Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was born in the early 1950s and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. As a child, she studied modern dance and first performed with Joseph Stevenson, a former student of the pioneering African-American dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham. After graduating from high school, she received her BA degree from the University of Missouri and her MFA degree from Florida State University. She moved to New York City in 1980 and began studying with Diane McIntyre, a highly regarded dancer, choreographer, and teacher who was the director of the dance company, Sounds in Motion. Zollar credits much of her early artistic development to McIntyre, particularly in regard to emphasizing the organic relationship between music and dance. In 1984, she set out on her own and founded the Urban Bush Women, a company composed of women of color.
Over the years, Zollar has established a dance technique that synthesizes traditional modern dance, postmodern dance aesthetics, and the dance traditions of the African diaspora, including African American vernacular dance. Her dance works also include her dancers’ vocalizations, as they sing, speak, shout, and generally explore the full potential of the human voice. She uses this array of performance elements to create commentaries on the lives of black women in America, to confront social injustices, and to trace the rich cultural traditions of the people of the African diaspora. Her dances include Batty Moves (1995), Girlfriends (1986), and Walking With Pearl, which references Pearl Primus’s work. In addition to her highly-acclaimed performance work, she also engages in artistic and social activism through extended residencies aimed at community empowerment.