During her grad-school days at Florida State, JAWOLE WILLA JO ZOLLAR studied traditional ballet and the gamut of modern dance forms any would-be choreographer might need. But something didn't sit right. "What was lacking was who I was," says Zollar, 39, a native of Kansas City, Mo. "It was someone else's vision."

Convinced that valid and powerful dance could spring from the culture and history of her own people, Zollar formed URBAN BUSH WOMEN in 1984, a New York City-based troupe that mixes modern and jazz choreography with Caribbean and African rhythms, tribal chants, gospel testifying and ghetto swagger. With the dancers moving to percussive music and their own claps, stomps and street speech (often dealing with homelessness, oppression and survival), the group has "turned us around as to what dance is," attests veteran festival producer Lenwood Sloan. Echoes Liz Thompson, director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's influential Next Wave Festival: "Jawole reflects a variety of heritages, and that, in a sense, is the direction of the '90s."

For Zollar, certainly, it is the right compass setting for a multiethnic society. "The melting pot will be supplanted by a gumbo pot," she says hopefully. "Rather than trying to boil everything down to make this one soup, we'll say all of these ingredients are needed to make it interesting. America is going to have to accept itself."