What inspired you to work in the arts?
I was inspired to work in the arts because it gave me a space to express and explore different parts of myself. I enjoy the gift and power of storytelling through dance, through the body. It is a beautiful way of sharing and seeing the humanity in each other and a tool to fight for everyone’s humanity to be honored and valued.
Tell us about your company.
Red Clay Dance Company lives to awaken “global” change through creating, performing and teaching dances of the African Diaspora–change that transforms cultural and socio-economic inequities in our local and global community. We are Chicago’s premiere Afro-Contemporary dance company that consists of a 7-member all female touring company, a Dance Academy, Youth Ensemble and Community Engagement, Education and Partnerships (CEEP) programs that provide dance education residencies to schools and community space. One of our newest initiative, Dance Pamoja Challenge, a 12-month project led by Red Clay Dance Company to fight Covd-19 that began in June 2020! Pamoja in Swahili means together. By focusing on improving our physical, mental and emotional health as a community we can lower the amount of Covid related deaths in our community due to pre-existing conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes. By engaging black families in exercise through high-energy, spiritually enriching dance forms deeply rooted in the African-Diaspora culture we build the resilience needed to fight off this virus together, PAMOJA!
Tell us about some of your funders/supporters.
Red Clay Dance Company is supported by an amazing village! Our Zawadi Circle members are our sustaining donors who really keep the organization going along with our Board of Director and Foundation Partners: Alphawood Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, Doris Duke Foundation, Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Field Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Llyod A. Fry Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation and Springboard Foundation.
What is the audition process for your dance company?
Lately, I have not had auditions. I have invited dancers I have come into contact with or seen dancing elsewhere into our creative process to see how they work with the me and the dancers in the company and after some time extend an offer to join the company. My process is more organic and while I am looking for a special talent in their dancing, I am also seeking those that have an understanding of their artistry and what they can add to a creative process. I really enjoying working with dancers that are also makers/choreographers. There is just a different sensibility they bring to the creative process.
Share details about the young people that participate in the dance classes.
The Red Clay Dance Academy is the official school of Red Clay Dance Company! Our Academy program provides accessible excellence to dance training for youth, teens and adults. We also have our Youth Ensemble, which is an advanced opportunity for our 8th-12th grade Academy students who are passionate about dance! This program prepares young dance Artivists for artistic excellence, and provides artistic mentorship and rigorous training in dance techniques of the African Diaspora and other classical forms. Ensemble members leave feeling confident, technically sound, skilled in their ability to communicate, and are creative problem solvers. We have former students that have studied dance in college or continue to train in dance as they pursue other career paths.
As the leader, what has been your most proud moment with the dance company?
I would have to say the moment we are in right now, securing our own space to continue our work. I have always dreamed of Red Clay Dance Company having a space of its’ own, and now we do. Our new space, located in the Woodlawn community on Chicago’s south side, will not only be our home, a place where our community can experience our art, but also an accessible space for excellence to Black/African Diaspora dance forms.
Where do you want to see the dance company in the next five years?
In five years, Red Clay Dance Company will a global model for Artivism (art+ activism) and synergy in dance creation, performance and education. We will be working hard on our impact areas: Amplifying the Voices of the Black/African Diaspora, Supporting Black Women, Seeking Remuneration Equity for Artists, and creative accessible excellence!
How can we connect with you?
@vershawnsw and @redclaydance
About Vershawn Sanders-Ward
Versahwn Sanders-Ward holds a MFA in Dance from New York University and is the first recipient of BFA in Dance from Columbia College Chicago (Gates Millennium Scholar.) She is the Founding Artistic Director and CEO of Red Clay Dance Company and is currently a candidate for Dunham Technique Certification. Sanders-Ward is a 2019 Chicago Dancemakers Forum Awardee, a 2019 Harvard Business School Club of Chicago Scholar, a 2017 Dance/USA Leadership Fellow, a 2013 3Arts awardee, and a 2009 Choreography Award from Harlem Stage NYC. In 2015, 2018 and 2020, NewCity Magazine selected Ward as one of the “Players 50, People Who Really Perform for Chicago”.
Her choreography has been presented in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, The Yard at Martha’s Vineyard, and internationally in Toronto, Dakar and Kampala. Vershawn is currently an adjunct faculty member at Northwestern University and has received choreographic commissions from Columbia College Chicago, Northwestern University, Knox College, AS220, and the National Theatre in Uganda.
As an arts advocate, she is a co-founder of the Creatives of Color Legacy Collective, a board member of the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago ,and was selected to attend the inaugural Obama Foundation Summit for Emerging Global Leaders. Sanders-Ward has had the pleasure of gracing the cover of DEMO, Columbia College Chicago’s Alumni Magazine!