The Many Sides of Ebony Williams

September 19, 2010

It’s a bright Friday afternoon, and 26-year-old Ebony Williams, who has performed with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet for nearly four years, is working quietly in a corner of the company’s sunlit studio. The muscular bodies of the troupe’s 17 other talented dancers fill the airy warehouse space—yet it’s impossible not to notice Ebony. She twists her back sinuously and extends a perfectly arched foot up to her ear; then she drops to the floor, slinking through a series of complicated shoulder rolls with catlike grace. She is the picture of chic contemporary perfection.

At first, it’s hard to believe that somewhere inside this elegant, ballet-trained dancer lives the fierce, super-sexy glamazon of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” music video. But after a few more minutes of rehearsal, the urban angularity that underlies Ebony’s fluid movements begins to peek through. There’s her ability to isolate each of her vertebrae during a body roll, like a pop-locker. There’s her habit of adding a sharp hip or shoulder to an otherwise liquid phrase. And there’s the way she finishes slow turns with a quick snap of her head, sending her funky zebra-patterned earrings swinging. Soon it’s clear: This is a classical dancer with a hip-hop soul.

“I Had to Be Onstage”

Even as a young girl growing up in Boston, Ebony believed that she was made to be a performer. “I would dance around my house all the time, picking up routines from music videos on TV. I just knew I had to be onstage,” she says. Though her family couldn’t afford dance lessons at first, Ebony began learning the basics of ballet and jazz from a neighbor who went to a local studio. Then, when she was in the third grade, Ebony was accepted into Boston Ballet’s Citydance, a scholarship ballet program for inner-city children. Two years later, she began training seriously at the Boston Ballet School. “My natural movement style is more jazzy, more funky, and at first I was just doing ballet because people told me I was good at it,” Ebony says. “But then I totally fell in love with that way of moving.”

By high school, however, the ballet school’s intense schedule left her burned out, and she decided to take a break. “I wanted to be a regular kid for a little bit,” she says. She tried cheerleading (“Our football team was so bad that I gave up on that quickly!”), and after graduation enrolled at Quincy College in Massachusetts, thinking she’d become a physical therapist. But dance kept calling to her. After one year at Quincy, she transferred to the dance program at the prestigious Boston Conservatory. “I discovered that dance wasn’t just a fun hobby—it was something I needed to do,” she says.

“A Beautiful Complexity”

After graduating in May of 2005, Ebony began looking for a job in a company that would allow her to explore a wide range of styles. At the top of her list? Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. “It’s so funny: I actually did a fashion shoot with Dance Spirit right before I graduated from the Conservatory,” Ebony says, “and I picked Cedar Lake as one of my dream companies!”

It took two auditions, but in late 2005, Ebony’s dream came true: She was offered a contract with the elite company. Artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer feels that Ebony’s classical-with-an-edge style makes her a great fit for Cedar Lake. “There’s a beautiful complexity to Ebony,” Pouffer says. “She’s a strong personality, but at the same time she’s truly a chameleon. She morphs and mutates from one choreographer’s work to another.”

“That Girl Is Fierce!”

Although Ebony says she always dreamed of dancing in music videos, her entry into the commercial world happened almost by accident. During the off-season after her first year with Cedar Lake, she took what she thought was a master class with hip-hop diva Laurie Ann Gibson. To her surprise, Ebony discovered that it was actually an audition for a dance reality show—and it didn’t take Gibson long to single her out. “Laurie Ann asked, ‘Where have you been?’ ” Ebony remembers. “I said, ‘In ballet class!’ ”

Though she didn’t get a spot on the short-lived show, with Gibson’s help Ebony landed a commercial agent. Since then she’s been dancing for big names like Rihanna and Fergie at the NYC “Fashion Rocks” concerts. These gigs, which she juggles carefully with her busy Cedar Lake schedule, keep her balanced.  “I need variety,” Ebony says. “I love wearing pointe shoes, but I also love hip hop.” She enjoys the fact that different work environments call for different kinds of artistry.

One day last year, Ebony’s agent called, encouraging her to check out an audition for a music video: Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” “That first audition was a disaster!” Ebony remembers: “I was late. When I walked in everyone already knew the dance. A few minutes later they broke us into groups—and of course I was in the first one! I freaked out.” Freaked out or not, Ebony nailed the routine, and soon she was on the set with Beyoncé, decked out in the now-famous black leotard and pumps.

Ebony’s strong classical background didn’t go unnoticed during the “Single Ladies” shoot. (Remember her perfect arabesque penchée in the middle of the routine?) JaQuel Knight, the video’s choreographer, was seriously impressed by her technical chops. “Ebony’s ballet training and her work with Cedar Lake make her an incredibly well-rounded dancer,” he says. “When you give her hip-hop choreography, her technique adds polish; her lines are always spot-on. It looks classy and powerful at the same time.”

And Ebony’s commercial experience helps her during contemporary rehearsals, too. Cedar Lake dancer Jon Bond, one of Ebony’s good friends, says, “When you work with people like Beyoncé and Rihanna, you have to put yourself out there right away because the commercial process is so fast. That helps a lot when we have different choreographers come in at Cedar Lake. Ebony’s never scared to try things. That girl is fierce!”

“I Want to Do It All”

Since it debuted last October, the “Single Ladies” video has made Ebony something of a celebrity. “People will actually stop me on the street and ask me to teach them that dance!” she says, with a good-natured groan.

Other feedback has been more welcome. “I’ve had mail from young people, and to hear from kids who are inspired by you, that’s amazing,” Ebony says. “I’m glad I can be a role model for them, that I can help them believe that dance is a legitimate, fulfilling career.”

What’s next for Ebony, the dancer who can do everything? “Everything!” she says, with a big laugh. “I love performing here at Cedar Lake, and I’d also like to try a little film, a little acting, a little Broadway—maybe even make my own workout video.” And Ebony’s unique blend of balletic grace and hip-hop toughness will add spice to every new project.