Dancers & Companies

Where Her Secret Lies

Ebony Williams stands alone, strong and radiant in a pale leotard, facing a crowd of thousands. It's the 2015 Made in America Festival in Philadelphia, and the audience of Beyoncé fans is awaiting their queen. Instead of the familiar music, however, poet Maya Angelou's powerful voice rains down: “Many people wonder where my secret lies…," and Williams dances. The spectators fall nearly silent—something unheard of at Beyoncé concerts. Angelou describes the “reach of my arms," “the span of my hips," “the stride of my step," and Williams majestically flows between endless extensions and haughty swagger. An immaculate fouetté melts into a sassy stride. A delicate cabriole falls into a luxurious backbend. The solo, choreographed by Williams herself, represents both facets of her eclectic career as a concert dancer who's conquered the commercial world.

Williams was catapulted into a new chapter of her career last year when, after a decade spent dancing with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, the company unexpectedly shut its doors. Having long used commercial dance as a side gig, she now rocks heels full-time on Beyoncé's Formation World Tour. But she still carries pointe shoes in her dance bag “just in case."


Many dancers have a clear-cut path in the dance world. Williams, however, never felt like she quite fit the confines of either the concert or commercial mold. Having mimicked music videos from the time she could walk, she began training in third grade with Boston Ballet's tuition-free outreach program, Citydance, and started more rigorous classes at Boston Ballet School two years later.

Though her strength made her a standout from a young age, she struggled with being the only black dancer in class and with the cutthroat competition from her peers. She stopped dancing in high school, spending six years away from the studio, but was eventually pulled back. “I always say that dance chose me, because I couldn't stop missing it," she says. Acceptance into The Boston Conservatory sealed the deal. While pursuing her BFA, Williams set her heart on joining the newly founded Cedar Lake, which she felt would allow her to incorporate her natural edge. It took less than a year after graduation for that dream to become reality.

She spent 10 years with the company, performing choreography by contemporary masters like Ohad Naharin, Hofesh Shechter and Crystal Pite. “I learned who I was as a dancer and a human," she says of her time there. “I had the comfort of a company with the freedom to try other things." During off-time, she danced with artists like Rihanna, Fergie and Ciara, and had a starring role in Beyoncé's iconic “Single Ladies" music video in 2008. Meanwhile, she savored the intimacy of the concert dance world and the camaraderie of company life at Cedar Lake.

When the company announced its closing in March 2015, Williams felt the hit. The dancers were shocked to hear that Cedar Lake's founding benefactor had pulled out, and they only had a few months left. “Looking back, I should have seen it coming," she says. “There was a big shift of energy the last six months to a year. Still, I was shocked and devastated. I pictured myself going to shows as an audience member 15 years from now, watching choreography that was created on me, and seeing how it had evolved. Now that will never happen."

Instead of panicking, Williams pushed herself in new directions. She took vocal lessons and auditioned for Broadway and film, even making it to a final cut for The Wiz Live! on NBC. She posted her successes and disappointments (complete with comfort food) to a growing social media following. “My goal was to try everything—and to be okay with not being perfect," she says.

Even on Beyoncé's Formation World Tour, Williams (far right) practices pointework in her downtime. PC Daniela Vesco, Courtesy Clear Talent Group

It wasn't long before Beyoncé's team asked Williams to perform at the 2015 Made in America Festival. She jumped at the chance. “It was a new beginning," she says. “It was the other half of my dream."

Since then, Williams has stayed by Beyoncé's side, marching in formation at the Super Bowl halftime show, breaking the internet with “Lemonade" and, now, on the five-month Formation World Tour. The fast pace of the commercial world initially required some adjustment. “The saying 'Time is money' definitely applies," she says. “The commercial world wants quicker results—from the creation process to learning choreography." Other big changes include the sheer size of the audiences (many holding up phones or iPads) and the perks: gifts from designers and sponsors.

Williams still embraces her classical roots. Between the 2016 Super Bowl and Formation rehearsals, for example, she traveled to the Netherlands to perform with The Francesca Harper Project at the Holland Dance Festival. She also hopes to find time to work with Richard Siegal on an upcoming project and possibly with Crystal Pite. Despite the absence of regular technique classes, she keeps her body in ballet shape on her own with daily warm-ups and exercises. “I always have pointe shoes with me, and I'll do relevés while I watch 'Law & Order' or HGTV," she says. “When Francesca Harper asked me to put them on, I had to trust that it was still in my body, like riding a bike."

Williams also hopes to expand her choreographic and acting skills, and perhaps even spearhead a few projects of her own. In the meantime, she plans to hold the two sides of her dance persona close. “I couldn't live without either part of my career—the classical or the commercial," she says. “And I'll never let either side go, because both are what make me Ebony."


Preach

Her commercial career has made Ebony Williams more of a nomad, which has given her the chance to focus on another passion: mentorship. She's hosted workshops across the country, including in her hometown of Boston, and taught at New York City Dance Alliance's winter intensive. “The young people I teach remind me of myself—sitting there with pen and paper wanting to know it all," she says.

Her biggest lesson is one she wishes she'd heard at a young age: Be yourself. “In the commercial world, I'm pegged as classical, but in the concert world, I'm considered rebellious and funky," says Williams. “I've felt too skinny in some situations and too big in others. I talk to kids about the fact that I'm still afraid to disappoint. I have to remind myself that I'm here because someone sees the best in me, because I can bring joy to others." —RZ

Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
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I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.

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