Many singers and actors first fall in love with these arts as youngsters in church, but it’s rarer for the house of worship to imbue the love of dance. Unless you’re Christen Ashley Williams, who couldn’t take her eyes off the praise dancers at First Saint John Cathedral in east Fort Worth.
“My dad noticed me staring at the dancers,” says Williams, 24. “And he said, ‘You can do that if you want to.’ ”
So she did, finding a connection not just through movement, but through emotional expression. It was a bond that compelled her to take dance classes in lieu of physical education at Arlington Heights High School, where one of her teachers was Joy Atkins, a former dancer with the Bruce Wood Dance Company.
Then came the moment that cemented her passion for dance: Atkins took her dance students to see a Fort Worth performance by Dallas Black Dance Theatre, in the group’s annual “Dancing Beyond Borders” program at the Scott Theatre.
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One DBDT dancer in particular, Nycole Ray (pronounced NIGH-cole), caught Williams’ attention.
“Her performance was very emotionally driven,” Williams says. “When I saw that, I thought I could bring my emotion into my dance like that.”
And she does. She has been a member of DBDT: Encore!, the second company of the acclaimed organization, for three seasons and has performed with the group in Fort Worth previously. Now, Fort Worth audiences will once again witness Williams’ emotional connection to dance when she performs Saturday in “Dancing Beyond Borders” at Scott Theatre.
Honing her craft at Howard
After high school, Williams went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., to study dance. Like in many college dance programs, she learned the technique of classical ballet alongside modern and contemporary dance, and Senegalese, or West African, dance.
“My professors got me to focus my telling the story through whatever movement appealed to me,” she says.
She joined the Howard University Dance Ensemble, working not only as a dancer but as a rehearsal assistant, and tried her hand at choreography under instructor Camille Brown.
Christen came to us with ambition and the skill to organize. She possesses the ability to stay calm in an artistic storm and problem-solve quickly.
Nycole Ray, DBDT artistic director
For the three summers in college, she returned to Dallas to take Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s summer intensive, and interned under Ray, the DBDT dancer who most inspired her. After graduation, she was asked to be part of the Encore! Company, then called DBDT II.
“I love working with Nycole Ray. Her artistry is amazing; it’s a beautiful experience,” Williams says.
The feeling is mutual.
“Christen came to us with ambition and the skill to organize,” says Ray. “She possesses the ability to stay calm in an artistic storm and problem-solve quickly. While working with me as my assistant, she has gained insight on how to look for each of the dancers’ qualities and quirks, and figuring out conflict resolutions. She now has a stronger eye for details. I think she is an amazing young woman.”
Dancing to the next goal
In her dance career so far, Williams has worked with such renowned choreographers as Zane Booker, Kathy Smith, Hope Boykin, Assane Konte, Ray Mercer and Kim Bears-Bailey, and has performed works by Sherrill Berryman-Johnson, Pearl Primus and Ronald K. Brown. She performed with Alfre Woodard at the Lincoln Memorial for Constitution Day, and at two inaugural celebrations for President Barack Obama in 2013.
This weekend’s Dancing Beyond Borders features the main and secondary companies of Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Williams will dance Richard A. Freeman-Carter’s solo “Unsettled Thoughts” and in Edmond Giles’ “Country Blues.”
“My ultimate goal is to move to the main company,” she says, “or I want to be company manager or serve as rehearsal director. I’ve seen the imprint that Dallas Black Dance Theatre has put on the world, and I’m grateful to be part of it.”
No doubt, it’s because of hard work, talent and a bounty of emotion.
Dancing Beyond Borders
April 7-8: “DBDT: Encore! — Rising Excellence” featuring Ailey II dancer Levi Philip Marsman and SMU alum Shauna Davis. Dallas City Performance Hall.
May 19-21: Spring Celebration, the finale of the 40th season, features premieres by modern and ballet dance masters. Wyly Theatre, Dallas.
For more information go to dbdt.com.