Ann Williams, Mother of Dallas Dance, Retires With a Two-Day Celebration in Her Honor

Dallas Black Dance Theatre's annual Spring Celebration Performance and Gala is coming around this weekend. Taking the stage at the Winspear Opera House, DBDT will be commemorating the end of their 2013-2014 season and ushering in the end of an era. For the two performances are not just a way to showcase the talent and technique of the dancers, they are to honor the mother of modern dance in Dallas, Ann Williams. The executive artistic director and founder of DBDT, Williams will be retiring after this performance.

Williams, who started the company 37 years ago, has been a fixture of the Dallas dance scene even before she became Mrs. Williams, the boss. Her love of dance started when she was just a little girl living in Mexia, a town about 90 miles south of Dallas. She likes to joke that she's the second-most-famous person from Mexia, behind Anna Nicole Smith.

She knew about dance when she was growing up, had seen it before, but had never taken a dance class. There wasn't much of an opportunity in Mexia. But when her family moved to Dallas, she took her first dance class at the YWCA and fell in love. Then, her future became clear after a ninth-grade field trip to see a Dallas Opera production of Aida at Fair Park.

"When the curtain opened and the lights came on ... the symphony was playing and the set was moving ... it was magical," Williams says. "I had never seen anything like it before ... but it wasn't that I wanted to be out there. I wanted to make that happen."

The seed was planted, and Williams was committed to following her passions and dreams. She earned a bachelor's degree in dance at Prairie View A&M and then a master's degree at Texas Woman's University, becoming the first African-American to graduate with her MFA in dance from the university. From there she began a teaching career that would inspire her desire to create something of her own.

She taught for a bit within the Dallas Independent School District before taking a position at Bishop College -- now Paul Quinn -- in 1968. She was charged to begin the dance program there and worked to find funding sources that would commit money to a program that could easily have failed. She persuaded the Ford Foundation to give money to a program in a city that boasted only one major dance company, the now defunct Dallas Ballet.

But it worked: Williams' Midas touch when it came to fundraising and organizing helped to create a budding dance program that would inspire the development of future dance departments in almost every local college and university in the city. Further, it worked to give her the basis to start her own company. In 1977, following in the tradition of Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Alvin Ailey, America's black dance pioneers, Williams debuted Dallas Black Dance Theatre at the Dallas County Convention Center.

The company has had its ups and downs: financial troubles caused by stock market crashes, the exodus of dancers to New York City, and temporary homes (until they built the massive and beautiful space in the Arts District). But they always seemed to bounce back, and better than before. DBDT tours nationally, has a second company that performs just as often as the first, and has performed at the Olympics.

DBDT is an institution now, and one that patrons of the local arts community and fellow dancers and dance companies look up to. With almost four decades of nationally and internationally renowned work, something is right with Williams' model. She has dedicated their work to always remaining involved in the community, and to provide performance and educational services. One of her first rules was that she would only hire college-educated dancers who had experienced life outside of the safety of their childhood homes, knew how to work hard, and would show up on time -- a tenant that she maintains today, and will surely pass on to her successor -- and to give back as much as the company received, whether that be financially or creatively. They gave a reason for dancers to stay in Dallas and have careers, and until this year, DBDT was the only full-time professional modern dance company in town (Bruce Wood Dance Project has now gone full-time, but the groups offer two different perspectives on modern dance).

The Spring Celebration on May 16 and 17 will pay tribute to Williams by featuring some of her favorite pieces by DBDT, and dances performed in her honor by Texas Ballet Theater, Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, Bruce Wood Dance Project and Kirven Douthit-Boyd (of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre). Additionally, DBDT will premiere new works choreographed by Lily Weiss (Booker T. Washington HSPVA), Christopher Vo (Dallas native and from the NBC series SMASH) and Bruce Wood.

"It's quite exciting and I'm really looking forward to the performances and to see what the Dallas dance community comes up with," says Williams. "It's been quite a ride, and I'm just so very grateful and humbled by the turnout and commitment of these artists to give back."

Vo's piece is one that Williams is most anxious to see. She has been anticipating this performance as it is taking her company out of its comfort zone. As the rehearsal process is wrapping up and Vo is putting the final touches on this premiere piece, Williams has been thrilled with how the dancers are adapting to such a powerful and jazzy style. "It will be exciting to see how the company will perform such a different style for many of them ... and it's been equally as exciting to watch them transform as dancers. But as I always say, if you have the heart and the technique, you can adapt your mind and body to anything."

The process of adaption is something that Williams will need to discover within herself as she steps down from a role that she was born to play. She was an integral part in developing this season's programming and saw an exciting opportunity to open the stage up to local performers to join in with the Spring Celebration. In the past, it has been a way to feature the dancers of DBDT only, but in entering this new era and to make the community aware that there is a blossoming dance scene, she wanted to make her last performance special for everyone. So she charged the honorary chairs, Dr. Linda James of Booker T. Washington high, Anita N. Martinez and Alfreda Norman, to canvass the dance community and bring in new performances and performances.

In doing so, she is taking the first steps in giving her company over to someone new. "I feel ready to turn over the reins. ... I just need to find the right person [to take over] now. The right person would be a person who can come in and work with the team and take Dallas Black Dance Theatre to the next level. That's my next charge."

But not her last move, as she will remain a board member and artistic director emeritus of the company she created. And as founder, she will always have an active role in how the company is maintained and its future.

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Danielle Georgiou