Andrea E. Woods Valdés, Associate Professor of the Practice of Dance at Duke, is a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. Her academic focus is on women in the arts, Afro-Cuban dance and music, and the history and culture of the African diaspora. She is also a video artist and musician.

She normally teaches dance technique and repertory and also a class called Dance for the Camera. In addition, she is currently the director of Duke in Ghana, a program offered through Global Education and cultural anthropology. In that role, she takes a group of Duke students to Accra during the six-week Summer 1 session, instructing them in fieldwork and research methods.

Her creative roots are primarily in modern dance. She entered college with a strong sense of herself as purely a dancer—a vehicle for the choreography but not a choreographer. Within a few years of graduating she came around, though, and it was when she began to choreograph that she came into her own as an artist. It was a dance she created for herself that brought her to the attention of Bill T. Jones, who then invited her to join the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company—a breakthrough moment for her, both artistically and professionally.

Currently she is the artistic director of SOULOWORKS/Andrea E. Woods & Dancers, a company she founded as a vehicle for work that, in her words, "explores the intersection between dance, music and writing as my own brand of performed folklore." But much of her choreography is done on student dancers. Every semester, she and her colleagues create new dances for November Dances and Choreolab, the dance department’s fall and spring showcases. Through these shows, the department is able to keep its students constantly engaged in the cycle of creating and realizing fresh, challenging works.

Woods Valdés’ work is striking not only for its quality but also for a stylistic and conceptual range that goes from pure movement to programmatic pieces to narrative theater.

This is What I Heard, a piece she created in 2011 for her Modern Dance Repertory Class, is on one end of that spectrum. It is the music of jazz pianist Randy Weston translated into movement. There is no story line. Midway through the semester Weston was able to visit the class to see the work in progress. His delight was palpable. For the students it was an exceptional opportunity to meet one of the greatest living masters of African and African American music.

For an earlier piece based on recordings by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she drew on the spirit of the music more than its abstract flow and structure. Responding to the communal spirit of the rural African American ballads and dances that the Chocolate Drops have so lovingly reanimated, she treated the ensemble as a community and portrayed its social rituals.

She describes her latest work, The Amazing Adventures of Grace May B. Brown, as a musical spirit dance / folk performance. It is explicitly narrative and theatrical, with a story and a script. There is a mix of recorded music, which functions like movie music, and live music integrated with the action, performed by Woods Valdés. The piece was created for SOULOWORKS and was presented this past May at the PSI theater in downtown Durham.

About a week before the show opened I spoke with her about it and about her history as a dancer and choreographer and the pleasures and challenges of teaching a performance art in an academic setting. What follows is an edited transcript.

-Robert Zimmerman

When did you join the Duke faculty?

2009.

That's last year, right?

I know, right? This is my 5th year. I can't believe it!

How long have you been teaching?

I started when I was 14. Teaching was woven in very early with being a dancer for me. The two go hand in hand.

What did you teach when you were 14?

Dance and warmup for my gymnastic team. I was like a scrawny, floaty butterfly, not even 90 pounds—I didn't have that hard-hitting gymnastics body. But I was the “dancer,” in quotes, on the team because I was taking ballet classes, too.

My first dance teacher showed me how to teach the beginning exercises. She would have me take, like, five little kids to the smaller studio, and then we'd all come together at the end. When my little shiny pupils would do things correctly, I felt like the proud mama. Look at my little chickadees; they know how to jump across the floor!

When I got out of college, I was a counsellor and dance teacher at a summer camp. One day I was talking to one of my teachers and when I told her what I was doing she brightened up, because she was touring and she needed a good sub. I started subbing for her at the Ailey school and another school in upstate New York. Then she sent me to Taiwan for a summer. She told me to ask a friend because it might be lonely. My best friend and I ended up being a teaching team in three different cities.

When I got into the Bill T. Jones company, Bill noticed how methodical and how regular I was. I came into the studio and I did the same thing every day. For me it’s like church. It’s ceremony, it's ritual and it doesn't change. He saw that and asked me to start teaching company classes, and eventually I became the rehearsal director.

Dancing, teaching, and making dances have become for me like a woven trinity. Each one supports the other, and it's hard to imagine one without the other. The braid just wouldn't hold. They're not always in equal measure. Life and time don't allow for that, but they're equally important to me.

I'm interested in what it was like for you as a dancer to join the faculty of a major research university, how you feel dance fits into a heavily intellectual context. What are the opportunities and challenges of being here?

That's a good question and I’ve had to contemplate it more as I've been here longer. I first got to know Duke because of teaching at ADF several summers. That’s how I got to know Duke, through this cloister of dance on East Campus. It’s still amazing to me that my office is here in the Ark, which was like the shrine when I came with ADF.

Then I joined the faculty, and quite naturally, I met other faculty and visited other departments and went to Arts and Sciences Council meetings, and I saw that, oh my goodness, it's not all arts studios! There's a lot going on here!

This is What I Heard, Choreography by Andrea Woods Valdés, music by Randy Weston—rehearsal (above) and performance (below).

Especially over on that other campus.

Right, there's the whole other campus!

Then I found out that when I said the name the building I worked in, the Ark, no one knew where it is. And they would say, oh, there's dance at Duke? And then they would say, oh, there's a dance major? Oh, is that a tenured position? As if it's a miracle that someone is being paid and on faculty who is dedicated to dance.

Not everyone does that but it happens quite often, and it happens with a sense of naivety and wonder, not insult, so I have to be careful and kind when I respond. But I feel like it's important that our presence is counted. The creative vein in this university is splendid and vital. Without creativity, the sciences would not survive. Without creativity, scholarship would not survive. Literature, performing arts, and fine arts are vital to this community. Dance is intrinsically connected to our humanity. We don't want to nurture robots.

But I love being here because I consider myself a dancer and a scholar. Duke is a just-right fit for me. It's splendid to be able to do a project that involves scholarship and research that’s manifested in performance or present a paper or a talk and back it up with performance and music. It’s normal here. I don't have to explain it.

It seems the dance program has really blossomed in the past few years, is that fair to say?

Definitely, definitely. The dance faculty is blossoming and our curriculum is blossoming. Here, in this program, you have mentorship by people who've been forged by the fire in terms of our career and our academic work.

We definitely have to encourage more student participation. There's so much dance in and around Duke, which is wonderful. I love to see people dance, I love to see the clubs come in on the weekend and do all different dance forms, and I love to see dance majors and minors involved in that. But dancing is one thing, studying dance is another thing.

If we’re not careful, we’ll end up like a dance center, with very l-i-t-e lite relationships with the students—they come in, take a class, and leave. Dance centers serve an important population that needs to be served. But I don't teach at a dance center. I'm here to invest in creativity and in people who want to invest in it. It can be demanding, it can be time consuming, but it's also very enriching and fulfilling.

There's so much to be said for studying the form, and when I see a student who takes to it, it's a wonderful thing. The ones that dedicate themselves to taking a dance class for the semester, they get it. They have to write papers at the end of the semester and I'm always surprised at how much they love what they're doing and what they're seeing. Our numbers aren’t huge, but we make an impact on the students we touch.

One thing I notice is that toward the end of every semester, I get several requests for letters of recommendation from students who have taken one of my classes. Usually they’re not dance majors or minors. They'll say, “you know me, you can speak to my character." My courses have some written work, or in my video class, it’s project-based, so I see more than just their dancing. They know that I can speak to their work ethic, to their sense of individuality, their sense of community, how they interact with other students, how they respond to criticism. And it’s not just to me. Other dance faculty get the same thing.

So how did you get started in dance?

Oh, the typical way, mommy sending me to ballet classes on Saturday morning. I didn't have the twinkle, twinkle kind of princess mentality. I wanted to do karate, but the karate classes were cancelled, so she asked me if I wanted to do ballet and I said, sure. What’s ballet? (laughs)

I had a wonderful teacher, Jean Williams, who’s passed away. She taught ballet, modern, jazz, and a little bit of something like Dunham Technique. She was very demanding. She demanded that you dedicate yourself to the studio and grow in every form, especially by the time you got to high school. She was a white woman but had a lot of black music sensibility, so we danced to gospel, we danced to jazz, we danced to Scott Joplin, and we also danced to Bach. She had a really eclectic world view and it wore off on me.

Where did you go to college, and did you study dance there?

Adelphi University is where I graduated. I was a dance major there, and the director of the dance department was Norman Walker. His mentor was May O'Donnell, who danced with Martha Graham, so he brought a sense of reverence for what dance is, a sense of loyalty and dedication, of giving yourself over to the work. The emphasis wasn’t on self-expression and experimentation, it was on the codified body of choreography.

It was good for me because eventually I was able to apply that same sensibility to myself. But first I had to leave that crucible, where I was dedicated to someone else's vision.

Lagos Lullaby, music by Philip Hamilton.

When did you start to develop you own vision as a choreographer, then?

I made my first dances in grade school, to my favorite songs, like “Why Can't We Be Friends,” by War. I remember there was a cartwheel and a forward roll and holding hands with my friend and skipping.

But choreography wasn't the trajectory I’d planned for myself. I thought of myself as a dancer first, a choreographer’s dancer. If you want to make work, I'm the clay, I'm the canvas. I'm not a blank canvas, but I'm animated and I really lend myself to the creative process. I love that, I love being sort of a sponge and I love the interactivity.

My first experience with formal choreography was taking dance composition in college, and it was really frustrating. It was like someone putting on the brakes, telling me to stop dancing and pay attention to something else. I didn't have the patience or the desire or the need to do that but I did it quite well. I remember doing one of my studies in a gymnasium and people cried. I realized I had the potential to move people not only by my performance but by things I created. Still, I just wanted to dance! Composition felt like a task I needed to get through for two semesters so I could fly!

So after you finished college you were immediately pulled into performing and teaching?

After I graduated, I was thinking of myself in multiple directions. I was a modern dancer, but I was also pursuing musical theater and classical dance to a certain extent. I would audition for anything and everything, and ultimately that just depletes your resources.

It was a crazy mixed cyclone of teaching, dancing here and there, and day jobs. I worked in a real estate office, I worked in an ice cream parlor, I worked in a bar and a restaurant. I baby sat, I house sat, I watched plants. It was Uptown, Downtown, Eastside, Westside, running running running.

Those three years were incredible. Most of my friends dropped by the wayside—they went back home, they went to school, they had children. I stuck it out. But even though I was performing, I hadn't gotten the Broadway show or the dance company.

After a while I got tired and a little burnt out and kind of retreated. Part of the retreat was to go into the studio and make a solo, with music that I loved and a costume that I loved. Last year, I restaged the piece on one of my students, Alexandria Lattimore, who's graduating this year. I cried watching her dance it. It was just precious for me.

It was because of that solo that I joined the Bill T. Jones dance company. One of his dancers saw it, he told Bill about me, and Bill invited me to audition and then asked me to join his company. Bill is very inspired by people who are inspired. He’s not really interested in the empty vessel type person. He would encourage us to contribute to his work. And he would refer to me as a choreographer. When he did that I just shook my head and thought, sure, sure! But it was kind of like being knighted, and I began to wear that cloak.

Bill T. Jones was quite a break.

Yes, and it came just in time. I was starting to think, ok, I'll be a substitute teacher or something.

When I got into the company I was a seasoned dancer and a seasoned performer. Finally things settled into something consistent and regular, and I could go deeper instead of wider and broader. That's what being in a company does, it allows you to go deep into the same work with the same people for years and years.

It was a difficult time for the company, though. Arnie Zane, Bill’s life and creative partner, had just died, and the company was going through a kind of untouchable stage. Presenters were pulling back, things were being cancelled or questioned. The company was founded on a duet sensibility, so Bill had to prove himself on his own, which he did and does quite well. We were on the upward swing, but it’s painful defying gravity. Bill had a lot of weight on his shoulders, including us sometimes. While I was with him he really emerged as a solo artist, as a company director, and as a dancing creative person, things that I respect and admire and love.

I went full circle with Bill, from dancer to rehearsal director. I was mentored on how to be a director of a company, on public relations and how to do community activities in small towns when you're also trying to do avant-guard post-modern work. When it was time to leave the company, my sense of love and admiration for Bill put me in a good place. It’s like when the rocket takes off and then the shuttle separates from it. I was prepared for my separation. I was sent off with love, and that doesn't always happen, because director, artist, dancer relationships can be very combative.

But after six years, I was at a crossroads. I had a back injury, and as I healed I had to make a decision about what I was going to do. I decided I would put all of my energy into Andrea's work. It was a difficult decision, but it was time, it was time.

And then, not long after, you must have taken a more scholarly direction.

Yes, I concentrated on my own work for a while, then I went back to school to get an MFA in dance. I’d been so involved in the visual and the physical and now I had a whole new world of written literature to absorb—not just about history but about creative process and about theory. I loved that part.

Ten years later, I went back to school for a Masters in Humanities in Caribbean Cultural Studies because my work was moving more toward the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, in terms of content and sensibility, physicality and music, my attraction to art and literature. I'm African American, but we have so much in common with our Caribbean brothers and sisters—the struggle, the resistance, the self-representation, the colonial heritage and the need to self-define outside of it. The second masters was a way to develop those interests in a grounded academic setting. I did it to amplify my performance and my creative sensibilities, not to depart from them.

What’s your new work like?

The piece is called The Amazing Adventures of Grace May B. Brown. It’s total theater, with four dancers, instruments and recorded music, and a narrator plus myself as a sort of co-narrator. I wrote a libretto with text and songs that I’m following like a script, which is not the way dance is usually done.

There is a lot about my family in the piece—how important color and food is to us, how we relate to each other, how we call ourselves, how we look as individuals, and the way I was raised as a black woman, to be proud and to honor my roots. I call it a folk performance, and my role in it is like a griot telling some of the history of my family and some American history through fiction, wonder, and fantasy.

I think of the piece as something with a lot of openings and apertures. You can either see though it or you can see into it. You can pull something out of it. You can shout back if you want to, or let it shout at you. You can react and respond, like we are reacting and responding within the piece.

It’s been a lot of fun making the work. I had plenty of time to plan it, but not as much time as I want to rehearse. There's a t-shirt I saw a dancer wearing that said, “I can't, I have rehearsal.” That's the story of our life.

How about the cast and collaborators?

My dancers are all African American, but they're very eclectic and complex. One has been a majorette. One has been on a drill team and has studied dance intensively at UNC and at Duke. Another one studies West African dance intensively here at Duke. Another is a storyteller and a mother of two children with a background in theater. The narrator is a director, a playwright, and an actress and singer as well.

And I want my dancers to be themselves. They ask me, do you want me to wear my hair like this? Should I take out my piercings? (laughs) And I look at them and say, I think you just have to be yourself, because that's what I'm planning to do. Black women are not a uniform block of people. We don’t all think and look and do alike, so in the piece we’re not a single voice.

I have a costume designer, Pamela Bond, who is just beautiful with color. And Shana Tucker composed music for me. I'm contributing musically, as well. I wrote the lyrics to some songs, and I play a little banjo and an African instrument called mbira.

The story and the theater are a way for me to say a lot of things I want to say as a woman, and as a black woman, and as a young woman. Things that are hard to say in the environment I work in. It’s very different here from being in New York, where being black is not a phenomenon. Like, my hair doesn't stand out there because you see a zillion other women on the street with big Afros. I fit right in like all the other wildflowers of the African diaspora, and the anonymity is sort of enjoyable—you can do whatever you want.

But outside of that kind of culture I stand out, and if I make a statement, people wonder, am I making a statement for everyone? Or am I making a statement for myself?

They wonder if you’re representing people like you as a group.

Right, right.

You must feel like you have to watch what you say, so you're not projecting more than you really mean.

Yes, and more than who I really am. So as I’m making this piece, nobody is censoring me or stopping me, and I'm having the time of my life.

I noticed on the announcement for the show that you’re in the midst of a Twentieth Anniversary season. That’d be 1994, before you left Bill T. Jones. What happened then?

It goes back not to my first solo but to my first company work. When I made my second solo, I also made a quintet that I wasn't in. That was when my work began to exist outside of me in addition to within me. I didn't really call us a company but people talked about us that way. Later, when I went to make new work, I called pretty much the same women and then I thought, ok, we keep working together, I guess we're a company. Since then it's been twenty years of making company work.