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Celebrating 40 Years of Urban Bush Women: A Legacy of Dance, Activism, and Inclusivity

Updated: Jun 24



Urban Bush Women, a renowned dance theater company based in Brooklyn, New York, is not just a group of performers but a community of organizers and activists. Founded in 1984 by MacArthur Foundation Fellow Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the company has remained dedicated to creating a space for dense storytelling, experimentation, and artistic expression, rooted in the experiences of Black women.


A Legacy of Inclusivity and Activism

From its inception, Urban Bush Women has been a trailblazer in challenging norms within the dance industry. With a predominantly Black women+ membership, the company has continually pushed boundaries, both in terms of age and body image expectations. In a field where dancers often face body shaming and age discrimination, Urban Bush Women has embraced dancers of all ages and backgrounds, fostering a diverse and inclusive environment.


Urban Bush Women’s approach to dance and community is not just about performance; it’s about creating a space where wholeness is honored. This means recognizing and integrating all aspects of one’s identity and experiences, even those that may not traditionally be seen as "beautiful."


Photo by: Hayim Heron

Leadership and Artistic Direction

Over the years, Urban Bush Women has evolved under the leadership of dedicated artists like Chanon Judson, who joined the company in 2001 and now serves as one of the artistic directors. Alongside Mame Diarra Speis, Chanon helps steer the trajectory of the organization, not only through performances but also through community organizing initiatives, leadership development programs, and mentorship.


Urban Bush Women’s process is deeply research-based, involving a collective exploration of ideas through various mediums—museums, music, literature, and personal experiences. This collaborative method ensures that the work created is rich, authentic, and reflective of the diverse stories and perspectives within the company.


Photo by: Hayim Heron

The Power of Sisterhood

Speis addressed the power and complexity of sisterhood in the dance community. She quotes Toni Cade Bambara, who said, "Sisterhood is a verb," emphasizing that it is an action, a practice of trust and mutual support. This ethos is central to Urban Bush Women’s philosophy, fostering an environment where women can come together, support one another, and dismantle the competitive pressures often imposed by the broader dance industry.


Reflecting on her partnership with Judson, Speis highlights the importance of respect, deep listening, and trust in their collaborative relationship. These values extend to the entire company, creating a space where every member’s voice is heard and valued.


Engaging with the Community

Urban Bush Women's commitment to activism extends beyond the stage, with initiatives aimed at empowering artists and activists alike. Through workshops, classes, and the annual Summer Leadership Institute, BOLD, and CCI 2.0, the company provides opportunities for individuals to explore the intersection of arts and activism, fostering a network of change agents dedicated to social justice.


Photo by: Ian Douglas

Getting Involved

For those interested in joining Urban Bush Women, there are various avenues for engagement. From workshops and classes held in Brooklyn to CCI 2.0 and SLI programming, to auditions for company membership, the company welcomes dancers and artists of all levels and backgrounds. Additionally, opportunities for collaboration and participation in performances provide further avenues for involvement.


Celebrating 40 Years

As Urban Bush Women celebrates its 40th anniversary, the company looks forward to commemorating this milestone with special events and performances. From pop-up performances at Lincoln Center to an exhibition at the Lincoln Center Public Library, there will be opportunities to engage with the rich history and legacy of Urban Bush Women.


Photo by: Hayim Heron

Final Thoughts

Urban Bush Women's legacy is one of resilience, activism, and artistic excellence. As the company continues to pave the way for inclusivity and social change within the dance community, it invites dancers, artists, and activists to join in its mission of empowerment and transformation.


For more information about Urban Bush Women and upcoming events, visit urbanbushwomen.org and follow them on Instagram, Youtube (@UBWDance), Facebook (@urbanbushwomen) and Linkedin (Urban Bush Women).



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