follow any instructions directed by the performers to women who identify as white. In fact, there are no directives in Hair & Other Stories designed for people who identify as I do, which is perfectly fine for two reasons. One, I don’t typically throw myself at audience-interactive performances anyway; I will participate to the extent that I must to advance the action, but not usually more. Two, I, as a cisgendered white male, seldom find myself unaccounted for in the way that so many others do, so I find it instructive to not be accommodated for a change. I spend that time thinking about how it might feel to be rarely if ever adequately accommodated, and about how that might change me as a person — how indeed it might change the way I understand the world completely.

As impressive and effective as the artists of Urban Bush Women showed themselves to be in prior days in diverse environments, onstage in performance is obviously where they thrive. Like clay in their hands, we in their audience are reshaped: separated and recombined, flattened, rolled into a ball, hollowed out to form a vessel, filled and emptied and refilled.


Zachary Whittenburg spent ten years as a professional dancer with companies including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, BJM Danse Montréal, and Pacific Northwest Ballet, later freelancing with Lucky Plush Productions, Same Planet Performance Project, and Molly Shanahan / Mad Shak, among others. Dance Editor at Time Out Chicago magazine from 2009–12, Whittenburg has written for numerous publications and contributes regularly to Dance Magazine. He has guest-lectured and led workshops at colleges and universities across the U.S., in addition to hosting special events for the Auditorium Theatre, the Chicago Humanities Festival, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, and See Chicago Dance. As Associate Director of Marketing and Communication at Hubbard Street, he represented the company on the Chicago Dancemakers Forum consortium, and he was most recently Communications and Engagement Director at Arts Alliance Illinois. Whittenburg is a founding board member for the Chicago Dance History Project and a member of the artistic advisory council for High Concept Labs.