Beyonce has, purely and simply, changed the entire game. From what it means to be a performer, an artist, a woman, a voice of and for our generation, this woman has written history with her lyricism, and watching Beyonce in motion is bearing witness to what future generations will say: This is how being a mogul, a mother, and one bad mamma jam boss is done. Beyonce is a force of nature in her own right, but her dancers are the sound and the fury behind her message, supporting her, and thriving in their own right as women of a new age. One of her dancers is Ebony Williams and Ebony is just that: a powerful woman, an icon, a “Single Lady,” a sincere, mature, big dreaming, bigger doing, and beyond rooted, grounded, and real deal kind soul.
By the grace of good timing, I had the opportunity to sit with Ebony in a Brooklyn warehouse while she was between rehearsals for Beyonce’s historic “Formation” world tour. She told me the story of her life, her dreams, and her legacy.
Ebony’s story begins as a child raised by a single mother. “I was always the kid in front of the television mimicking whatever videos or artists were on the screen. A friend of mine, a neighbor, went to a local dance school and would come home and teach me what she learned because my mom couldn’t afford to pay for me to go at the time. Eventually, my mom decided she would do whatever she had to do to get me into a dance school because, clearly, I loved it that much.” Ebony began her formal training in elementary school when Boston Ballet School (the official training program of the Boston Ballet) started a program for inner city kids called City Dance.
Her talent was evident and her work ethic allowed her to excel, but by the time she reached high school, Ebony’s full-time immersion in dance became overwhelming. She says, “I just wanted to be a normal kid for a second. Do all the wrong things. Chase after boys. Become a cheerleader. So I did.” After she finished high school, she began studying to become a physical therapist and quickly realized that this was not her career path. Meanwhile, one of Ebony’s former teachers from Boston Arts Academy’s after school dance group (Ebony was in the dance group but not part of the school as an academic student), Fernadina Chan, reached out when she heard that this talented young lady had halted her dance training. “Fernadina was the reason why I even auditioned for the Boston Conservatory at all. I had no prior info about the school without her knowledge,” said Ebony. Ebony landed the audition with the Boston Conservatory and made her return to dance.
Still, it wasn’t all easy. “I got into the school (Boston Conservatory). I started at the lowest ballet level because I hadn’t trained. The second semester, I got into the highest ballet level, and by the end of those four years, I was the first black girl to get a ballet award.” Knowing that she wanted to explore where dance could take her, Ebony Williams began researching ballet companies worldwide, and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet captured her heart. Though she didn’t pass the audition, the company director liked Ebony and invited her to take class with them, but she realized that financially it was impossible.
Eventually, Ebony traveled to Montreal to participate in Springboard Danse Montreal, a program founded by The Juilliard School faculty member Alexandra Wells that brings in choreographers from around the globe to work with young dancers. There, Ebony Williams was selected to dance in Ballets Jazz de Montreal’s final piece. As fate would have it, one of Cedar Lake’s dancers was also at Springboard and called her director to say, “That girl you liked in New York is here in Montreal.” What happened next is the stuff of destiny made visible. The Cedar Lake Artistic Director Benoit-Swan Pouffer flew to Montreal and after a brief audition, he told Ebony that he had come to offer her an apprenticeship, but after seeing her dance, he would offer her a full contract. Ebony had just made it into her dream company.
Ebony is living proof of the validity of following and fighting for your dreams. She states, “It’s waiting for you. You have to be open and willing to receive it, but it’s already destined. There’s no need to rush it.” Ebony’s story is evidence of how her words ring true. While dancing with Cedar Lake, Ebony would sweat and dance through eight hour rehearsal days, then at the end of the night, she would jump into a hip hop class at Broadway Dance Center in New York City—seeking the balance between her beloved contemporary ballet and the hip hop and commercial dance worlds that she grew up emulating.
One of her friends in class told Ebony about a workshop held by legendary choreographer, Laurieann Gibson (whose credits include choreographing for Michael Jackson, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, and Beyonce.) It turned out not to be a workshop at all, but an audition. Ebony stayed, and showed the commercial world that this ballet dancer could be risky and funky. In the middle of Ebony’s audition freestyle, Laurieann stopped the music to ask, “Who are you and where have you been?” The rest is exquisite history as Ebony went on to do pointe work for Rihanna in bamboo earrings and shades, book Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” music video, and was called in for both of Beyonce’s “Made in America” and “Formation” world tours.
As a strong proponent of giving back, it is clear Ebony’s excellence goes beyond her dance and into the world. “I love working with young people,” said Ebony. “I mentor young girls – some that are going off to college. They remind you that you can’t be complacent because you are exactly where they want to be but you want to tell them and teach them how to be better than you.” For Ebony being a mentor is about more than an individual dancer, it is part of her contribution to the contemporary legacy of the art of dance. She says, “The legacy is bigger than just me. It’s about our art as a whole. It’s a culture, and I believe that we are all related in dance because I feel like that’s what runs through my veins is movement. For that reason, you’re my sister and so many other people are my brothers.” Ebony Williams is also expanding her artistry into design. She is launching a clothing line, Ebony Skin, and wants to start a foundation that works with animals.
Amidst all of this, Ebony is adamant about the importance of staying “connected to what’s true to me which is Ebony Williams, the dancer who wants to keep it evolving and fresh and new.” Ebony, a consummate creative artist, technical elite dancer, commercial superstar, and savvy businesswoman, is also one down-to -earth, kind, and heartfelt human. “Being real and human is also what makes you great as an artist.” Ebony’s humble, generous, and kind demeanor is disarming. Her charisma and wisdom are divine. Ebony often says, “I didn’t choose dance. Dance chose me,” and for anyone witnessing Ebony’s trajectory, it is easy to see. Ebony is living and breathing her jaw-dropping brilliant and bright destiny.
Marja Lankinen, founder and CEO of Yoga for Dancers, is a yoga therapist and commercial dancer in Los Angeles and travels the globe teaching yoga and meditation: yogafordancers.com