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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2004

IU's African American Dance Company to celebrate with its 30th concert

Some alumni have gone on to bigger stages, while others simply found personal growth

Editors: Complete background materials, including print-quality photographs, are available online at

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Thirty years ago, there were few opportunities for dancers or choreographers in Indiana, let alone those who wanted to explore a repertoire influenced by African American life and the African diaspora.

"At that time, the only dance that existed here at Indiana University was the Ballet Department in the School of Music and a dance major program in the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation," recalled Iris Rosa, director of IU's African American Dance Company and associate professor of African American and African Diaspora studies at IU Bloomington.

Outside of Bloomington, most opportunities for dancers and choreographers were located in Chicago and Louisville. The only ongoing modern dance company in the area was Dance Kaleidoscope in Indianapolis.

Rosa, who had just completed her master's degree in dance from IU, heard that the university was looking to create such a dance company and was selected to be its first director in the fall of 1974, after a competitive search process. She has held the position ever since.

Since then, the company's commitment to professionalism has led it to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Chuck Davis Afro-American Dance Company, also of New York City. Karel Shook, then director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, once remarked that the company consisted of "serious, dedicated students … they did splendid work."

The company will hold a celebration with the presentation of its 30th concert on April 10 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, 114 E. Kirkwood Ave. in downtown Bloomington. There also will be a performance of students' choreographic projects on April 9 at the Willkie Auditorium, 150 N. Rose Ave. Alumni of the company will come back to Bloomington that weekend for a reunion as well.

The African American Dance Company during its 2003 spring concert

Students in the ensemble must first audition and then enroll in a two-credit-hour course offered in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. Students can re-enroll in the class for up to six semesters.

The company originally was a vision of the late Herman Hudson, founder of the Office of Afro-American Affairs and the Minority Achievers Program at IU Bloomington. Rosa recalled Hudson's passion about showcasing African diasporic culture at IU. He established the Soul Revue, the Choral Ensemble and the African American Dance Company -- all part of IU's African American Arts Institute -- which will celebrate its 30th anniversary later this year. It is thought to be the only program of its kind at a U.S. college or university.

"The vision that Dr. Hudson had was really to give minority students, particularly African American students, an opportunity to perform," she said. "They did not have to be dance majors, but he also wanted to have an ensemble that would professionally exhibit the talents of students in various aspects of dance."

The company's first concert was in the spring of 1975 and attracted an audience of 200 people at the Creative Arts Auditorium. "We had to do everything. We had to get a lighting designer, do the costumes and essentially prove to him (Hudson) that we could do this," she recalled. "We really had to work."

A challenge for the company for many years was that it lacked adequate practice facilities. "We met at the old Black Culture Center basement that had a low ceiling and a cement tiled floor, which is a dancer's nightmare, but we didn't have any choice," she said. Since January 2002, the company has practiced and performed in modern facilities at the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center.

One highlight in the company's history came in 1980 when it produced a video, Lemonade Suite, with support from the Indiana Arts Commission and the Indiana Committee for the Humanities. It combined the work of renowned African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks with music and choreography by faculty in the African American Arts Institute. The video aired on public television stations and was used in schools to generate discussion of social issues. The company also has gone on tours of the Midwest and other parts of the United States.

In addition to her work with the IU company, Rosa also directs the Indianapolis-based performing ensemble, Sancocho: Music and Dance Collage, which enables her to present her research in African- and Cuban-influenced dance. She also is developing another company, Seda Negra/Black Silk.

Many alumni of the company have loved dance so much they went on to become professionals. They include Justin Johnston, who is in the current Broadway production of Rent; and Gabriel Paige, who has danced with pop superstar Britney Spears and who appears in the current movie Starsky & Hutch, as well as in Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

"The African American Dance Company has taught me so much more than I ever expected," Johnston said. "It's more than a dance company; it's a classroom ... There are no words to express my appreciation for the way Professor Iris Rosa has dedicated her life to showing several people like me just exactly why I continue on a path of creative arts."

Johnston originally was selected to be in the national tour of Rent at an audition in Bloomington while he was still a student at IU.

Many other alumni are continuing to pass down traditions through their work with community dance companies. Others have found that their experiences with the dance company prepared them for jobs in the corporate world by shaping their perceptions of others and an appreciation for diversity. The company has always been ethnically and culturally diverse.

"We've never had a problem with that, because I'm very straightforward with all of my students that this is a company that focuses on the experiences of African Americans and the African diaspora. Regardless of where you come from, you know that this is going to be our focus," Rosa said.

"For the non-black students, it's important for them to have some grounding, some discussion that's going to give them triggers in order to express the African American experience," she added. "They do get frustrated, because they don't know that experience, so it's my job to give them the tools so they can be able to express the experience even though they are non-black.

"I've had students write to me to say how much they're able to use that (understanding) when they go out in their jobs ... There's a saying that dance is life."

One such alumna is Kirstin Corbett, now a marketing professional at J. Price International Truck in Washington, D.C.

"On every level, my dance company experiences have shaped the person I am today," Corbett said. "The appreciation of diversity, true understanding of dance and love for humanity are elements of my spirit that were nurtured in the company and continue to be part of my basic existence."

Advance tickets for the 30th gala concert on April 10 cost $13 for adults and $8 for students and senior citizens and are available at the Sunrise Box Office, 114 E. Kirkwood Ave. Prices increase to $17 and $12 on the day of the show. Major sponsors of the concert are the IU Office of Academic Support and Diversity, Insight Communications, WFIU-FM and WFHB-FM. Tickets for the April 9 performance of the students' choreographic projects cost $3 and will be available at the door.