Vershawn Sanders-Ward Artistic Director & CEO of Red Clay Dance Company

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By Taroue Brooks

Tell us about the Red Clay Dance Company. 

We are Artivism in Motion! Red Clay Dance Company lives to awaken “glocal” change through creating, performing and teaching dances of the African Diaspora–change that transforms cultural and socio-economic inequities in our local and global community.   We are a Chicago-based, professional Afro-Contemporary dance company that performs locally, nationally and internationally. Our organization also includes a world-class dance academy, a thriving youth ensemble, and a robust Community Engagement, Education and Partnerships (CEEP) program that provides dance education residencies to local schools and community centers.

We describe our work as Artivism (art + activism). An Artivist is a person that uses their artistic genius to become a part of the solution for social change, and a dance artivist creatively uses the body and movement as tools to gain personal and collective freedom.

Vershawn Sanders-Ward, MFA

How did you begin your career in the Arts?

I began dancing at a young age but took a break during junior high to play sports. My dad played baseball in high school and received a full scholarship to Stillman College…I think he could have gone pro honestly. But, I wanted to explore athleticism in a different way and do something my dad would enjoy watching me do… so I played softball up until my junior year of high school.  In my junior year by dance teacher Ms. Morrison said okay…it’s time for you to come back to dance, this is a way to blend your desire for athleticism with artistry and she believed I had the talent to pursue it as a career. So….I came back to dance my junior year of high school and eventually ended up at Columbia College Chicago where I was the first student to receive a BFA in Dance. I then went on to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts to pursue my MFA. Upon graduation, I had the opportunity to travel to study and perform at the Yard on Martha’s Vineyard and to Senegal, and it was in Senegal that I decided to start my dance company. After returning from Senegal, I lived in New York for about another 8 months, and then decided to come back to Chicago to develop my company.

Tell us about the production that you remain most proud with the Red Clay Dance Company. 

I am honestly proud of all the artistic work our company has created in our 12-year history, but if I had to select one, it would be EKILI MUNDA |What Lies Within. This work was created over a year and ½ with my co-choreographer Jonas Byaruhanga and his company, Keiga Dance Company, based in Kampala, Uganda. We premiered this work in Chicago in November 2018 to kick off our 10th Anniversary season. I am most proud of this work, not only because of we produced from our creative process,  but because it was our first international exchange as an organization. Completing this project not only included fundraising but securing artists visas during a very difficult time with immigration. I first met Jonas in 2007 in Senegal at a school called Ecole De Sables founded by Germaine Acogny, and then had the opportunity to perform in Jonas’s first dance festival in 2010 at the National Theater of Uganda. We decided at that moment that we wanted to bring our young emerging companies together to create a work, but we struggled to find the funding to support this large of a project. Finally, through the support of the MacArthur Foundations’ International Connections Fund, we are able to make our dream a reality. Between October 2017-November 2018 we were able to travel to Kampala twice and Keiga came to the Chicago twice to create the work.  Hosting these four creative residencies, in each others home cities, deepened our understanding of one other and organically revealed how we could best tell the story of the interconnectedness of our lived experiences in our black bodies. We are an all-female company and Keiga is an all-male company, so in the work we were also able to explore how gender roles differ or are the same in our respective cultures. We created a beautiful work of art, but most importantly we are building a foundation for future collaborations and genuine relationships.

How is the organization funded?

Red Clay Dance Company is funded through private and government grants, generous individual supporters, and corporate partnerships. The organization also raises earned revenue through our performances and educational programs.

What has the impact been in the community regarding the work of the dance company?

As a Black, female-led, for-purpose organization, Red Clay Dance Company strives to impact our community in four areas, and we I believe we are just now beginning to see this impact in the artists, students, families, and community partners we serve.  

Written on the Flesh

We amplify voices of the African Diaspora. As Chicago’s premier professional Afro-contemporary dance company we tour our staged work to share our stories and our Artivism. Our Academy and Youth Ensemble serve as a pipeline for youth in our communities to become thriving professional artists by providing courageous spaces of empowerment and inspiration.


We seek remuneration equity for artists. We are a powerful advocate for artists, especially artists of the Black/African Diaspora, to achieve appropriate financial benefit from the movement practices they create, and for those practices to be equally valued in the dance field. We provide equitable compensation and benefits to our artists and staff through sustainable operations and capacity building. Further, the performance of our professional work employs and fairly compensates professional dancers, other artists, and production trades while patronizing local vendors in our community.  
 
We support Black women. We  work to strengthen the Black community by deepening our support of Black women and girls. Black women create, teach, nurture, and protect our communities. Their strength and enrichment is intrinsically linked to the uplifting of the Black/African Diaspora. We are committed to ensuring that all Black/African Diaspora female dance professionals thrive in the global arts marketplace by cultivating and empowering our sisters through our performances, training, education, and community programs. 
 
We create accessible excellence. Our education programs exist to ensure that all communities have barrier-free access to high quality, comprehensive dance training and artistic mentorship in African Diasporic dance. Our classes provide open and accessible spaces that are less restrictive on movement and allow students to more easily study, create, and perform diverse dance forms in more depth than class offerings generally found in schools and degree programs. Further, our programs actively combat systemic issues of White supremacy in dance education by creating, performing, and teaching excellence in Black dance, positioning our artistry as unequivocally equal to other dance forms. 

Where would you like to see the dance company in the next five years?

In the next five years, I would like for us to be a thriving organization that is committed to its’ mission, living in its’ vision, deeply committed to its’ impact goals, and serving as global model for what an anti-racist, equitable, inclusive, and world-class arts organization looks like.

About

Vershawn Sanders-Ward holds a MFA in Dance from New York University and is the first recipient of BFA in Dance from Columbia College Chicago (Gates Millennium Scholar.) She is the Founding Artistic Director and CEO of Red Clay Dance Company and is currently a candidate for Dunham Technique Certification. Sanders-Ward is a 2019 Chicago Dancemakers Forum Awardee, a 2019 Harvard Business School Club of Chicago Scholar, a 2017 Dance/USA Leadership Fellow, a 2013 3Arts awardee, and a 2009 Choreography Award from Harlem Stage NYC. In 2015, 2018 and 2020, NewCity Magazine selected Ward as one of the “Players 50, People Who Really Perform for Chicago”.

Her choreography has been presented in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, The Yard at Martha’s Vineyard, and internationally in Toronto, Dakar and Kampala. Vershawn is currently an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University and has received choreographic commissions from Columbia College Chicago, Northwestern University, Knox College, AS220, and the National Theatre in Uganda.

As an arts advocate, she is a co-founder of the Creatives of Color Legacy Collective, a board member of the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago ,and was selected to attend the inaugural Obama Foundation Summit for Emerging Global Leaders. Sanders-Ward has had the pleasure of gracing the cover of DEMO, Columbia College Chicago’s Alumni Magazine! 

Red Clay Dance/CAPE Class #1 w/Ms. Marceia

Website: www.redclaydance.com

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