AUSTIN — Despite battling a disease that her doctor said would end her dancing career, Dani Jo Williams just accepted a role that will allow her to combine her two passions — inspiring girls and dancing.
The 26-year-old Austin native recently accepted an offer with Joffrey Ballet’s Community Engagement department that will allow her to teach dance to at-risk students. The agreement went into effect last month.
“I’m excited,” she said. “This is right up my alley and I’m looking forward to it.”
Prior to her new role, Williams was the art instructor at University of Chicago Charter School in Woodlawn. She also started her own dance company — The Dani Jo Company.
Dani Jo Williams teaching contemporary ballet. [Photo provided by Dani Jo Williams]
Although dance has been part of her life since she was 3 years old, there was a period where Williams thought she’d never dance again. At 23, an incurable disease called Interstitial Cystitis, but more commonly known as Painful Bladder Syndrome, brought a lot of physical and emotional pain into her life.
“I went into depression for about a month,” Williams said. “When the doctor said you won’t be able to dance anymore I felt like I had no purpose to live if I didn’t dance.”
She said she didn’t want to give up on her passion, so began to research alternative treatments that would make the disease manageable.
“My purpose was to inspire through dance and to inspire young ladies, and I felt how can I do that if I can’t even move?” she said.
She described the pain as constant bad stomach cramps.
Williams didn’t want to stay on the medications, so in 2013, she took a chance on pursuing a 100 percent natural diet that excluded spicy foods and those that contained citric acid.
The pain became less frequent over time. And she started with small steps like enrolling in a Zumba dance class. Her instructor, not knowing her dance background, told Williams she was a natural and asked if she would be her assistant at her own company.
Dandria "Dani Jo" Williams is the new Joffrey Teaching Artist with Community Engagement. [Photo provided by Dani Jo Williams]
From that moment on, Williams said doors began to open and she started performing again. Eventually, in the same year she thought she would never dance again, she was able to dance and she launched her dance company.
The Columbia College graduate has worked with Janet Jackson's choreographer Gil Duldulao and has been the head choreographer for The Harold Washington Cultural Center.
Williams said that dancing had become more than a hobby for her early on, but after she was raped at 14, it became even more of an outlet. It had always been used as a way to free herself of problems and thoughts, she said.
“When you’re raped, you’re stripped of everything you thought you had, so dance was a way for me to become productive and not think about those depressing things,” she said. “When you’re dancing, for that one moment you’re free.”
Like most dancers, Williams started young, but while many girls from her West Side neighborhood were focusing on hip hop, she was learning several different styles. Jazz, ballet and African style dances were introduced to the young Williams.
“Where I’m from, people just do hip hop,” she said.
It was her dance instructor who pushed her to open her mind and try something that wasn’t the norm in her community, she said.
“The fact that my instructor had a daughter who was in her 20s and she was in college for dance and she looked like me, African American, I was able to relate,” Williams said.
Under her former instructor Janice Stewart’s directions, Williams was introduced to several different dance styles. Stewart said she’s proud of Williams, calling her a “go getter” who always went “above and beyond.”
“She’s a natural leader and she’ll be fine because she has what it takes to develop young ladies,” Stewart said. “She has the energy and the heart to be patient with those kids and see the potential in what they’re doing.”
Learn more about The Dani Jo Company here.
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