Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar earned her B.A. in dance from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and her M.F.A. in dance from Florida State University. In 1980 Jawole moved to New York City to study with Dianne McIntyre at Sounds in Motion. In 1984 Jawole founded Urban Bush Women (UBW) as a performance ensemble dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change.
She has created over 34 works for UBW, as well as for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and others. Her collaborations include Compagnie Jant-Bi from Senegal and Nora Chipaumire. Her company has toured five continents and was selected as one of three U.S. dance companies to inaugurate a cultural diplomacy program for the U.S. Department of State in 2010.
She is the founder of UBW Summer Leadership Institute, founding Artistic Director and Visioning Partner of UBW and currently holds the position of the Nancy Smith Fichter Professor of Dance and Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University. Jawole received a 2008 United States Artists Wynn fellowship and a 2009 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial. Jawole received the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and honorary degrees from Tufts University and Rutgers University. Jawole received the Dance Magazine Award in 2015 and the Dance/USA Honor Award in 2016. Recently, Jawole received the 2017 Bessie Lifetime Achievement in Dance Award for her work in the field.