Bringing Beauty to Bronzeville: Vershawn Ward

Vershawn Ward of Red Clay Dance Company
Vershawn Ward of Red Clay Dance Company

One of the most beautiful things to see a human body do is its ability to orchestrate magic through the art of dance. The formation of movements and rhythms can be as seductive as a musician high off their own melody. Whether you have a natural born talent or just enjoy the freedom that dance embodies- it represents EXPRESSION.

Vershawn Ward understands the importance of expression in the highest form, as the Executive Artistic Director of Red Clay Dance Company based in Chicago’s Bronzeville community. She has a diverse background holding an MFA in Dance from the Tisch School of Dance at New York University and the first recipient of a BFA in Dance from Chicago’s Columbia College. Having a long list of credits to her body of work, receiving the 2009 Choreography Award from Harlem Stage NYC and her honor as the 2013 3 Arts recipient.

Preparing for her first evening-length work, “riflekShens in 6” in collaboration with fellow 3 Arts award winning photographer, Marta Garcia we had had a chance to talk with Vershawn Ward.

What inspired you to start Red Clay Dance Company?

I had an opportunity to spend part of the summer in Martha’s Vineyard in a program called “The Yard”. I was just a dancer working with a group of seasoned choreographers. After that, I traveled to Senegal for three months at a school called Maison De La Sagesse. They have an amazing program open to dancers to come to Senegal train, learn traditional and contemporary dance. When I found out she was opening the program up to dancers outside of Africa, I applied and got in. While I was there, that’s when I thought about having a passion about traditional dance but also loved modern dance. How to fuse it together? That’s where Red Clay grew from- that passion to do more of a fusion style.

The name came from my upbringing as a child. I’m originally from Mobile, Alabama. Both of my parents are from there. Just remembering those summers growing up and school was out so I was shipped down to the Alabama. That was part of my upbringing. As artists who mold our work, it’s just like clay- molding our work into what we want it to be. The possibilities, whatever our hands make or make it- that’s what it is. 

How did your love of dance begin?

I grew up in the South Suburbs in the Matteson community. My mom put me into dance class when I was 5 or 6 years old to have a more constructive space for my energy. But my dad was an athlete so the physical side of dance is what drew me in at first. It really expressed inside energy that I wanted to get out. I did dance for awhile until 13 and then I went to Rich South High School, I wanted to get involved with sports. I took a little break and then in my Junior year, I got back into it. I had a P.E. teacher who was also a dancer. She asked me why I stopped dancing and advised me that I could do both. She pulled me back into dance. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it for a career. My parents felt I couldn’t make a living doing that, so I attended Western Illinois University as a Political Science major.

I came back to Chicago and started at Columbia College. In between that time, I also had a child. I found myself in the city trying to work, attend school and raise my son. I was juggling but knew that dance was my passion and had to figure out a way to make a living at it.

I finished at Columbia in 2002 and worked in Chicago as an independent artist for a couple of years and applying at NYU in 2005. I did it because I wanted to go to NYU to try it out. I’m someone who needed a plan. This gave me some kind of security and train my body without paying for a class. That’s always an issue as a professional dancer- how am I going to pay for class? I knew that I would be exposed to other dancers on faculty. 

How up did you end up back home in Chicago?

The reality of trying to start an organization in New York versus Chicago is tough. I have the support system coming back home and felt I had more resources here. Rather than start a new company in such a competitive city like New York. Things are so global now so I still have the opportunity to reach out to New York and Senegal because of my experiences I had that summer. I already laid the groundwork so once the company was at a certain place where we’re ready to tour; I had those networks already established. 

How many artists leave and don’t come back? They get that experience and exposure but don’t share it or bring it back to the city that created or started their interests in the arts. I also wanted to bring that back home to Chicago.

What are the things that your dance company offer to young students? 

We have two programs: the Academy which is the traditional dance conservatory with dance classes in ballet, jazz or hip hop. African contemporary which is our class, we introduce that after they’ve had the foundational classes. The Academy range from ages 3- 14. With our partnership with After School Matters, we have our teen ensemble. They range from 14 to 17 years old, three days a week. They come and train with us in technique and choreography. We bring in guest choreographers to work with them so it runs like a pre-professional course. 

This year we started to formulate building composition skills so that they can build to gain work. We talk about costumes, stage lighting and everything that is connected to the field. We realize that not everyone is going to be onstage but they can be connected in the field some kind of way so we try to share other careers to elevate the arts. 

We need people to continue to support the arts with an appreciation for and understanding of what it brings to a community having a vibrant arts organization. 

We have our “Dance for Peace” which is our annual youth concert. Last year we added the “Community Hug Awards” selecting three artists and activists to honor this year which includes Theaster Gates, Homer Bryant and Che Rhymefest Smith. 

Some members of the professional Red Clay Dance Company
Some members of the professional Red Clay Dance Company

Is there a difference as a person of color versus others in your profession as a dancer?

How can people outside of our culture connect to this work? Our work is influenced by our culture but it’s not exclusive to it. The piece that we’re doing about fathers and daughters- everyone can pull from that. I see a woman of color onstage, my hope is that it doesn’t become a barrier. The relationships go outside of the culture. I hope that it elevates the richness of our culture so that it influences other people to see some part of themselves in our work. 

Is there a challenge as a woman in your profession as the head of a professional dance company?

I do think there is still a challenge. When I walk into the room, they still see a woman first and in the dance community it’s already a challenge. They see a woman of color but my upbringing has always had me in very diverse situations. I was very comfortable ever since I was a child, I‘ve been in classes with people from various backgrounds. I was never in a single cultural space. I’ve always had that openness with others. 

How do you break through the segregated barriers in the city and in the dance industry?

I find that Chicago can still be a little conservative. But I think that we have the capabilities compared to a New York City and Los Angeles to thrive in a more flamboyant environment. I think we can go between the two. I don’t think the dance community here is as clear as New York. In New York, you have an Uptown or a Downtown. I think that we have cultural pockets. There are culture in our neighborhoods so dance companies often find themselves only in the neighborhoods and sometimes that cross-pollination doesn’t happen. So how do I get someone from Lincoln Park to come see Red Clay in Bronzeville or how do I get my kids to DePaul University to take this workshop? We need to get people to cross-over.

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