The Unapologetic Classicist

It was not easy to nail down Wanda Ebright for an interview. She’s a busy woman – a tenured Associate Professor of Dance and the coordinator for the Department of Visual & Performing Arts at Johnson C. Smith University, a PhD candidate in Dance at Texas Women’s University, an avid patron of dance performances and classes in Charlotte, and a mother of two daughters. After a few weeks of email tag, we finally met for coffee on a warm winter day and talked about dance: past, present, and future.

Wanda’s primary medium is ballet, as a dancer, choreographer, and educator, but she’s a self-proclaimed non-traditional ballerina. Tall, athletic, and African American, she fell in love with ballet but also found rejection as a young dancer. She studied summers at The Ailey School, Nashville ballet, Charleston Ballet Theater and danced with Memphis Classical Ballet while an undergraduate at the University of Memphis. (A multifaceted woman, she was a French major with a minor in History.) However, after being told too many times and ways that “Black people don’t do very well in ballet,” she wore tired of the game, and that was okay. “I wanted more than performing, so it wasn’t hard for me to give up,” admitting, “I’m too much of a control freak.” She nerds out on taking care of the overarching details – whether the lighting cues are fixed, the programs got printed or the house opens on time. She’d rather direct, educate, and create the space that enables dancers to focus on being dancers. A classic multitasker, Wanda also “didn’t want to have to choose between performance, teaching, choreography, research and writing. I wanted to do all of it. The only job that values all of it is in higher education, and that requires a masters degree.” (Insert big head nods on my side of the table.)

Ebright earned her MFA from Florida State University, where she still loved ballet but “I don’t look like a sylph, and that’s okay.” She chose to specialize in Graham-based modern, which didn’t make her apologize for her commanding presence. “I didn’t have to pretend to be frail… There was no pressure to feel like the heroine of every story who dies because some man breaks her heart.” She realized, “Oh, I can just be a strong, powerful woman? Let’s to that!” But Wanda appreciates the many parallels between ballet and Graham technique. “(Martha Graham) tried to make this radical break (from ballet), but in my mind and in my body it all assimilated beautifully.” She equates the Graham spiral to écarté & croisé and a high lift to cambré, happily marrying the two genres of dance where she feels most at home.

When Wanda began teaching at JCSU eight years ago, (previously she taught at Coker College in Hartsville, SC for as long) there was no dance program. Since then, she has created an Interdisciplinary Visual & Performing Arts Major with a Dance concentration, a Bachelors of Arts in Dance, added just recently added a Dance minor. She was the department chair for her first four years at the historically black university, and only stepped down to pursue her PhD. (Because, what’s just one more thing?)

Wanda’s personal teaching philosophy is “Versatility is the key to employability.” Her goal is to open dancers up to what they can be, not to break them down. If a strong ballet dancer enters the program, she should leave as a stronger ballet dancer who can also do jazz, modern, and African. She is interested in expanding dancers’ perceptions of themselves and encourages them not to box themselves into a category. Wanda asks them, “What do YOU want to do? What speaks to YOU? Do that, then build on it and do more.” In a refreshing approach to dance education, she confirms, “We try to add, not take away. It only diversifies and strengthens them.”

She knows from experience, if you can only do one thing you might miss out on bigger things. “Someone is always looking for a dancer, teacher, choreographer.” She prides her department on emphasizing the practical and academic sides of dance in their non-studio classes. They prepare students to be proactive and resourceful. “You have to be able to present yourself… If you can’t find a job, you make one!” She teaches students to research, to know WHY they are making choices in their work, in and out of the studio. Wanda seeks to create “THINKING, WRITING DANCERS.” (Insert double snaps on my side of the table.)

She’s active in the dance community as well, although, admittedly less so recently since working on her PhD dissertation. Wanda likes to plug people together, facilitating connections between dancers, local and visiting. She remembers when Charlotte felt much more polarized; it was basically North Carolina Dance Theatre and a handful of small companies, like Martha Connerton’s Kinetic Works. Now, she’s excited about the variety of dancers, companies, and venues for performance in town. Festivals like Bloom, the Charlotte Dance Festival, and Loose Leaves, are creating spaces for more versatility and visibility in dance. As the population of Charlotte grows, so does the dance community. “People are coming in and staking their claim” but in a good way. Wanda references New York City, where one wishes there were LESS dancers. In Charlotte, “there’s room for all types and an audience for every hint of difference that each company holds.”

Wanda’s only wish would be for even MORE variety. Since UNC Greensboro holds the only MFA program in North Carolina and many graduates end up in larger surrounding cities, like Charlotte, there’s a “tendency for things to look similar.” She’s would like to see more jazz dance, “an underexplored concert form.” In her own work, she blends her favorites genres (ballet, Graham, and jazz) as she doesn’t compartmentalize dance styles. She encourages other choreographers, just like her students, to do the same. “Take risks! That’s how growing pains happen in a city.” There’s a market for everything to be explored. Wanda had some crazy ideas like “What if there was an Afro-Latin ballet company?” or (for shame) just MORE ballet!? She hypothesizes that dancers shy away from making and performing ballet for fear of being seen as a threat to, or competing with, Charlotte Ballet. A legitimate, but hampering concern. 

But not for her. Ebright’s dance company, The Wanda Project, is a contemporary ballet company she started while teaching at Coker College. What began as a pick up company of dancers she met in her travels teaching around the country is now the resident company at JCSU. The Wanda Project has performed at Piccolo Spoleto, the Denver Independent Choreographers Project, BalletFest Atlanta, and more, although they’ve also been on hiatus since Ebright began pursuing her doctorate in dance (geez, that PhD stuff sounds like hard work or something.)

Other movers and makers she admires are Ben Kubie and Kati Hanlon Mayo, noting “you can’t have too many positive ballet instructors.” She shouts out to her fellow tradition keepers – Kim Jones of UNC Charlotte and her colleague Jackie O’Toole. Kim Jones is a régisseur for the Martha Graham Resource Center and recently spearheaded the reconstruction project on the work of Paul Taylor. Jackie O’Toole is certified in Horton Technique, and Wanda labels the two of them “unapologetic classicists. We exist so people can break away (from the norms)”. On the more contemporary side, she admires the work of Juliana Tilbury Carson, Arlynn Zachary, Eric Mullis (and okay, me). “Each new person changes the whole… building the draw for students to come from undergrad and graduate programs”.

She also notes Latanya Johnson of OnQ Productions, Charlotte’s only professional black theater company, which circles (in my mind) back to Wanda’s beginnings in dance, as an unconventional ballerina. Refusing to believe that there was not a place a place for her in dance, much less the classical world, she not only carved out her own place, but also one for young students like her who may have been rejected by certain eyes and voices in the dance field. Dance is, in fact, for everybody, the powerhouses and the princesses alike.

When asked about her plans for the future, she speaks in a tone signifying that these are perhaps far off, but deep rooted plans. She wants to start a Masters program at Johnson C. Smith University, with the goal of being the first historically black college in the U.S. to offer an MFA in Dance. (Insert chills on my side of the table). As if she hasn’t already, Wanda Ebright hopes to create a place for experimentation, fusion, and inclusion. And then rest… maybe.

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