21 for ’21: Cat Willis dances in the space between public health and community advocacy

“When Black folks come together, there’s a lot of collective power in that," says Cat Willis.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

As the founder and executive director of the Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center, Cat Willis is leading the way in the center’s evolution from a dance studio to a community stronghold.

It’s called the Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center, and for years anyone who happened to be passing by its floor-to-ceiling windows on the campus of the Tannery Arts Center could witness the “Dance” component of it close up.

But in the past year, as COVID-19 has created chaos and destroyed the sense of normal at any community space where people gather together, it’s been the “Cultural” part of the TWDCC that has begun to flex its muscle.

Since the pandemic lockdown, the popular dance studio has offered classes in a wide variety of dance styles both online and in tightly controlled outdoor spaces. But the trauma of 2020 has accelerated a process that was already under way before the pandemic.

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Just as many arts-oriented not-for-profits and businesses in cities across the country have been doing for years, the TWDCC — which pre-pandemic was bringing in about 350 people per week through its doors — is coming into its own as a community advocacy center.

At the heart of the TWDCC’s emerging role as a sociopolitical entity is an initiative known as Black Health Matters — created and led by the center’s founder and executive director Cat Willis — an informational campaign aimed at collecting public health data in the local African American community, addressing the inequities in the health care system, and providing meaningful ideas on maintaining good health.

The initiative rose in the wake of the George Floyd killing last spring, after the Santa Cruz County chapter of the NAACP convened a series of online conferences. A consistent theme that emerged from those events was the isolation and disconnection experienced by many Black people in the county. From those meetings, a coalition emerged from the many participating voices, including the NAACP, the United Way and Blended Bridge.

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“That was a catalyzing moment,” said Willis. “When Black folks come together, there’s a lot of collective power in that. And coming together like that was profound for a lot of us.”

On the heels of the county declaring racism to be a threat to public health last summer, Willis and Black Health Matters worked with county officials to rise to the challenge of cementing the emerging community.

A pandemic-appropriate barbecue invited people from all over the county to come to county parks for food pick-up, then enjoy on-line entertainment from home. A similar program took place earlier in December to celebrate the holiday season.

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All this community building is in the service of providing practical advice and health information, and for uncovering social and political determinating factors in access to health care among Blacks and other minorities.

“We need to have that big, deep conversation on health inequity,” said Willis, “because it does fall on racial lines. And to do it through the lens of gathering together, and through the lens of art and culture builds trust.”

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Meanwhile, back at the TWDCC, Willis and her small staff are taking what they call a “click-and-mortar” approach to maintaining the center’s place in the community.
As the center approaches its 10th anniversary, it’s looking to maximize the advantages of online programming — by, for example, inviting members to engage with nationally known teachers and performers virtually in a way that could never happen in person.

Cat Willis in her element.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

While Willis anticipates that the in-person gatherings that are the bread-and-butter of what the TWDCC offers the community will likely be severely curtailed through the first quarter of 2021, she continues to look for ways to strengthen her dance center’s power to bring about change and to envision what the center will look like in the post-pandemic world.

And she’s betting it will emerge as a more vital and influential part of the lives of all its participants, whatever their cultural identity.

“The most incredible experience for me,” she said, “was sitting in my office here and watching these 4- and 5-year-olds in our outdoor space, dancing for 45 minutes with their little masks on. It was just so heartening for me. I thought, this is what resilience looks like. This is what pivoting looks like.”