Vershawn Sanders-Ward Credit: Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

“When you realize there’s inequities, and there’s not as many performance opportunities or presentation opportunities for certain artists, you have to begin to make those spaces for yourself,” said founding artistic director and CEO of Red Clay Dance Company Vershawn Sanders-Ward in 2019. Now Red Clay, a company with a mission of teaching and performing dances of the African diaspora to advance cultural and socioeconomic equality, has opened a home of its own in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago on a bustling thoroughfare just steps away from the 63rd Street Green Line. 

Autonomy over a place to gather and create has always been central to the vision for Red Clay. Sanders-Ward first encountered Senegalese choreographer Germaine Acogny during her undergraduate studies at Columbia College. After graduating with an MFA in dance from NYU, Sanders-Ward continued her studies for three months at Acogny’s school in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal. Her experiences at the International Centre for Traditional and Contemporary African Dances, otherwise known as École des Sables, not only informed her choreographic voice but solidified her determination to build a company, and with it, a thriving community. 

“Not only did [Acogny] have an amazing company that toured the world, but her school was a community hub,” she says. “Artists could come and learn, and it brought international artists to this small fishing village that they probably would never come to if it were not for her building this amazing compound. That was the first moment I realized dance could be a driver economically for community. Arts could infuse opportunity and dollars and tourism into a really small neighborhood and make it visible to the world. Now, because of her school, everyone knows Toubab Dialaw. It’s not in Dakar, it’s not in the big city, it’s in the small fishing village that her father grew up in.” Witnessing the impact of École des Sables also reinforced Sanders-Ward’s desire to return to her hometown to develop her art. “The more art you have around you, the more wealthy your community is. [Toubab Dialaw] was able to really see their wealth and their value. And vice versa—people coming there could see the value of the people there.”

For the past decade, Red Clay has rooted itself on Chicago’s south side, first in partnership with the Gary Comer Youth Center on the 7200 block of South Ingleside, then with the Chicago Park District at Fuller Park, a block from the 47th Street Red Line station. During the company’s five-year tenure as a Fuller Park arts partner, Red Clay has gradually transformed the space it was given into a viable home for dance by investing in its infrastructure. 

“The room we were using was a woodshop before we came—with a floor that was scraping up our knees,” recalls Sanders-Ward. A performance at the DuSable Museum Roundhouse—formerly a horse stable (“It was literally a horse stable. It was cement. Dirty cement.”)—drove the company to action. In 2016, dancemaker and educator Onye Ozuzu initiated Project Tool, a program for dancers to build their own sprung wood floors by hand. Sanders-Ward contacted the Sweet Water Foundation, which now stewards the floors, to help Red Clay build floors and seating for the Roundhouse and Fuller Park’s woodshop. 

“Thanks to Onye’s project, Sweet Water knew how to make the floors—and we left that behind,” she says. “When we moved here, we left the floor and the marley so that if any other dancers come after us, this is a dance space now. Don’t flip it back into something else! We also put up mirrors. So over five years, we made an investment. Dance space is so limited, especially south of Cermak. Just knowing that there’s another location where people can go if they need rehearsal space feels good. It felt really good to leave the park in a better place than it was when we got there.”

But the pandemic shutdown and the closure of parks buildings, with no guaranteed date of reopening, pushed Red Clay to seek greater independence. “The shutdown happened in March, and we thought we’d just wait it out,” Sanders-Ward says. “The summer went by, and we were approaching fall, and it just didn’t sound promising. We found this space in September 2020.” Empty since construction was completed in 2019, the storefront space now hosts two studios—one with marley, the other with hardwood—and both equipped to livestream, as well as a conference room and office and storage space for Red Clay staff. 

Vershawn Sanders-Ward leads a rehearsal for Red Clay Dance Company. Matthew Gilson for Chicago Reader

Her intentions for how the space will be developed reflect a commitment to partnership and mutual growth. “I want this to be a community hub, an École des Sables here in Chicago, a place where artists from around the world want to come and share their gifts, as well as being a place for south-side artists to have a home base,” says Sanders-Ward. “We’re still working on what that would look like in terms of programming. I’m not interested in replicating other residency models or rentals—I want a real relationship with the artists who use this space. What is their process? When do you need space? 

“I found, before Red Clay had a space, the residency applications never aligned with when I had an actual idea. Like, I don’t have any ideas right now, but the application is due! But then when I had the idea, I missed all the deadlines. That always stood out to me. So why isn’t there a flexible kind of thing, where artists can have access to space as it’s needed? And how do I find ways to support this space that’s not off the back of artists? I don’t need to make my rent by charging you rent. It’s so transactional—it goes against everything Red Clay stands for in our mission and vision and values. I don’t want it to be transactional. I’m trying to figure out a way to make it reciprocal. I don’t have the answers. I’m asking artists, individual choreographers, what kind of arrangement with the space would benefit you? And what would you bring to that space? I’d like to design a program that has space for individualism. It may mean we can’t support 8,500 artists, but we can fully support the ones that are here.” 

In the meantime, Red Clay has been working with another south-side organization, Urban Growers Collective, to develop new work on land practices and urban communities. “Urban Growers Collective is adamant about teaching communities about food: food injustice, food disparities, how do I cultivate my own food for myself?” Sanders-Ward says. In a residency at Trillium Arts in Mars Hill, North Carolina, Sanders-Ward and her dancers began to explore themes of land cultivation, connection to the land, and how Black bodies connect to land labor. 

“We’re deepening our research into land practices and trying to translate that back to more urban communities. It feels like the time for us to go big and do something outside the theater. For a project like this and how we’re trying to engage community, we need to take our time. No one’s rushing back into the theater right now, so why not take our time? We need time to create. Before we had our own space, our timeline was not really our timeline, it was someone else’s timeline that we had to fit ourselves into. So now we have the time to figure out, what is our workflow? How much time does it take for us to envision something and see it through? It feels good to be able to breathe into that.”

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