Dancer Ebony Williams Talks Boston Homecoming and Working with Beyoncé
When Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet performs at the Citi Shubert Theatre this weekend, Dorchester native Ebony Williams will dance in front of a hometown crowd for the first time since she joined the company ten years ago. But these homecoming performances will also be among her last—Cedar Lake’s Boston debut also marks the New York-based company’s penultimate engagement before it disbands later this summer.
“I am going to have tears running down my face the whole time,” says Williams. “I would love for it to keep going. I’ve grown up here [at Cedar Lake.] I’ve been here for ten years of my life. My dancing has changed here.”
Williams received her introduction to dance at the Roxbury Center for the Performing Arts, where she began formal training in tap, jazz, and ballet. At eight years old, she successfully auditioned for the Citydance scholarship program, which would bus her from the Rafael Hernández School in Roxbury to free classes at the Boston Ballet’s studios in the South End.
Williams trained at the Boston Ballet for up to six days a week over the next five years, but decided to take a break from the rigorous routine as she entered her teenage years.
“I wanted to become a normal kid, and I wasn’t really able to do that as much as I liked because of the heavy-duty demands that it takes to really become a dancer,” she says. “Once I entered high school, I wanted to just be a cheerleader and, you know, chase after boys a little bit, do all the wrong things for a while.”
Williams went through high school without any formal dance education, performing only in an after-school program organized by the Boston Arts Academy, which offered no technical training. Following graduation, she enrolled at Quincy College and began taking prerequisites for a degree in physical therapy, but Fernadina Chan, the dance director at the Boston Arts Academy, strongly advised her to reconsider.
“She really believed in me. She kept telling me, ‘You need to pursue dance. This is what you’re supposed to be doing,'” says Williams, who successfully auditioned for the Boston Conservatory under Chan’s guidance.
“We had the smallest little studios and really rickety theater when I was there, and now it’s this beautiful building with glass everywhere, with amazing studios, and it’s awesome,” she says. “I was still lucky enough to go and get to know where the heart is—the teachers and the people—but they get the best of both worlds now. They have great teachers and an amazing facility.”
Immediately following graduation, Williams moved to New York City and joined Cedar Lake, two years after the company was founded by Walmart heiress Nancy Laurie, who’s been almost single-handedly funding the troupe since the beginning.
“I’m still dreaming that some knight in shining armor will come and invest in the company, and it can go on,” says Williams. “It’s always been my dream to come back in 10 years, 15 years from now, and see someone else doing a solo that I did, see how it transformed and evolved into something else. I wish it wasn’t closing, and of course I’m saddened by it, but change is inevitable.”
While staying with the company for ten years, Williams has also ventured into the commercial world of dance.
“I feel like that’s the second half of me. It’s nice to be around other dancers doing different styles. It’s like my recess,” says Williams. “I feel like a superhero sometimes. They have their day-to-day, and at night, they’re in their superhero costumes saving lives.”
In 2008, Williams spent a month running between 10-to-6 rehearsals with Cedar Lake and 6-to-midnight rehearsals with Beyoncé for her award-winning “Single Ladies” music video.
“She’s a really loyal person when it comes to her dancers, and I really respect that,” says Williams, praising the pop diva for being gracious enough to accommodate her schedule. “She is such a hard worker. She makes you realize how important it is to just keep going and stay busy and be grateful for that busy time because when you’re relaxing, you’re missing out on some kind of educational experience or some social experience that can really enrich your life.”
In the music video, Williams is one of two dancers backing Beyoncé, matching her move for move in sassy choreography vastly different from the poised forms of Cedar Lake.
“That’s what I enjoy—being accepted into different environment because I can make all of those things a part of me and a part of my dance style, a part of my…I call it my heartbeat,” says Williams. “It’s that rhythm inside me that keeps me moving.”
Williams kept in touch with Beyoncé after shooting the music video, dancing with her in the 2013 Super Bowl halftime show and other engagements. She was even offered a full-time position, but declined, as she was already in midst of a tour with Cedar Lake.
“Timing is everything. Everything happens for a reason, and I am not going to have any regrets. It doesn’t make or break who I am,” says Williams. “Actually I feel pretty lucky to have had the best of both worlds.”
Aside from Beyoncé, Williams has also been a backup dancer for Rihanna, Fergie, and Ciara. She hopes to continue working in the commercial world as she plots her next moves after Cedar Lake’s closing, along with going on acting auditions, taking vocal lessons, choreographing, and starting her own intensive dance program.
“I’m just going to do everything I can do—everything that I didn’t have time for, everything that is risky, everything that I’m afraid of,” she says. “I want to jump in.”
Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, will preform at the Citi Shubert Theatre, 270 Tremont Street, on Friday, May 15 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 16 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 17 at 3 p.m. Tickets start at $60, and are available online at celebrityseries.org.