THE SUMMER LEADERSHIP INSTITUTE: Strengthening Core Muscles for Organizing, Art-Making and Community Building By Lizzy Cooper Davis

Applications are now open for UBW’s annual Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) (Apply Here), a 10-day intensive in the company’s choreographic and community practices and a foundational component of the Choreographic Center. The SLI expands and strengthens the network of what Jawole Willa Jo Zollar calls “front line social justice workers” by bringing dance professionals, community-based artists and organizers together for a learning experience in anti-racist dialogue, community engagement and art-making. Inspired by inherited models of black feminist art and organizing as well as leadership- and movement-building centers such as The Highlander Folk School, the SLI offers an immersive, residential experience where, by learning and living together, we imagine community solutions and put our principles into practice. 

Each year the SLI focuses on a social justice theme. In addition to daily dance classes and the creation of a culminating performance, engagement with this theme is facilitated by: an Intentional Dialogue Process learned from Tammy Bormann and David Campt and adapted for the SLI; a two-day workshop in “Understanding and Undoing Racism” offered by partner organization, The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB); UBW’s workshop on “Entering, Building, and Exiting Community;” and UBW’s practice of Soul Deep Listening where developing an ongoing practice of healing oneself and one’s own community precedes action in or engagement with other communities. 

Members of the Choreographic Center will participate in the SLI in a variety of capacities and will be supported in using the experience to deepen their own creative inquiry. Just as conditioning is continual for a dancer, we believe strengthening anti-racist practices of dialogue, community engagement and art-making is an ongoing process. Choreographic Center cohort-members will, therefore, also have the opportunity to attend workshops throughout the year to build on learning begun at the SLI. 


The SLI invests in black feminist traditions of art and organizing. As such, and in keeping with UBW’s core value of honoring the culture and history of the African Diaspora, the SLI takes up the community ethic embodied in the Ring Shout and the leadership model exemplified by Ella Jo Baker.

The Ring Shout: Originating in the Caribbean and US South, the Ring Shout was an embodied worship practice of the enslaved. Participants moved in a counter-clockwise circle while singing songs of worship or prayer to the rhythms of their shuffling feet and slapping hands. During a time when their dancing was forbidden and considered blasphemous in religious settings, the Ring Shout’s subtle footwork fell strategically outside European definitions of dance and thus smuggled the movement so integral to African cosmologies into black American prayer. Within the safety of the ring, expression ranged from supplication to joy and from flailing grief to trance-like prayer but the circle, its motion and its song, remained constant. The ring facilitated the range of deep expression and release essential for the health and maintenance of the community. The community circle forged at the SLI endeavors to enact the principles of the ring for, as historian Sterling Stuckey explains, the Ring Shout was “a central organizing principle of slave culture.” (Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1988, p. xii.)

From the Ring Shout we inherit:

  • a belief in the transformative power of dance in forging community, supporting healing, and facilitating growth; 
  • a valuing of the embodied wisdom of African-descendant practices;
  • an understanding that a community committed to growth will challenge its members to take great risks; 
  • a recognition that safe space is not always comfortable space; 
  • a commitment to building a circle that will catch and support all of its members; 
  • an acceptance of joy and strength as well as anger and struggle; 
  • a vigilance in maintaining the circle.

Ella Jo Baker: Ella Jo Baker (1903-1986) was a life-long organizer for racial and economic justice. Although frequently eclipsed by the civil rights era’s charismatic, celebrity leaders, Baker’s behind-the-scenes organizing was no less foundational or significant. She held leadership positions in both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and she founded In Friendship to fight Jim Crow laws and ran the Crusade for Citizenship to facilitate voter registration. In 1960, her desire to support the student activists of Greensboro, North Carolina, led her to call a national meeting of young organizers. This move was characteristic of Baker’s organizing style in that, rather than dictate what should be done, it facilitated a gathering for young activists to strategize for themselves. This historic 1960 meeting birthed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which was arguably the civil rights movement’s most radical and successful effort to address segregation and voting rights. (For more on Ella Baker see Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005 and Joanne Grant’s film “Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker,” Icarus Films, 1981.)

From Ella Jo Baker we inherit: 

  • a commitment to group-centered leadership that is facilitative rather than didactic;
  • a belief that those most affected by a problem should lead the strategizing and action around its solutions; 
  • an investment in hearing, following, and supporting young people; 
  • a practice of cultivating our capacities for both leadership and followship;
  • an attention to multiple forms of leadership and valuing of leadership enacted behind-the-scenes, not just in-the-spotlight.


The SLI is structured by local partnerships, curricular modules, and collaborative community events. These components facilitate learning about UBW’s choreographic tools and pedagogic principles while animating the company’s core values.

SLI Core Components: Local Partnerships with The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES), Junebug Productions, Ashé Cultural Center, and Tulane University have ensured UBW’s accountable and collaborative work in New Orleans, the city that has hosted the SLI for the past seven years. With the Institute’s return to Brooklyn this year, UBW is committed to developing local partnerships in New York while also maintaining its collaboration with PISAB. Curricular Modules include: the division of the SLI community into Task Groups with assigned areas of leadership and responsibility; Daily Dance Classes for all levels emphasizing physical rigor and mining the metaphorical richness of “movement for movement building;” the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism Workshop; UBW’s Entering, Building and Exiting Community (EBX) workshop; guided processes of Movement Synthesis to facilitate embodied reflection after each workshop; an Asset Mapping process that is central to UBW’s community engagement process and used at the SLI to build performance material from the talents in the room; an art-making process of Collaborative Creation; and a free Culminating Performance open to community members of all ages. Community Events bring the broader community into the conversations of the SLI, are free and open to the public and include a UBW-led, inter-generational dance class on black social dances called “How We Got to the Funk.” 

Choreographic Tools and Pedagogical Practices: The SLI’s collaborative creation process utilizes UBW’s hallmark Choreographic Tools: 

  • Theme Selection and Research, where all performers conduct research into a pre-selected theme and significant rehearsal time is dedicated to sharing and discussing our findings;
  • Embodied Synthesis, where research material and responses are physically processed and shared; 
  • Asset Mapping, where the group’s performance and production strengths are identified; 
  • Affinity Group Formation, where people with shared skills and interests come together; 
  • Self-Directed Material Generation, where affinity groups work independently to create material; 
  • Learning Set Choreography, where UBW-created material is learned by the group; 
  • Story Boarding Process, where the director’s process of synthesizing material and visioning the final performance structure is shared.

Daily dance classes and workshops model UBW’s hallmark Pedagogical Practices:

  • Believing in the value and power of Dance for Everybody, we cultivate the skills needed to teach classes for all levels, backgrounds, and bodies;
  • Believing the studio to be a space for strengthening our muscles for both physical and community movement, our classes are designed to be Practice for Group Process;
  • Believing in the liberating potential of physical communication in our debate-based society, we encourage Non-Verbal Dialogue;
  • Believing that no space is neutral and no perspective is objective, we invite dancers to Leave Nothing at the Door and bring their full selves into the studio;
  • Believing that specialized language can be alienating and exclusive, whenever possible we use Inclusive Language drawn from familial or cultural rather than institutional centers of knowledge;
  • Believing there is an oppressive over-emphasis on conformity, we value Individuality through improvisation and within choreography.
  • Believing in the importance of Cultural Equity, we commit to studying and sharing the histories of the forms we teach and inviting the cultural wisdom of those in the room;
  • Believing there is often an unhealthy focus on body-type in the dance world, we strive to create an inclusive studio space that values a joyful and rigorous commitment to Health and Wellness. 

Value-based Learning: The structure, pedagogy and teachings of the Institute are grounded in UBW’s core values [add link], guiding principles and intentional practices. UBW has also adopted The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Commitments for Anti-Racist Organizing:

  • Undo Racism
  • Understand, Share and Celebrate Culture
  • Learn from History
  • Analyze Manifestations of Racism
  • Network
  • Undo Internalized Racial Oppression
  • Develop Leadership
  • Maintain Accountability
  • And Reshape Gatekeeping

SLI 2016: JULY 22nd-31st IN BROOKLYN, NY

This summer, the Institute returns to Brooklyn, NY, and will take up the theme “You, Me, We—Understanding Internalized Racial Oppression and How it Manifests in Our Artistic Community.” Participants, company and staff will examine manifestations of internalized racism in both white people and people of color and explore its influence in community organizing and art-making. The company has articulated the following guiding questions: 

  • Do we find ourselves striving for pre-defined ideas of beauty and excellence?
  • Does our work challenge or recreate dominant frameworks and systems of policing that ignore history, culture, power and lineage?
  • How can we explode predetermined expectations, restore our full humanity and activate our true strength? 

For more information and to apply please CLICK HERE
































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