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Moving On: Dallas Black Dance Founder Ann Williams

Simone wide by Andy PhillipsonDallas Black Dance Theatre’s “Simone.” Photo by Andy Phillipson. All other photos by Jerome Weeks

This Friday and Saturday at the Winspear Opera House, a dance gala will honor Ann Williams. She’s stepping down this month after 37 years as founder and artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre. KERA’s Jerome Weeks asked Williams what led her to create Dallas’ longest-established dance company.

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One night in 1986, Ann Williams ran out of gas on a Central Expressway entrance ramp. She went to get more gas, came back and a car plowed into her, breaking both her legs. The accident put her — and Dallas Black Dance Theatre — in the hospital. Ten years earlier, Williams had started the company with a single performance of the musical The Wiz at the Dallas Convention Center Theatre. Now, all that looked to be over.

Williams recalls her family telling her, “‘OK, you gotta close all of this, you gotta come home.’ And you know, the doctor said, ‘Your legs are like this, daddadadda, giving me that picture.’ I said, ‘Will I ever be able to walk again?’ And he said, ‘With my help and your help.’ I said, ‘What are you waiting on?’ So we started that journey.

“I decided then that I really wanted Dallas Black Dance Theatre to be an institution.”

Williams means she wanted her troupe to survive her. Before then, she pretty much was Dallas Black Dance. To be sure, she had donors and dancers, she had help, but as with many artistic start-ups, Williams was office manager, artistic director, choreographer, teacher, everything.

Her broken legs brought that to a halt.

dbdt3editToday, 28 years later, Williams sits in the handsome conference room on the fourth floor of her company’s home in the Arts District. It had been the Moorland YMCA, the city’s only African-American YMCA, and it sits at the northeast end of the Arts District. Dallas Black Dance moved here in 2007 after a $10 million purchase and renovation. Zenetta Drew, the company’s executive director, explains the building is significant – because of Dallas’ history of segregation.

“It provided accommodations for individuals who could not stay in hotels during those years,” she says. “Some of the prominent folks who stayed in this Y were Dr. Martin Luther King, Justice Thurgood Marshall, Muhammad Ali.” The building had the only indoor restaurant accessible to blacks, the only indoor pool — where a young Ann Williams taught swimming. “And all of the activities due to segregation that occurred in the black community –proms, dances, civil rights meetings – they happened in this building,” Drew says.

Many Dallasites look at the Arts District and see all the architectural extravagance along Flora Street. Many older black Dallasites see what remains of the street that had been the hub of their community. So not only is Dallas Black Dance the only African-American troupe headquartered in the Arts District, it was also Williams’ achievement to get her company housed in one of the last remnants of Dallas’ historic black community. The survival of the Moorland YMCA was tied to DBDT’s survival – and to Williams’ success. (The other buildings that remain are the Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet, which was originally Dallas’ “Colored School No. 2″ and the St. Paul United Methodist Church, the only church in downtown Dallas rooted in the black community.)

ann williams 2

Ann Williams. Photo:Brian Guilliaux

But in 1986, all that was in the future. At the time, Williams (left) housed her company where she taught dance – in what was then Bishop College in Oak Cliff. She brought in Zenetta Drew, a former oil and gas accountant.

Drew recalls her first day as a part-time volunteer in that Bishop College building as distinctly unpleasant: “It had no air conditioning or heat. It was January and it was seven degrees. The roof was so precarious, no repair folks would come in.”

 

But in the following months, they launched a feasibility study and established a 20-member board. “By September,” Drew says, “we were announcing a great vision that we were going to hire dancers on full-time salaries for nine months. We were going to begin touring nationally and internationally in three years. And we would have a facility in downtown Dallas in the Arts District.”

Zenetta drew 2 editNot only had Williams never been able to give her dancers salaries before this — she hadn’t had a salary, either. Drew (left) says this was typical of the way Williams built the company: both visionary and persistent. “She said, ‘There is no such word as ‘no.’” My question was, why not? And she said, “Because ‘no’ means ‘New Opportunity.’ Go find a way.”

Williams says her persistence partly came from being the rare African-American cultural figure in Dallas. “Knowing that someone needed to speak for the heritage and culture of the African-American community,” she says, “and if not me …”

Zenetta Drew, DBDT executive director

Williams says her successor has not been picked from the 11 finalists, though she admits she has a favorite. But her company and her dance academy are no longer start-ups. DBDT has performed at Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center, at Olympic Cultural Festivals. Williams’ students have gone on to perform with Alvin Ailey, Joffrey Ballet, Cirque du Soleil and in The Lion King on Broadway.

This kind of company may need a different kind of leader.

“I know the person can do the artistic part,” Williams says of her own preference for successor, “but – that’s not all that’s needed.”

So — vision and persistence are still required.