Cultural Infusion

Barbea Williams teaches history, heritage and pride to young Tucson dancers.

Torrie Browning was just 4 years old when she had her first experience in a dance class taught by Barbea Williams.

"I was really nervous because I had never danced before, but she made me feel comfortable with her," recalls Torrie.

Browning, now 14, has overcome her inhibitions and now performs in the Barbea Williams Performing Company, which will be on stage on June 15 at this year's Juneteenth celebration at the Kennedy Park fiesta area.

Torrie will be performing in an African-Brazilian dance number that she describes as being "very flashy" with "lots of smiling."

"I've invited my friends to some of my performances and they think what I do is pretty amazing," says Torrie. "It takes a lot of hard work."

Torrie's grandmother first introduced Maria Browning, Torrie's mother, to the Barbea Williams Dance Company by taking them to a performance at the UA. Maria signed Torrie up for the children's class and she's been with Williams ever since.

"Barbea Williams teaches with all different styles of dance and we wanted [Torrie] to learn those things and also learn about black culture and Africa," says Maria, who migrated to Tucson with her husband from St. Louis in 1985. "She has taught her students songs from different languages that are from Brazil or Cuba or Egypt."

This exposure to African-American culture is something that Maria and her husband found lacking in their child's life. If there's a black community in their Linda Vista Terrace neighborhood, located in northwest Tucson, "we don't know where it is," Maria laughs. "You can probably count on one hand how many black kids go to [Torrie's] high school."

But Maria is quick to point out that dance classes are made up of blacks, whites and Latinos. And people who desire to learn about African-American culture are precisely the ones Williams set out to reach.

Like the Brownings, Williams had come from a city with a large black community and yearned for black culture. Williams left Chicago for Tucson with her 10 brothers and sisters at the request of her mother, who "wanted us to come back together as a family," recalls Williams. Concerned about gang activity, her mother "talked to my grandmother here in Tucson and bought a house across the alley from her. So we moved to Tucson on a very hot June 12 in 1972."

But shortly after arriving, Williams remembers feeling culturally deprived. "There was no real [black] culture here to me," she says.

Williams suspects she may have subconsciously been modeling her dance program after ones she had seen in Chicago. "Then consciously, I became very much aware that Katherine Dunham was very much an influence," she says. Williams had seen the American choreographer, dancer and scholar perform when she was in college and later became intrigued with Dunham's theories of intercultural communication and socialization through the arts.

"People of African-American descent have very little or no exposure to their own culture," says Williams. "When I grew up there was no one teaching pride in black culture. It was quite the contrary. And unfortunately we still have people and organizations that don't [instill the sense] that it's OK to bring our children into this world proud of who they are."

Williams has since made it her life's work to exhibit dance from all people of black African descent around the world. She points out that the African-Brazilian piece that her company will perform at the Juneteenth celebration is important because Brazil houses the second-largest population of African people off the continent of Africa and in the piece, Williams is intent on imparting "some of the flavor and feel of carnival," she says. The performance company will also be exhibiting a hip-hop dance piece.

"It helps me with discipline, being focused," says Torrie, who also believes that the hard work she has learned through the performing company has allowed her the physical and mental focus that contributed to her being the Arizona state tennis champion in the 14-year-old women's category. "It helps me learn about my culture, the dance."

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