A Sunday chat with Sheri “Sparkle” Williams

Longtime DCDC dancer talks about life as a dancer

She is arguably the best-known dancer in the Miami Valley.

As a principal performer for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Sheri "Sparkle" Williams has been lighting up area stages for more than 40 years.

Williams is one of the oldest professional dancers in the country.

She has made news as the central figure in an inspiring documentary that recently won the 2012 Audience Award at the international SilverDocs film festival.

"Sparkle," created by acclaimed Yellow Springs filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, chronicles the serious injury Williams experienced last year and her challenging road to recovery.

Film makers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert say they were "really happily shocked" when "Sparkle" won the hearts of the audience at SilverDocs."We knew the film played really well — we could feel it in the back of the theater, that the audience was really connected with it," Bognar said. "When Sheri stepped in front of the audience, they all leapt to their feet."Reichert said this is a film that lifts people up."Sheri is just so inspiring, how she overcomes huge challenges," she said. "The life lessons this film brings are about resolve. Life is hard. Things will go wrong. But with resolve, with will power, with hard, hard work, things can get better. That's a big one."

Bognar says the other big takeaway for the film is that the community is lucky to have DCDC here in Dayton."This ensemble and their repertoire are one of the best in the world. They perform all over the world. They were just in China. And yet the company is based right here, and we are so lucky for that," Bognar said.

"The film highlights world-class art in a city that has suffered many losses over the last few years," DCDC's executive director Ro Nita Hawes-Saunders said. "As the film "Sparkle" makes clear, the life and triumph of an exceptional artist is proof that it is possible to achieve a dream here in Dayton — yesterday and today."


Q: How did you get the nickname “Sparkle?”

A: A long time ago when DCDC was still performing at Sinclair (Community College), one of the other dancers said to me: 'You sparkle on stage!' That was so endearing and when it was time to sign my next contract with the company and we had to include a bio, I wrote Sheri "Sparkle" Williams. And it stuck!

Q: What’s a typical day for you?

A: I'm the company fitness trainer and we start each weekday morning with a one-hour conditioning class at 9 a.m. After that, we have a 90-minute technique class where we study ballet, modern or jazz with a teacher from our area. We have a four-hour rehearsal (two hours before lunch and two hours after) where we may be working on a number of different ballets.

When I leave the studio, I work out either to condition myself or do exercises related to the injury I had last year. We work hard, and I’ve been following this same schedule five days a week for 39 years.

Q: When and why do most dancers stop dancing professionally?

A: I'd say the average age when people make that decision is probably somewhere in their mid-30s. Many have to stop because of injuries. I've always enjoyed what I'm doing but never in my life would I have thought I'd be doing it this long.


Q: Tell us about the injury you suffered last year.

A: Two weeks before a concert, I hurt my Achilles tendon on my right foot. I was still dancing but favoring it, and the left side was having to work harder as a result. It could have been a time-bomb waiting to explode: I was in a performance on Oct. 8 at Stivers School for the Arts in a piece called "The Stack Up." It was a piece I'd been doing for years, and I was out on stage with two other men and doing a turn, and I felt a pain in my hip like I'd never felt in my life.

I experienced a hip subluxation. Such an injury usually requires a few weeks of immobility followed by a year of physical therapy to get back to being able to exhibit the rigorous physical prowess necessary to do what I do. I was back working and rehearsing in seven weeks and back on stage in performance in four months.

Q: Hadn’t you had other injuries over the years?

A: I had some deep tissue damage in my calf about 10 years ago, but it wasn't debilitating. I've had twisted ankles, minor things like that.

Q: What was the result of your injury?

A: I don't know how, but I kept going and grabbed my hip, finished that section. But once I exited, I fell right to the floor and couldn't get up. With that kind of injury you typically should be immobile for a few weeks at least. But after dancing this long, I was NOT going to be taken out by an injury.


Q: So what kind of little girl were you?

A: Focused! I was a good kid, I enjoyed school. Prior to dance, I was a gymnast and sprinter. I was always athletic.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: Right here in Dayton. I still live in the home I grew up in. I still have stuff around me that I grew up with.

I went through a difficult five-year period that started with the passing of my mother, then two years later my eldest sister passed away and she had three kids. At one point, they were all in our home with another sister, so there were a lot of folks around. Then my father passed away.

Family is what’s stable, a reason to want to be your best. I enjoyed watching the kids become their own people.


Q: How did you first decide to become a dancer?

A: I started dancing at age 9 because my best friend took classes and her sister was in DCDC. I thought it was cool. I had always been athletic, and I liked the body in motion. I liked seeing how the dancers could move; it looked so graceful.

The first class I took was at Jeraldyne’s School of Dance with Jeraldyne Blunden. She was great — a task master — but I was used to that.

Once I started, I never stopped. The company, when I joined at age 11, was not the company seen today. It has evolved with the expertise of its artistic leadership. As Jeraldyne blossomed, so too did her legacy.

Q: What do you like about it?

A: I like this environment (making a sweeping gesture around the studio where other dancers are rehearsing). It always provided excellence — in master teachers, choreographers. That alone always kept me challenged. Jeraldyne was always nurturing.

I got in the company in 1973. I loved it, learned so much, saw the world.

Q: What are some of your favorite dances?

A: A solo called "Growth" that I still perform. It's special to me because it was given to my by choreographer Dwight Rhoden, another favorite is "Vespers" created for DCDC by Ulysses Dove. And I feel very special about the solo Rodney Brown has created for me for this concert. It's called "The Gatherer/weething."

Q: What would people be surprised to know about you?

A: That I'm very comfortable in both sides of my brain. I am working toward a dual degree: System and Software Engineering.


Q: What was it like to see a documentary about yourself? How did you feel when you first saw the film?

A: I was so honored to be chosen by Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, who are Academy Award nominated documentary film makers. It was all amazing! It was wild how they put it all together after having cameras going all the time. When I saw the film for the first time, it made me cry.

Q: What do you want your audience to experience when they watch you dance?

A: I want my audience to journey with me, not simply sit back and watch, but to be guided through my existence at the time. To be involved and positively effected with a resolve that lasts much longer than the brief time we've shared. With all that said, I definitely want all to have a good time!

On leisure time and the future

Q: What do you do on a day off?

A: I work out, try to get things done. I teach a conditioning class every Saturday morning. I catch up on my studying. Originally, I wanted to be a doctor. I still study medical research.

Q: Do you have plans to retire?

A: I take it year by year. When I leave dance, it's not so much dance I'll miss — it's my colleagues. I dance with really great folks. I often say if I were to perish at this moment, it would be OK. I'm not ready but it would be alright.


"Sheri works with a ferocity that we've rarely ever seen. She is so amazingly driven, it's hard to describe. We think the film captures her energy, her hunger, her intensity. Off stage and beyond the workout room, she is wonderfully warm and generous and down to earth.

Most of the other DCDC dancers are literally half the age of Sheri. And a lot of them come into the company knowing of her legend. What was wonderful to see, however, is how completely down to earth Sheri is with everyone. She's like everyone's big sister in the company — she has so much knowledge about dance, mobility, health, nutrition — and she's incredibly generous with her wisdom to everyone.

Like a great actor, a dancer who is a true artist seems to become the character, the person they are performing. When Sheri dances, you feel the emotion.

— Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert, film makers

“Sheri is very giving, very funny, but also very intense in her commitment to whatever it is she’s doing.

“Young dancers may be able to jump higher than Sheri, but their artistry hasn’t developed as much, they don’t have enough experiences to bring to the art form. What makes her the most special is the shape she’s in — her physical shape. If you saw her in earlier years, she was rounder and plumper, she has re-sculpted her body. The lesson for the rest of us is that it CAN be done. Her fierce dedication allowed her to do it and maintain it.”

— Debbie Blunden-Diggs, Artistic Director, DCDC

“Sheri is amazing! This is my first season performing with the company, and she has already taught me so much. Most inspiring is her “lead by example” attitude in the studio. Sheri ALWAYS gives 100 percent and she inspires and challenges me to do the same! It’s so exciting to dance with her, knowing her deep love for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, her dedication to the Dayton community, and her respect for the art of dance.”

— Qarrianne Blayr, DCDC dancer

“I was first introduced to Miss Williams in 1997. I was a high school student and she was on stage. It was the seminal DCDC work “Vespers.” I had never seen live dance before. It changed my life.

In 2007, I was dancing with the first company of DCDC and I had the idea to choreograph a dance about schizophrenia. We created a solo together, I told her, ‘you have to be sad. ’ She said: ‘Do you want me to cry? And she did. Miss Williams isn’t just a dancer; she’s an actor, an artist.

I was floored to be asked to do this commission. Miss Williams is a piece of modern dance history. Some of the most renowned choreographers in the world are in her body — she dances those works and works that have been created on Sheri “Sparkle” Williams have been reset in Europe and around the country.

This piece is called “The Gatherer/Weething” and weething is about humanity. It’s about transformation. It fits her because she can transform . In one minute she can make you laugh, in the next, she can make you cry.”

— Rodney A. Brown, Choreographer, assistant professor, department of dance, The Ohio State University

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Jim Witmer

Credit: Jim Witmer

Credit: Andy Snow

Credit: Andy Snow

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

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