A Celebration of Black Women in Dance



On Thursday, February 25, White Bird hosted a virtual conversation between three generations of extraordinarily creative American dance artists. For 75 minutes, these artists shared their personal perspectives on the challenges and accomplishments of creating, programming and performing dance in the U.S. over different generations.

If you were not able to join us, we invite you to watch the event recording on our Vimeo page by clicking on the button below.



White Bird is extremely grateful to all our contributors: Renae Williams Niles (moderator), Marjani Forté Saunders, Virginia Johnson, Ausia Jones, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.

Please support White Bird in our ongoing efforts to break down the barriers of systemic racism.

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About the Participants




Photo Credit: Marc Winston

Marjani Forté-Saunders is a choreographer, performer, educator, community organizer, and mother. She received her B.A. from Loyola Marymount University, and has served as a visiting Lecturer at Bard College, Princeton University, and Yale University.

She refers to dance and embodiment as her sorcery—revolutionary, transformative, wild, ancient, and fresh. Her practice is informed by years in anti-racist organizer training and as a lead facilitator with Urban Bush Women’s (UBW) Builders, Organizers and Leaders through Dance. As a performer, Forté-Saunders was a touring artist for five years with Urban Bush Women. In 2018 she was an Artist-in-Residence at the University of Southern California Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, and will return Spring 2021.

She is anchored in a steady collaboration with partner and composer Everett Asis Saunders. The two are founding directors of ART & POWER, established in 2018, an emerging platform for artists, writers, scientists, spiritualists, and scholars mobilizing regional and international communities through the transformative power of art, philosophy, spirituality, and practice. Spurring from stories of her father’s life, Forté-Saunders’s Memoirs of a…Unicorn, which received two New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards, wove performance, sound, visual art, and media to relish in the celestial and infinite journeys of those building legacies within the spectrums of blackness, maleness, and womb-hood. 



Virginia Johnson has been Artistic Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem since 2009. A founding member of DTH, Virginia Johnson was one of its principal ballerinas over a career that spanned nearly 30 years. After retiring in 1997, Ms. Johnson went on to found Pointe Magazine and was editor-in chief for 10 years. A native of Washington, D.C., Ms. Johnson graduated from the Academy of the Washington School of Ballet. She went on to be a University Scholar in the School of the Arts at New York University before joining Dance Theatre of Harlem. Virginia Johnson is universally recognized as one of the great ballerinas of her generation and is perhaps best known for her performances in the ballets Giselle, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Fall River Legend. She has received such honors as the Dance Magazine Award, a Pen and Brush Achievement Award, the Washington Performing Arts Society’s 2008-2009 Pola Nirenska Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2009 Martha Hill Fund Mid-Career Award.


Photo Credit: Francois Rousseau




Ausia Jones was born in Dallas, Texas. Ausia is a graduate of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance with a focus on choreography. Throughout her career, she has had the honor of performing works by William Forsythe, Robert Battle, Cayetano Soto, Azure Barton, Jiří Kylián, and more. She has received many awards including YoungArts winner in both choreography and dance. She has trained at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Orsolina Forsythe/Pite, and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. This is her first season as an artist with Les Ballet Jazz de Montréal.

Photo Credit: Cathryn Farnsworth



Renae Williams Niles has worked in the nonprofit sector for over 25 years serving in many capacities including executive director, dance company manager, grant maker, dance presenter, adjunct professor, panelist/nominator, diversity liaison, consultant and guest curator. Renae has served as an advisor for the New England Foundation for the Arts’ National Dance Project and was a founding member of the USC Kaufman School of Dance’s Board of Advisors. Renae is board chair of the national Association of Performing Arts Professionals and board member of American Dance Movement. In 2017, she received the WAA Service to the Field Award. Renae is also known for moderating conversations with renowned artists including the feature film La La Land’s entire creative team, award-winning choreographers such as Camille A. Brown and Sir Matthew Bourne, and legendary artist Yo-Yo Ma to name a few.




Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is Founder/Visioning Partner of Urban Bush Women.  From Kansas City, Missouri, she received her M.F.A. in dance from Florida State University. In 1984, Jawole founded Urban Bush Women (UBW) in Brooklyn, New York as a performance ensemble dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change. In addition to 34 works for UBW, she has created works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, and others. In 2006 Jawole received a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie) for her work as choreographer/creator of Walking With Pearl…Southern Diaries.

Jawole developed a unique approach to enable artists to strengthen effective involvement in cultural organizing and civic engagement, which evolved into UBW’s acclaimed Summer Leadership Institute. She serves as director of the Institute, founder/visioning partner of UBW and currently holds the position of the Nancy Smith Fichter Professor of Dance and Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University. As an artist whose work is geared towards building equity and diversity in the arts, Jawole was awarded the 2013 Arthur L. Johnson Memorial award by Sphinx Music at their inaugural conference on diversity in the arts. In 2013, Jawole received the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award.

Photo Credit: Crush Boone

This event is made possible in part with support from the Multnomah County Cultural Coalition, the Jackson Foundation, and the Collins Foundation.

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