"It was never my intention to die at this place. If so tell me to wake up and walk out of here."
That's how Ann Williams, the founder and artistic director of the Dallas Black Dance Theater, succinctly sums up her thoughts on her pending retirement. It must be apt since she uses it often. She said the same "intention to die" line in an interview with The Dallas Morning News when she announced her retirement in July.
Founded in 1976, the company now has five dance troupes and has performed in 14 countries on five continents, even appearing alongside names like Nina Simone. This is officially Williams' last season with the company, but people seem to think that means she's already checked out and put up her feet. While she's trying to get all the groundwork laid for the last year of programming she'll be responsible for she's also fielding calls from people who think she's out the door.
"Friends were calling saying, 'Oh Ann, I heard you had a condo in St. Maarten,'" referring to her retirement plans in the DMN article. "'I wanna go with you, I wanna come down and visit.' I said, 'I did not say I have a condo down there, I said I have a timeshare. Y'all don't read.'"
Currently the dancers are on vacation (and back this week) so the 75-year-old Williams has been using the past month to arrange choreographers and prepare as much as she can for the company's 37th season. "A Season of Celebration: The Legacy of Ann Williams" kicks off with DanceAfrica at the Winspear Opera House in October, and she says they're also at work on a suite of lesser-known Nina Simone pieces.
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Throughout its history the company has placed a premium on community and educational outreach (Booker T. Washington High School became an arts magnate the same year the theater opened). Williams herself first became drawn to performance as a child when she saw Aida at Music Hall at Fair Park. So as a grown-up with a dance company at her disposal she's tried to expose as many kids to dance as she can.
Most of the students they've met over the years have never seen black professional dancers before. Williams made a point to impress on them that it was athletically rigorous and intense, that it involved just as much training as any sports they played now and that it was a real career possibility.
"And the guys, I had to make them understand the male dancers aren't little wimps." She's also not above bringing her female dancers onstage to make sure the schoolboys paid attention.
After this season Williams hopes to have time to write for some dance publications, and she's eager to see how the Dallas Black Dance Theater will progress without her. She's been heading it for 37 years, and the curiosity to see what it can accomplish under someone else's directorship is powerful. In the meantime, there's still the task of finding her replacement, someone to take the reins of the company and keeping going out to meet students and, as Williams put it, "get the glow in them."