by Tonia Hill
Red Clay Dance Company is in its second semester of partnership with Dyett High School for the Arts, 551 E. 51st St., The Chicago-based dance company was founded by Vershawn Sanders-Ward who serves as the executive artistic director. The female-troop was launched in 2008 just as Sanders-Ward was completing a Master of Fine Arts degree at the New York University (NYU).
In 2010, she relocated back to Chicago and began seeking out ways to connect with local communities in Chicago through Red Clay to build an audience for the company, and cultivate supporters of dance as they grow into adults said Sanders-Ward.
“Our start came from being in the community, teaching dance before we even had the [youth] academy or before we were in any schools,” Sanders-Ward said.
Red Clay Dance performs Afro-Contemporary Dance, which is a fusion of traditional West African movement, contemporary, and modern dance movement. The company has two-to-three concerts per year locally, and the group also travels to perform outside of the city. An international project is currently underway for Red Clay in Uganda.
Outside of professional work, Red Clay also has community engagement and partnership programs in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) as well as in community centers. The collaboration with Dyett falls under that umbrella.
The company has a Youth Academy and Youth Ensemble that is hosted at Fuller Park, 331 W. 45th St., and a Teen Dance Company in partnership with After School Matters at Hamilton Park, 513 W. 72nd St.
In addition to elementary schools such as Hendricks, 4316 S. Princeton Ave., and Hughes, 4247 W. 15th St. Red Clay Dance also works with preschoolers.
Dyett became an arts high school for the 2016-2017 school year. The school has a dance track, and Sanders-Ward met with school officials last summer to lay the groundwork for the upcoming school year. The aim was to provide dance experiences that reach into the African diaspora she said.
“It’s an arts high school and creativity is at the root of the learning,” Sanders-Ward said. “We’re there to foster that idea of art as a practice, and that is something that develops over time.”
The high school currently has freshmen only, and 50 students are studying dance. In the fall semester, an instructor from Red Clay visited the school twice a month to teach hip-hop.
Sanders-Ward is currently teaching African Contemporary this semester and is choreographing a work with students. Another instructor from Red Clay is also there and teaches bee-boy and hip-hop styles of dance. Both meet with students twice a week.
Since she began classes at Dyett, she’s noticed a desire and appreciation for dance.
“I notice that there is a passion for movement, but there is still growth and understanding that needs to happen in terms of the discipline of dance and art,” Sanders-Ward said.
For some students, Sanders-Ward said it is their first experience studying classical dance or being a part of a formal dance program. It’s a structured class she said so learning the discipline of different genres of dance can be challenging, but she sees potential in the students.
“Once you understand the discipline of dance you are able to have that freedom in the movement, and you develop a work ethic,” Sanders-Ward said.
Dyett dance students are currently working on choreography that they will perform in their spring concert this coming May.
Red Clay also hosts an annual “Dance 4 Peace” Youth Concert and Dyett students will be performing in that concert. The show will be held on Saturday, May 6, at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S. Martin Luther King Dr., at 5:30 p.m.
In June, Red Clay will perform at the Logan Arts Center, 915 E. 60th St. on Saturday, June 3, and Sunday, June 4. For more information about Red Clay Dance Company visit redclaydance.com.