Determination and Perseverance: Dance/USA ‘Ernie’ Awardee Ann Williams Builds a Legacy in Dallas
By Danielle Georgiou
The story of Ann Williams begins with a little girl who fell in love with the opera. When she was in the 9th grade, her school took a field trip to the historic Musical Hall at Fair Park to see the Dallas Opera production of Aida. Little Ann had never seen an opera before. She had only recently moved to the big city of Dallas, Texas, from the small town of Mexia, about 90 miles south. Never having the opportunity to dance before, Ann began taking her first class at a local YWCA. From the moment she stepped onto the hardwood floor and smelled the sweet scent of rosin, she implored her parents to let her take as many classes as possible. But after watching the spectacle of Aida, she fell in love.
“Sitting in that … theater, when the curtain opened and the lights came on … the symphony was playing and the set was moving … it was magical! I had never seen anything like it before … but it wasn’t that I wanted to be out there … I wanted to make that happen!” said Williams in our 2014 interview for the Dallas Observer.
This month in Austin, Texas, Williams will receive the Dance/USA Ernie Award for her service to the field. Named after Ernie Horvath, a former dancer, company administrator, and advocate who dedicated his life to the art form, the award goes to an individual working “behind the scenes” of the dance industry. Williams’ tireless dedication to the dance world, Dallas dance, and black dance around the country has empowered young dancers and other administrators to achieve their goals.
Over the past eight years of covering dance in Dallas, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Williams multiple times, most recently in 2014. Nearly two years ago, Williams was in the process of retiring from her position as artistic director of her company, the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and the dance community was already reeling from its loss.
Despite this departure, Williams’ legacy will live on for generations because her methodology is rooted in history, and her drive to create her own company in a city where one like Dallas Black Dance Theatre could not have existed before is inspiring. The impact of her personality and wisdom will be remembered and promoted by her dancers, her peers, and all those who have been trained by her and her successors.
The Williams Effect
She received her early training under Barbara Hollis, who was a member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, Edith James, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. She received additional training from Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell. With such a prestigious lineage, Williams was positioned and determined to become equally as inspiring. But the pathway to what would become her legacy was not yet set in stone — she had to carve it out for herself.
Step one was committing herself to her passion, which lead her to pursue and obtain a bachelor’s degree in dance from Prairie View A&M and master of arts degree in dance and related arts from Texas Woman’s University (TWU) — which was recently listed as the number-one dance school in Texas. She set a precedent at TWU by becoming the first African-American to graduate with a master’s in dance from the university. From there she was inspired to begin a teaching career that would also become one for the books. In 1968, she took a position at Bishop College — now Paul Quinn College — and was charged with the task of creating a dance program at a school that had no basis from which to build one. The environment of Bishop College was not yet ripe for a dance program, or a performing arts program, but Williams was dedicated to bringing the education and passion she found at the YWCA, Prairie View A&M, and TWU to South Dallas, one of the lowest-income communities in the Dallas Metroplex. The community neighboring the college had never before experienced a dance program like she was offering. Williams helped to usher in creative and artistic change. There was barely any semblance of a dance community in Dallas at the time with just one major dance company in the city, the now-defunct Dallas Ballet.
With little support for the art form, Williams pulled off quite the feat when she convinced The Ford Foundation to give money to her fledgling program. Her success inspired the formation of dance departments at almost every local college and university in the city and pushed her toward creating her own company. In 1976, eight years after building the dance program at Bishop College, Williams created the foundation for Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Following in the footsteps of America’s black dance pioneers — from Asadata Dafora to Katherine Dunham to Janet Collins, Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell — transitioning from education to professional companies, she debuted Dallas Black Dance Theatre (DBDT) one year later at the Dallas County Convention Center.
Williams’ journey to becoming one of the most prominent dance advocates in the nation was not an easy one. When she formed DBDT, there was minimal support for any dance in Dallas, especially a predominantly African American company. Wanting to draw public attention to the talents of black dance artists, she faced many obstacles: the usual financial crises, the lack of media support, and a serious injury from an automobile accident. She overcome them all, and the company began to thrive, becoming the longest-running professional dance company in Dallas.
DBDT is now a powerful institution, a model for many emerging dance companies. The company continues to follow the mission that Williams created: It is dedicated to its work and remains involved in the community by providing performances and educational services. One of her first rules was that she would only hire college-educated dancers, another was to give back as much as the company received, whether financially or creatively. The latter provided dancers a reason to stay in Dallas and develop dance careers and advocate on behalf of dance in the city that is their home (or home away from home). Now, celebrating 40 years of dance-making, the DBDT first company tours nationally and has performed at the Olympics. DBDTII, the second company, tours and acts as a training platform for many rising young dancers and choreographers.
Nurturing the special place that education holds in Williams’ heart, and with her company gaining momentum, Williams obtained a certificate in arts management from Texas A&M University, received an honorary doctor of humanities from Northwood University, and an honorary doctor of philosophy in dance from TWU. In addition to DBDT, Williams formed the Dallas Black Dance Academy, and was a founding member of the International Association for Blacks in Dance.
International Association for Blacks in Dance
“When I met her for the first time, when the National Endowment for the Arts sent me to Dallas, I had no knowledge of her or her work,” said Joan Myers Brown, founder and executive artistic director of Philandanco!, the Philadelphia Dance Company, in an interview conducted by dance writer Katie Dravenstott, in association with this article. “My [first] impression of her was that she was determined and ambitious, even though the dancers at [the] time needed work, she persevered to provide her dream of providing the opportunity for them.”
Brown, along with such founding members as Chuck Davis of the African American Dance Ensemble; dancer/choreographer Carmen de Lavallade; and Williams, created the International Association for Blacks in Dance (IABD) in 1991 as a result of an artistic development grant. “The IABD started as a quest to find organizations of color like my own, to share resources and information on dancers and information on performing [opportunities] that were limited for us at that time. We are about the entire black dance community, supporting and strengthening each other, providing mentoring and employment, guidance for the youth, better training … [Ann] is a leader and a team player, and played those roles in the formation of IADB. Whatever was required of her, she did, and will continue to do,” said Brown.
IABD has become a central hub for blacks in dance and, according to the website, it “responds to and initiates dialogue around issues that impact the Black Dance Community, as well as the Dance community at large. IABD has developed national prominence and allowed the Black Dance Community to come together on issues important to them.” They are working toward preserving and promoting dance by people of African ancestry or origin, and Williams has been one of the most durable proponents of this mission.
“Her long existence is due to her determination and perseverance, building an incredible team and a supportive community, finding the best dancers, teachers and choreographers, as well as an administrative body of people bar none,” said Brown. This method is reflected in her tenure at DBDT. She successfully ran the organization for 40 years — an astonishing feat for such an unpredictable profession — and much of that is due to her personal passion and drive for dance. “Above all, she is dedicated to ensuring that the development of dancers for the future continues with excellence as the only goal,” added Brown.
The Williams Effect on Dancers
Williams has been an influential force on many performers throughout the course of her tenure with DBDT, and many of those performers are still connected to the company in one way or another, or have gone on to pursue their own creative paths that hope to echo what Williams created.
“My first impression of her was that she was charming and straight forward. She was always clear with expectations. She desired excellence on stage and off stage and wanted everyone to reach for the stars and dance as if they have no limitations,” said Katricia Eaglin, who became a part of Williams’ legacy 18 years ago when she was hired to teach for the Dallas Black Dance Academy. “But what I came to admire most about her was her ability to be an organized and direct planner, yet, so willing to be fluid when necessary. I am always amazed with how many schedules she juggles, between the company, Dallas Black Dance Theatre II, the academy and its teachers, and the three performing ensembles.”
A characteristic Eaglin has adopted herself as the current director of the DBDT Academy’s Allegro Performing Ensemble, is stamina, both physical and mental. “As a member of DBDT, I learned that I had great endurance. I also learned that there is a place where I could use all my talents, gifts, and abilities … but the most valuable lesson I learned from Ms. Williams was that while there are good dancers everywhere, it’s not all about that. You have to be a good person and a good, hard worker. That’s what going to bring you success.”
Former company member Jamie Thompson first met Williams when he attended DBDT’s Professional Summer Intensive. “She walked into the dance studio during Milton Myers’ Horton class and sat directly in front of me. After the class she asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I replied, ‘I am from Belize.’ She then mentioned that she [would] be going to Belize the following day.” From that point their relationship was cemented. This personal nature was also part of Williams’ methodology in the studio. She took the time to get to know her dancers, their personal lives, their fears, their dreams, and she also took the time to mentor and direct their futures.
“My experience at Dallas Black was healthy and nurturing. Dancing and working under [her] artistic tutelage … allowed me [to] mature from a student artist into a professional artist,” said Thompson. “She identified my relative gifts and gave me the opportunity to exercise and strengthen them. This was evident in my roles on and off the stage. It felt like family. Ann Williams was and still is the matriarch of the family,” said Thompson.
Williams’ legacy will continue for generations after her, with the ongoing work of DBDT, its full and constant performance schedule, the Dallas Black Dance Academy, and the determination of students and dancers who were trained by her to promote that passion for dance in their communities.
“Ms. Williams passionately enriched her community with dance. She taught dance, dance teachers, and put dancers on the world’s stage … I hope to continue to dance, choreograph, and be a part of maintaining and expanding the legacy of Dallas Black Dance Theatre,” said Eaglin.
Thompson echoes that sentiment: “My four seasons at Dallas Black taught me to trust in my gifts, work hard, and always be professional. I believe that those are three things any past or current member of the company will agree with. I walked away with an understanding of who I am as an artist and what I have to offer. I realized my value to the communities that I dwell. I walked away a couple of inches taller.”
Danielle Georgiou is a writer, choreographer, and dancer based in Dallas, Texas. She is contributor to KERA’s Art&Seek and TheaterJones.com, where she writes a monthly column about issues in dance called The Sixth Position. She has written for The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Observer. In 2011, she created DGDG: the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group, a dance theater group that works within the ideas of contemporary dance and physical theater. DGDG’s work has been performed throughout Texas, California, Oklahoma, and Oregon. DGDG was recently voted Best Dance Troupe by the Dallas Observer; The Show About Men (2015) was named Best New Play/Musical and cited for Outstanding Creative Contribution for Choreography by the Dallas Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum Awards; NICE (2014), which premiered as part of AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, also won for choreography. Georgiou is the dance program coordinator at Eastfield College.
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