Donna Jacobs paces the front of the room, watching her dancers complete a series of lifts, drags and drops to the floor.
She nods approvingly but wants more. She’s helping her ensemble get into character to tell the story of a woman they all know well by this point and are working hard to portray through movement.
“You have watched these families struggle, and you’ve been sitting back thinking about this and decide the time is now,” Jacobs says to the dancers, who pant after finishing an aerobic section of her piece.
Jacobs, 59, of Ellicott City, is referencing Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist credited with helping hundreds of slaves escape to freedom through Maryland in the 1850s.
“You don’t go off, you stop right there,” Jacobs says to her lead dancer, Hope Byers, also of Columbia, who is portraying Tubman in her piece.
“I need them like this,” Jacobs says to Byers, extending her arms above her head and tipping her wrists so that her palms face the ceiling of the Morton Street Dance Center in Baltimore, where her company rehearses.
Jacobs is one of eight choreographers with pieces in Full Circle Dance Company’s upcoming performance, “A Woman’s Place: Purpose, Passion, Power,” coming to the Slayton House Theatre in Columbia on Nov. 5 and 6. It marks the first time the company will perform at the Howard County venue, presenting a thought-provoking show that brings to life the stories of famous — and not-so-famous — women.
The 13-dancer company, led by artistic director Jacobs, will highlight household names like Tubman, Marie Curie, Maya Angelou, Mother Teresa and Gloria Steinem, but will also pay respects to lesser-known female figures including Betty Friedan, Wendy Kopp, Hildegard of Bingen and Ruth Handler.
The somber topic isn’t out of character for the company, who have previously performed on subjects like race, motherhood, religion, and breast cancer.
“Each year we spend time collectively conceiving what we want to do, and we always want to include some community aspect to our work and deliver messages that the general population can relate to,” Jacobs says.
During rehearsal, Jacobs implores her dancers to show the struggle Tubman faced during a particular section of the piece.
The studio is quiet as the dancers focus on Jacobs’ words.
“For those who fall, you are falling pretty and dainty. When you fall, I want to hear it,” she says. “Show me intent. Show me the drama.”
Tubman’s life was never short on drama. Born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, she endured field labor and beatings before escaping through the network known as the Underground Railroad. Despite a bounty on her head, she subsequently returned to the Eastern Shore 19 times to lead slaves to freedom, and assisted the Union Army in emancipation efforts.
For Jacobs, Harriet Tubman was a clear choice for the subject of her 10-minute piece.
“I’ve admired her for forever. It is astounding to me to think about her immense courage, strength, selflessness and dedication to her purpose,” Jacobs says.
To help tell a complete story, Jacobs brought in parents of students at Morton Street Dance Center to play the part of families following Tubman to safety in the mid-1800s.
“My concept is to show her really thinking and tending to the struggles of her people and the need to escape to freedom,” Jacobs says. “I included the families to show what happened during that time in their homes and show their joys and challenges as they faced reality,” she says.
Byers, 44, has the challenge of portraying Tubman, a role she has prepared for in and out of the studio.
“It’s a little intimidating,” says Byers, who has been dancing with the company for 11 years. “When you say Harriet Tubman’s name, everyone knows her story, and so the hardest part has been to make her come to life on stage in a way that the audience can really get engrossed in her story.”
In addition to dancing the role of Tubman, Byers choreographed a piece for “A Women’s Place” on poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Her greatest obstacle was choosing which part of her life to feature.
Angelou, who died in 2014, counted writer, singer, actress, director, public speaker and more among her professions by the end of her illustrious career.
“She did so much in her life and she was also a dancer, which a lot of people didn’t know, ” Byers says. “I decided to focus on her art and how it intersected with her activism.”
In order to do this, Byers says she explores images of protests through her movements and the struggle that ensues.
“I also incorporate some of her poetry and speak that into the piece as well to give a personal touch and make the audience feel even closer to her work,” Byers says.
For Glenelg High School dance teacher Jennifer Seye, 37, the task of bringing her subject to life is a little different.
The Sykesville resident is tackling one of the lesser-known stories in the show — that of Hildegard von Bingen, also known as Saint Hildegard, a German Benedictine abbess, writer and composer. Von Bingen is considered the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.
“I decided that I wanted to bring interest back into this woman, ” Seye says. “She’s more than 900 years old, and the influence that she’s had on society is incredible. There are still people who use her medical tactics today.”
Seye’s piece incorporates flowing skirts and the use of rocks to balance on the dancers’ arms, heads and stomachs to communicate von Bingen’s work with nature.
When it comes time for the dancers to take the stage, Jacobs says she’s looking forward to bringing the women’s stories back into the spotlight and celebrating their work.
“These women have sacrificed so much, ” Jacobs says, “and they deserve to have their stories highlighted.”