Photo credit/Nancy Valladolid
Dani Jo Williams says she can trace the moment she fell in love with dance back to the age of three. The students were all singing along in unison to a children’s song called “We’re going to Kentucky.” Rather than sing, Williams says she remembers not being able to stop dancing. Her mother enrolled her in a dance class immediately.
Williams danced for years as a student at Michele Clark High School and Columbia College Chicago before being diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis, better known as Painful Bladder Syndrome. When her doctor told her she’d no longer be able to dance, Williams changed the narrative and worked to make her dream of professional dance a reality.
These days, Williams is spreading her love for dance throughout her community, thanks to a partnership with the Joffrey Ballet.
Through Joffrey Ballet’s Community Engagement department, Chicago youth are given “high quality arts learning and dance education opportunities,” said spokeswoman Elizabeth Salmonowicz.
“Joffrey offers a variety of in-school programs to Chicago area schools, taught by a roster of 16 teaching artists,” she said. “Dani Jo joined that roster in the 2016-2017 school year, and has since taught 9 programs in 3 different schools, working with almost 200 students and choreographing a number of dances for various showcases and performances.”
Williams travels to schools on the South Side of Chicago, like Brown Academy, to teach dance styles ranging from ballet to African-style moves. She says she hopes to encourage her students with each lesson that they can do anything.
Check out how Williams has used danced to shape her life.
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How has Joffrey Ballet given you the opportunity to spread a passion for dance?
A: I work as a teaching artist in Joffrey Ballet’s Community Engagement (CE) department. I travel to several schools in CPS and teach Phase 1 of our Levine Bridge program (ballet) and Dance Explorations program (many cultural dances and styles).
Students who do well in Phase 1 [advance] to Phase 2 to take classes at Joffrey Tower downtown!
The great thing about our CE department is that we encourage students to think creatively and empower dancers to recognize their strengths, weaknesses, and take charge of their own personal growth!
Q: Describe the moment you fell in love with dance.
A: I vividly remember standing in the middle of a circle of my friends. They were sitting on the carpeted floor at my preschool, all singing in unison to the toddler song, “We’re going to Kentucky.”
As soon as the kids said, “Shake it,” I could not stop moving my hips! That’s when I knew I loved to dance. My teacher, Ms. Washington, told my mom how I had been dancing to the song and that I was a great dancer. My mom started me in dance classes immediately.
I was three going on 30.
Q: How did your time at Michele Clark affect your passion for dancing?
A: In 7th grade, I heard that Michele Clark had a phenomenal dance team and decided to transfer there for 8th grade. I stayed there for high school as well. The dance team was ran by Janice Stewart and her daughter Joya Stewart of City-side Dance Company. Their motto was “We turn out better.”
There I learned good character, leadership, and work ethic. We also trained in ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, liturgical, hula, and West African dance.
Q: What was the most important lesson you learned about dance at Michele Clark HS?
A: I remember getting ready for our homecoming halftime performance and there were about fifty girls on the team. Practices were long and hard because Mrs. Janice Stewart was adamant about precision. I was extremely tired, but wanted to push through.
I will never forget her words. [She said,] “Keep smiling and perform!” I continue to do that today.
When faced with any adversity I smile because my attitude really determines my altitude! It’s not just a poster board hanging up in your school. It’s true!
Q: You overcame a critical condition with dance. Can you share a little about that experience?
A: I was diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis (IC) also known as Painful Bladder Syndrome in 2013. It’s an inflammatory disease of the bladder that can cause ulceration and bleeding of the bladder lining.
IC immediately changed my dance life. I was immobile and visiting the doctor once a week for bladder installations and medication. Doctors treat IC and recommend a diet, but at the moment have declared it an incurable disease.
When I asked about returning to my dance life, doctors told me I would never dance again due to the chronic woes of IC. I was depressed for about a month because I had studied dance all my life from CPS to Columbia College Chicago.
After realizing that I still wanted a career in dance, I started to research. The IC diet specifically excluded all spices, acidic foods, and beverages. So, I decided to try the diet and added foods that coat my bladder and diffused my frequent flare-ups such as blueberries, almond milk, and melons. After six months of this diet, my doctor took me off the medicine and I returned to dance!
Q: Where do you hope to take your career in dance in the future?
A: I hope to inspire through dance by doing more creative direction for productions, teaching, and writing.
Q: Can you explain how you combine your love of dance with community outreach in schools?
A: I love the process of dance-making and performance. It allows one to be vulnerable and express emotions through movement. It creates confidence.
I use dance as community outreach in schools to build social-emotional skills and character. Dance is the tool I use to build our youth into the leaders they are destined to be, just as it was done for me!
Q: What do you hope your students are able to overcome now that dance is a part of their lives?
A: I really hope my students are able to overcome all of their fears and hardships by speaking greatness over themselves and then doing the work. In dance, we use our minds and hearts to move our bodies.
Q: What inspires you to wake up every day and teach dance to students in CPS?
A: I am inspired by the development of my students every day.
I love how a student can start dance today and be extremely shy only to later perform and shock the school with their courage! I will never get tired of that. If I did, who would help kids overcome their fears?
Q: What is the greatest lesson you hope your students learn after every dance session?
A: After every dance session, I hope students learn that they CAN do it. Students usually say, ‘I can’t do that Mrs. Williams,’ with a distraught look on their face. My response is always, ‘Yes you can!’ They may not get the split or pirouette today, but they will if they keep trying.