Webster dancers display their resilience at regional conference

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Senior dancers performed meaningful pieces at the first in-personal regional conference since 2019.

In June 2021, they started preparing: journaling, studying and watching other performances. General ideas became concepts, and concepts became plans. Eventually, those plans – based on an exploration of their emotions and experiences – became visceral performances.

Those performances were eventually displayed for adjudicators chosen by the American College Dance Association (ACDA) – big names in the dance world. The performances took place in late March during the first in-person ACDA for the northwest region since 2019.

Ashley Johnson and Madison Zumwalt – roommates, friends and collaborators – enjoy time on the beach in Wisconsin. Contributed by Ashley Johnson.

Senior dancers at Webster University, Ashley Johnson and Madison Zumwalt, went into last summer knowing they had to plan their senior performances. Both of them choreographed and scored different pieces, each focusing on sharing their own stories.

Johnson performed with the K/P Project – a dance project run by former Webster dancers – over the summer of 2021. During her time there, she found more inspiration for her capstone performance.

“I kind of started as I knew I wanted to do something about adrenaline and sort of like this rush of being a dancer, human, Black woman, just a person in general,” Johnson said. “And one of the things that [I] kind of just learned was are you really tired when you’re dancing? Like, does that really affect you as a dancer? Like, how much can you push yourself?”

Johnson channeled these questions about her identity and work ethic when composing her piece Resilience. It’s a solo piece centered around themes of ambition, vulnerability and striving for perfection. Johnson said her piece is strongly tied into what she describes as Black woman syndrome.

“Black women, we always have to get up, we have to be that person: to cheerlead, to finish the assignment, to be the backbone . . . [the] strong person, but we always still get the s**t. Like, we always still get the heartache,” Johnson said. “[You’re] having this expectation on yourself that you need to get up and you have to prove yourself because you’re a Black woman and you’re a minority.”

Being a Black woman in dance is not something Johnson is uncomfortable with, but it is something she’s aware of. Growing up going to performing arts schools and dancing, Johnson realized around 12 years old she was often the only Black student in these spaces when her things were vandalized by other classmates.

“I am grounded enough to address it. But I think it comes to a point where you just have to dance for yourself and be an artist and find your way in,” Johnson said.

During her senior Bachelor of Fine Arts performance, Johnson said her mother – who was in the crowd during the performance – made comments about wanting to get on stage and comfort her, watching such a deep-rooted performance. Johnson said her mother has been her rock throughout her dance career, and she owes it to her mother’s intuition to put Johnson into dance classes at 3 years old.

Zumwalt’s piece was also intimate. Her piece, titled She, included a team of nine women dancers with a spoken word score. The piece was about the pain and understanding that comes with being a woman, and the inherent bond between women.

Dancers perform Madison Zumwalt’s She on stage at the ACDA at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. Zumwalt stands in the background, performing
the spoken word score. Contributed by Madison Zumwalt.

“The sound score, which I wrote, is a combination of stories and experiences from myself and then the women in my cast,” Zumwalt said. “It’s about the struggles and the hard parts [of womanhood]. But then there’s also a lot about sisterhood . . .  and I think that was originally kind of my goal was just building this group of really strong, powerful women and dancers to showcase what that was.”

For the senior BFA performance, Zumwalt’s piece was performed with a recording of the spoken word playing over the speakers. At ACDA, Zumwalt was on stage, reading the spoken word live into a microphone. Zumwalt and the other performers felt the live performance was more raw.

“There are parts of the text that are really emotional,” Zumwalt said. “And the piece also ties in this breathing pattern . . . And so it’s like really in your body. And they do this throughout the piece, and it ends with them, like really, almost screaming these breaths while I speak about support and finding support, even when you’re being pushed down as a woman. And so I cried. We performed and a lot of them cried too.”

After being canceled in 2020 and virtual in 2021, this was many students’ first in-person ACDA. Freshman Lauren Kaiser was one of them, as well as one of the dancers in Zumwalt’s piece.

“It was emotionally exhausting. When we get towards the end of the piece, we’re like panting on the ground. We’re doing this breath sequence, helping each other up, like trying to drag ourselves over to this clump and come up and we’re almost like yelling in a way,” Kaiser said. “I saw a couple tears. We were looking at each other. We felt so in sync with each other. It is just a surreal experience.”

The performances themselves were exhausting both emotionally and physically. Kaiser explained that the rigid schedules for classes and tech rehearsals left little free time but were worth it.

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Alexandria Darmody (she/they) is the news editor for the Journal, and a senior journalism major and FTVP minor. She enjoys digital art, photography and reading nonfiction stories. In her free time, she makes collages from old magazines and collects stickers to decorate surfaces. She's interested in the business side of journalism, and she's an avid viewer of Succession.