Red Clay Dance Company lives to awaken “glocal” Artivism through creating, performing and teaching dances of the African Diaspora.
Founded in Brooklyn, NY in July 2008 and now based in Chicago, IL, Red Clay Dance Company is the brainchild of Vershawn Sanders-Ward, the institutions’ Founding Artistic Director & CEO. Red Clay Dance is Chicago’s premier Afro-contemporary dance company, voted Best Dance Organization by the Chicago Reader in 2019. It’s mission is to awaken “glocal” 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. The touring company is an all-female ensemble that tours and performs locally, nationally and internationally the choreographic work of its founder. The organization also houses its own School of Dance, Youth Ensemble and provides dance education programming to schools and community partners.
Envisioned during her first trip to Africa in the summer of 2007, Sanders-Ward had just finished grad school at New York University and was spending her summer traveling, performing, and preparing for the next step in her artistic journey. It was at L’Ecole De Sables, a dance school in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal founded by legendary choreographer Germaine Acogny that Sanders-Ward first witnessed the spiritual interconnectedness of dance and daily life. At that moment, she decided this “embodied knowing” had to be the foundation for her dance company. She recognized the impact of Acogny’s gift to that small fishing village- a dance school that brought economic development and entrepreneurial opportunities to it’s neighbors. Sanders-Ward desired to build an organization that would have this same impact in marginalized communities on the South Side of Chicago. Red Clay Dance Company is rooted in African Diaspora movement practices and serves as a platform for Artivism (art + activism). It creates dance work that aspires to have a “glocal” impact and help to erase the cultural and socio-economic inequities in our city, nation, and world. Upon founding the company, she quickly began to gather like-minded dance artists who might help her actualize her dream. The name Red Clay Dance comes from her childhood memories. Although raised in the Chicago area, she was born in Mobile, Alabama, where she spent every summer, until the age of 12, with her grandparents learning about the land and the history of her birthplace of Plateau, also known as “Africatown”. This small community was formed by a group of 32 West Africans from the Kindgom of Dahomey, who in 1860, were included in the last known illegal shipment of slaves to the United States on a slave ship called Clotilda.
“Thinking back, the red earth was a playground for me as a kid, and I would use it to make all sorts of crazy things,” recalls Sanders-Ward. “Mix it with a little water, and it was like clay, something I could take with my hands and mold into something spectacular! It was unique because I made it, I dreamt it and designed it with my own hands.”
This is how Sanders-Ward views her choreographic work, a shaping and molding of our shared humanity expressed through dance, creating a visceral experience that lays bare our embodied memories. She choreographed her first work, Red Clay Child to honor this family history. Red Clay Dance Company is a thriving 501c3 charitable organization that houses a professional touring company, a world-class school of dance, a pre-professional youth ensemble, and a robust Community Engagement, Education and Partnership (CEEP) program that offers culturally rich dance education and artivism training to schools and community spaces.