Urban Legends

"Vulnerability, sassiness, and bodaciousness" -- that's what Jawole Willa Jo Zollar wanted to convey when she founded the Urban Bush Women dance troupe in 1984. Bodaciousness was in long supply among the black women in the Kansas City neighborhood where Zollar grew up, but New York -- where Zollar moved to pursue the arts -- needed more. And after New York, so did the rest of the world.

So Zollar and her fellow Bush Women -- whose ranks currently include one Urban Bush Man -- started stomping and flailing and gliding on every theater stage they could find, to pretty much unanimous adoration from audiences. They basically sat the world down and gave it a talking-to about the plight of African-American women. But they did it without any lecturey "wonk wonk wonk," as Charlie Brown's teacher would say. And that's why, 20 years after their launch, the Urban Bush Women are still schooling us.

Lately, the company has been focused on the issue of hair. A "hair show" in 2001 featured dances about hair, music about hair, and spoken word and video about hair. From there, naturally, UBW developed a "hair cabaret" -- a low-tech performance about the trials and tribulations of having nappy hair. That, of course, led to "hair parties," where girls and guys gathered in hair salons, museums, and homes to brush and curl, to comb and color, and to discuss how their hair affected their sense of self.

This week, the dancers perform a 20th-anniversary program with four pieces. The first celebrates African-American dance pioneer/social activist Pearl Primus. The second, "Batty Moves," is all about rump-shaking. ("In the Caribbean," program literature explains, "the word batty is used to describe the buttocks. Batty Moves directly challenges the audience to question their own notions of physical attractiveness and appropriate movement.") "GirlFriends" incorporates mime, and a final piece is choreographed by the young upstart Bridget L. Moore.

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Deirdra Funcheon