WOODLAWN — An Afrocentric dance company with a mission to provide creative opportunities to South Siders is moving to Woodlawn by the end of the year.
Red Clay Dance Company, founded by Chicago native Vershawn Sanders-Ward, is a professional touring company focused on “creating, performing and teaching dances of the African Diaspora.”
Red Clay works to make dance “a visible and a viable career for so many of the talented young people that live on the South Side,” Sanders-Ward said. Fall classes at the company’s dance academy started earlier this month.
The company has operated out of the Fuller Park Fieldhouse, 331 W. 45th St., for the past five years. But Red Clay will soon move to Woodlawn Station, 808 E. 63rd St., a mixed-use, mixed-income development opened in 2019 next to the Cottage Grove Green Line station.
The move is an exciting boon for the arts and culture scene in the South Side neighborhood, local leaders said.
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) said she welcomes a company that “thought about young people in my community who don’t have access to the culture and arts” in deciding to move to Woodlawn.
Taylor wrote a letter of support for Red Clay’s move based on input from two public meetings, she said.
“I believe in the arts, I believe in creativity, I believe in having those things available to the community,” Taylor said. “I won’t always be here, so the community needs to have those relationships.”
The company started a fundraising campaign Friday to build out its Woodlawn Station space. Volunteers are also needed for the move from Fuller Park.
Moving to Woodlawn Station will enable the company to open a second studio and more easily livestream classes and events through the pandemic. Coronavirus has pushed dancers to focus more heavily on the accessibility of their work, Sanders-Ward said.
“The virtual space allows you to reach dance lovers around the world,” she said. “People can take your class in Switzerland or Uganda or South Africa. They don’t have to physically be in Chicago to experience your art.”
The new location also allows space for the company to keep its administrative staff on-site.
The move “gives us autonomy,” Sanders-Ward said. “We’re able to set our own schedule and be open whenever we want to be open, which essentially means more programming and more opportunities for the community to engage with us.”
Red Clay is no stranger to the area, Sanders-Ward said. She once lived in the neighborhood and sought out community input on its plans before signing a lease at Woodlawn Station.
The dance company has partnered with the University of Chicago several times. Red Clay dancers performed at the Logan Center in 2013 — the center’s first full year of operation — and the company received funding from the university’s Community Programs Accelerator this spring.
“We’re looking to build with other community organizations and keep our work grassroots, which is where it’s been for the past 12 years,” she said. “We’re excited to bring … social justice art-making to the community.”
Diane Burnham, executive director of the South East Chicago Commission, an economic development organization, said there’s “a real opportunity here” for Red Clay to kick off a wave of investment in Woodlawn’s artists.
The neighborhood’s housing market has heated up in expectation of the Obama Presidential Center’s construction in Jackson Park — so much so that community activists and Taylor fought for and recently won protections to prevent displacement.
But the neighborhood’s market for arts and culture hasn’t moved as quickly, Burnham said. She “couldn’t be happier” to have another institution to complement Johnny Twist’s blues museum, the history of the Grand Ballroom and the artists of the Ariel Joseph Art Gallery, all nearby.
“Something like Red Clay Dance could spark investment at 63rd and Cottage Grove in ways we haven’t seen,” Burnham said. “All it takes for a couple people to move in, and next thing you know, it’s changed the landscape.”
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