Mo’ Betta: A Conversation with Barbea Williams

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Barbea Williams is a dancer/choreographer, director, visual artist, and educator dedicated to sharing dance, theater, and visual cultural traditions from Africa and the African diaspora, including traditional West African, Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, and Haitian forms. She has directed the Barbea Williams Performing Company (BWPC), Arizona’s premier African-centered performance company, since 1975 and is a faculty member in the University of Arizona School of Dance. A recipient of a 2017 SFA Master-Apprentice Award Barbea is working with her daughter, Beah Williams, and her grandson, Tayvien Williams, to refine their knowledge and expertise in African-centered dance and performance.

Barbea Williams, a Black woman, holds up one side of a flowy white skirt and is wearing a yellow shirt with red, blue and green flowers and colorful bracelets, headband and earrings.
Barbea Williams. Photo: Steven Meckler

How did you start dancing?
I started dancing with my mother who taught us Mambo, Merengue, and Cha Cha Cha. She majored in music and was very artistic. She was also a professional floral designer. She co-owned a flower shop, so we danced with the flowers on the Southside of Chicago. As my mother downsized, she left a lot of her flowers with me. I always think of Baile de las Flores. It’s so important to reflect on nature when dancing. Many traditional dances are born from this legacy.

Now people think of me and know me in the dance world. But I came out of theater. I’m the last of the artistic directors of Ododo Theatre, started by Bill Lewis. It was the second Black theater company in Arizona. At that time, during the 1970s, there was a program called the CETA program, which provided the arts community some very important funding that helped to stabilize artists. I was hired as a dancer/choreographer and of course, an actress. We had already established through the City of Tucson Parks and Recreation a dance class in Randolph Park, now Reid Park. We had an Afro-Cuban dance class.

Since I had a background in dance, I started working with Barbara Greenberg-Gitek. I realized at the time she was teaching her own interpretation of Dunham technique, doing Dunham barre and progressions. I was familiar with Dunham technique having worked in Chicago with Lucille Ellis and Tommy Gomez, who were original company members of Katherine Dunham, whom I later met in Carbondale, Illinois at Southern Illinois University.

How did you end up in Tucson from Chicago?
I moved to Tucson at age 18. My mother wanted to get my brothers out of Chicago, because of the influence of gangs. I have four younger brothers, and three of them were being heavily recruited by the gangs. You can only do so much in that environment. We lived in a wonderful house in a nice neighborhood, but the gang activity permeated the entire Southside. So on June 12, 1972, the family moved to Tucson.

I was born and raised in a predominantly African and Afro-Latino community on the Southside of Chicago. There, you had families that were very community-minded, as well as church-going. You also see a need to be productive in your community not only as an individual but anytime you can reach back, especially when you’re a person who has vision or an entrepreneurial mentality. If there’s nothing there, you create it. So we came to Tucson and wondered, Where’s the Black community? Even on campus, they didn’t have my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, so I became a charter member of MuEta.

Like I said, I was teaching with Barbara Greenberg-Gitek in the community. And we had 60 or more people in the class. I’d say 95 to 98 percent of the students were white. It was fun, we were doing our thing, but I started wondering where the Black people were. Where’s the Black community?

So I started teaching a class over in the Projects, at La Reforma in Santa Rosa, on 10th Avenue and 22nd Street. I met Darryl Shawn Chapelle and Willie Ray Bell and we began to perform along with three drummers, Norwood Rainey, Ed Goode, and Tulivu Jadi (Ralph Drew).

Most important, I wanted to make sure that the Black community was represented in a positive and respectful way. Look at us, “We’re Black and We’re Proud.” Katherine Dunham represented this in Stormy Weather, the classic movie. They wanted the dance scene in that movie to be a minstrel song and dance, and she said, No, this is a dream sequence. All of that beauty and flow and richness of the Black experience was expressed in that sequence. We dream too, you know? I’m so thankful that the Barbea Williams Performing Company is a part of the Dunham legacy.

Seven dancers pose. The person on the left has dark skin and wears a red shirt with a drum around their neck. The six other people with light to medium dark skin pose in white skirts, yellowish orange tube tops and cloth headbands.
Barbea Williams Performing Company with Tayvien Williams. Image courtesy of Barbea Williams

You’re also part of the legacy, aren’t you, Barbea?
I am a woman of African descent born here in America. I read. I listen. I’ve had some extremely wonderful mentors that I’ve had a chance to listen to, different perspectives than the one we’ve been fed, which limit us in terms of the truth.

Coming to Arizona and Tucson was strange for me and our family. I’m definitely a product of the ’60s, of the Southside of Chicago, very black and proud, as James Brown “funked us up.” But you also know that you’re a child of the universe and of the world. I’m thankful to have been brought up in a loving family that emphasized that. My Black world was a global world. I had that understanding. I was really blessed to be raised in a few different worlds.

Uncle Ned had a farm right outside of Chicago and we’d go out there. Another uncle, Teodoro (Ted), took us for rides throughout Chicago, Chinatown, the Italian area, which allowed us exposure to the cultures and lifestyles of other people.

In Tucson I was very welcome in the Chicano community, which at that time was a consciousness-raising community, revolutionary in nature. To me, revolution is change, to stop limiting ourselves and our lives and our community. Then I got involved in Borderlands Theater, which was then Teatro Fronterizo, with Barclay Goldsmith. I worked also at Pima Community College with Joan Van Dyke, a mime artist, who recently passed.

I love Tucson. I love the mountains, the environment. We’re so close to nature here, where I can see coyotes, mule deer, tarantulas, rabbits and rattlesnakes. I was born and raised in a concrete city. Being in the Girl Scouts was something that really helped me see a larger part of nature that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. In Chicago, people in the neighborhood would grow food in pots. One of my brothers and I would go steal stuff out of people’s gardens. During the great migration in the ’30s and ’40s you had people that came from the South to the Southside of Chicago. So there were a lot of gardens.

Your work is rooted in forms of the African diaspora. Where did you study them?
I’ve studied in a lot of different art forms—West African, Brazilian, Cuban, Haitian—and I’ve traveled to most of these countries or worked with people, master artists, from these traditions. I had a wonderful at-the-right-time, at-the-right-place moment with Bessie Jones from the Georgia Sea Islands. Dr. Jim Griffith brought her here many years ago. I remember being in her presence, in her workshops she held for us in the cellar, in the old UA student union. How that impacted my life! She was like 83 years old at the time. Also Cicerone, a Haitian man also in his 80s, whom I met through Dunham workshops. Having opportunities like this to work with traditional artists, you soak it in.

I was really good at on the job training. I study, I read, I care. I’ve always been really fortunate. I consider myself chosen because of my background in life. I was feeling like I was connecting or re-connecting to the Egungun spirit that so many of our art forms are connected to. When you listen to Black music genres, you know they are so connected to Africa, but you have to study African traditions to comprehend and make that connection. That’s when I started retracing the work of African masters that we brought to Tucson, such as Assane Konte, the artistic director of KanKouran, a West African Dance company in Washington, D.C.; and Abdulaye Camara, one of the premier artists of Senegal. We’ve also worked with numerous master artists at Black Dance USA in St. Louis, Missouri.

What has the Master-Apprentice Award meant for you?
This award has meant an enormous amount to me. I have problems with title of master, however, because I’m an apprentice. I’m a learner. But how do I pass that torch? How do I keep this legacy of consciousness-raising, this raise-the-bar artistic excellence, this African-centered art form not only alive but still growing. I want someone “Mo’ Betta” than me.

I sew. I design. I choreograph. I teach. I’m a visionary. I’ve worked with our hair. I’ve worked as a cultural person. How to you pass that culture along? And to whom? They need to be a person of African descent. My company is very diverse and well represented with people respectful of African-centered arts.

My apprentices are my daughter, Beah, and my grandson, Tayvien. Beah has been working in both artistic and business areas. The business side is very instrumental right now to help balance out our artistic work. She was raised directly in this organization. She has now become our CFO, something I’ve never had. Her knowledge of business has been an enormous help. I was so busy doing everything myself. She’s also instrumental on an artistic level, with visions as young entrepreneur in our community who knows the community and who works in so many communities. She’s definitely her mother’s child.

Tayvien, 17, has taken a similar sense of ownership in terms of viewing art not only as an expression but also as a way to empower his skill building and knowledge. What he has gained from the master artists he has been exposed to over the last six or seven months has been enormous. For him to see music and its connection with dance has been important. Brazilian, Cuban, Jamaican, West African geography and culture, and all that he’s been able to experience as a part of this master-apprentice award. He has also been exposed to working with our company and learning from our collaborations—at the UA, in the church community, and the community at large.

Three dancers, Trehon Coleman, Beah Williams, and Barbea Williams, perform on stage in honor of Black Heritage.
Trehon Coleman, Beah Williams, and Barbea Williams. First annual Step Show: “Our Blackness, Our Heritage” 2018. Image courtesy of Barbea Williams

We recently produced a very well-attended step show. That was Beah’s idea along with Trehon Coleman’s, for Black History month. They approached me with the idea. It was our first annual step event. It was very successful and it was needed. As a charter member of a Black sorority, I’ve stepped in my lifetime. The form comes out of Black experience from Africa all the way to America. We were able to make that happen in a short amount of time. It’s about community, collaboration, and culture, my daughter says. In October we’ll present another artistic, community-minded event called “The Heart of Wakanda” with fashion, hair, and dance.

For Beah, having been given this title of apprentice has given her a different sense of ownership with the performing company. Now she calls us “Team Keeping the Culture Alive.” Keeping the culture alive, that’s always been my saying. It feels so good to have someone “stepping up to the plate.” It’s Mo’ Betta.

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