BECKET — After practicing some moves, Erica Davis stood in the middle of the Ben and Estelle Sommers Studio at Jacob's Pillow, shoulders slumped with her head tilted to the side and slightly downward.
She looked at the dancer beside her and lamented, "I can't move."
The dancer, Tendayi Kuumba, a company member of Brooklyn's Urban Bush Women, looked straight back at the teenager and encouraged her. "But you just did it, as far as I'm concerned," Kuumba told Davis.
The dancer then introduced a talking point to the group of local high school girls she was coaching. "Sometimes the way we think about our body when we ask questions like — "What's a perfect body?" and "What does it mean to be a lady?" — we come at the answers with our own criticisms and sometimes the criticisms come from outside sources, like other people, or things we read and see on TV," Kuumba said.
The dancer then produced a posterboard with box drawn on it and asked the girls to write stereotypes of what perfection is inside the box, and their ideals of what it means to be beautiful outside of the box. Inside were word like "shape" and "skin tone" and "skinny" while outside the girls wrote "confident" and "healthy" and "respectful."
Suddenly the girls were seeing more clearly their own views and values on paper.
Such is the modus operandi of the Urban Bush Women, who are in the midst of a three-pronged residency in the Berkshires — to get residents and visitors they encounter to shake things up in their routines and rethink how they move themselves through their daily lives.
Members of the dance and community leadership company arrived in the county on June 20, commissioned through a grassroots effort, to offer a workshop series to a group of teen women of color; to offer another series of dance workshops for community members in locatations from Great Barrington to North Adams; and to participate in a residency to offer classes and performances at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. The company will continue to host open rehearsals and will perform at the Pillow through July 10.
Barbara Baker of Cummington attended the free community workshops offered at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams and Jacob's Pillow. "Their mission is to show you how to feel good about your body and how you move your body. It was appealing to me that I didn't have to be a ballerina or be skinny to try this," said Baker.
At the Jacob's Pillow workshop, she found herself free-form dancing to a beat across the Bakalar Studio floor, inducing a smile on her face as she freely swung her arms through the air.
"As an older woman, middle-aged, we're told we don't move like this with our weight," said Baker. But she did.
During that "Dance For Every Body Workshop," attended by several dozen people of all ages, body types and genders, the participants at one point were asked to revisit the movements of the childhood game of hopscotch, and then move across the floor in lines, embodying his or her own improvised interpretation of the hops and turns. During the series of subsequent movements, each person found themselves making decisions, making eye-contact with one another, and making a connection through the experience.
Shirley Edgerton, who chaired the efforts to bring the Urban Bush Women project to the Berkshire community said she found the program to be "extremely engaging" and "affirming," and said she plans to take some of the exercises back to the youth groups she facilitates.
Back across campus, the group of teens wrapped up their final session on Monday by performing a rap round they made up to go along with beat they kept while dancing in a circle. Davis and her peers — Jacklyn Boateng, 15, Janayah Burgess, and Keya Robertson, 11 — composed the lyrics, which included the refrain: "Black girl magic everywhere/ You can see it shining in my hair/ Don't let people tell ya what to do/ Be yourself, 'cuz there's only one you."
Associate Artistic Director Samantha Speis told the young women that she hopes they can learn to "walk through life with your full self."
She told The Eagle, "Community engagement can take on many forms while sharing, building and learning together in a space. Our participants learn they are not disembodied from who they are, but rather find themselves being connected with their core values."
Erica Davis said she noticed the difference in herself by the end of the program. "When we first started doing this, I didn't want to be here. I just wanted to go home and sleep. But after a while, I got into it. I liked being a part of it," she said.
If you go ...
Dancers from The School at Jacob's Pillow's new Cultural Traditions program, "Improv Traditions and Innovations: From Ring Shout to Blues to Jazz" will present a variety of dances, coached by program director and Urban Bush Women founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and Junebug Productions Artistic Director Stephanie McKee. Members of the public are invited to observe the daily school sessions at 3 p.m., and attend free performances by this group at 6:15 p.m. this Saturday, and again on July 9, on the Pillow's Inside/Out stage.