The Dallas Examiner
“The magic.” That singular phrase was how Ann Williams described the call that dance held for her as a youth, long before she founded the Dallas Black Dance Theatre in 1976.
“I really got interested in dance and the arts … when I saw the opera Aida, and to see, I guess, a combination of music, movement, sound, lights, all of that, and to know that someone is behind that and made that – it’s almost like a Broadway show, you know?” she said, declaring once more, “It’s magic.”
The Prairie View A&M graduate – who has a Masters of Arts Degree in Dance and Related Arts from TWU, an Arts Management certificate from Texas A&M, two doctorates, and also received dance training from Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell – has since retired from her position as artistic director of the theater. Still, she continues to be involved as an artistic advisor and serves on multiples boards for dance, arts and education entities. Williams’ efforts and career with the globe-hopping DBDT is summed up visually in the traveling exhibition 40 Years Forward.
The three-part touring archive consists of costumes, photos, scrapbooks of seemingly endless news articles, and awards, all of which lay out the beginnings and growth of the 10 largest minority arts organization in the nation. Communications and Community Engagement Manager Ramona Logan discussed the exhibition’s location schedule.
“Right now it’s at The Dallas Library and at the Pan-African Connection,” as well as the Paul Quinn College library. The city will most likely extend the dates for the exhibitions at both libraries into the middle of October, she said.
“And then it starts in the middle of the month at NorthPark Mall,” Logan further remarked.
Starting an all-Black dance company in the midst of 1970s Dallas was not such an easy task, of course. The founder recalled that simply finding the right home for a troupe was difficult.
“I would say, for me, one of the things at that time was space. Trying to have the space that I would want talented people like these to come in. Jackie will remember we had space, nothing like what we have now,” she said as she spoke of actress Jacquelyn Houston McNeal, an original DBDT dancer who also reminisced with Williams on the original theater.
“The first one was probably some cement, a little damp … that kind of thing. So, 40 years ago, that’s what the dancers started out with – and that was never that much of a challenge to them because that was the situation and they rose to that situation.”
Being a traditionally trained dancer herself, though, Williams was pained to know what a true dance studio was – one that remained out of reach to her young artists. McNeal, too, considered another challenge the company faced.
“One of my concerns was the dancers leaving us, because we would get dancers in and many of them came from Arts Magnet and they were students. When they would leave, graduate, we would be afraid that they wouldn’t come back,” she expressed. “So that was one of the big concerns – keeping the dancers.”
Williams acknowledged that the parents of the original students who joined the company were the biggest backers of the DBDC once a final home at the Mooreland YMCA was secured. They were involved enough in their children’s lives to come to performances over and over. She further said that some of those original parents are taking in performances to this day.
Both women also took a moment to ruminate on the importance of the DBDT as a cultural jewel within the context of a larger society.
“When you know where you’ve been, you know where you going, and it’s really important for our young people to know what is in their past,” the performer said. “What has been here for them and how we have evolved, and are moving towards our future – that they are a part of all of that – and so it is really important for them to know that history, that culture, because it gives them that pride of being a Dallasite as well as being an African American. And it makes them a little bit, I think, more successful in their own lives, gives them a little more esteem,” she noted.
Williams agreed, adding, “I would say that word ‘self-esteem’ is what we’ve always tried to build in Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Not just the dance, not just the movement, but that total child; making them feel a little different because they were taking dance. It’s almost like, if your mom puts you in piano, you’re in art, or something, you’re a little different.
“You have something, and of course when you’re in any type of art and gaining any type of art experience, it’s a creative thing that will prepare you for a lot of challenges that you’re going to have in life,” she added, referencing her former dancer. “You are at a place that has a history and, what I think she and I would always expect, is for this continue and to carry on.”
McNeal considered what the exhibition means beyond all else.
“The most important thing is that this was something that was in our hearts and in our minds, and we went with it, and when you dream sometimes things come true,” McNeal said.
Williams then reflected upon her own glories by giving a nod to others.
“Although we were there from the beginning, and we felt we did our part – she had dreams; I had dreams,” Williams commented on her efforts and that of McNeal. “But we had support for these dreams from so many others, because you could never make this by yourself, you know.
“And so, at this point we really want to let others know how grateful we are for supporting what we thought we had originated and didn’t know where it was going, and could not have come this far without the support of our families, our friends, the community, the many organizations, because Dallas Black Dance Theatre started out as a community.”
The company begins its 41st season with the yearly DanceAfrica program, Oct. 6 and Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. showcased at Moody Performance Hall, located at 2520 Flora St.