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Dancing through life: Reflections by Judith Jamison

By Ben Fields '15

April 24, 2014

When the Voices of Color Lecture Series brings their annual speaker to campus, they always draw a large crowd.The lecture on Friday, April 18 was no exception. The Chapel was filled with listeners eager to hear Judith Jamison reflect on her extraordinary life. Jamison was formerly the Artistic Director of the world-famous Alvin Ailey Dance Company and currently serves as Artistic Director Emeritus. She has travelled the world with various dance companies and brought her worldly experience to Hamilton.

Her speech gave Hamilton a glimpse into life as a worldwide dance icon and, as she describes herself, “One of the last, high maintenance divas.” Perhaps most impressive has been her experiences with various presidents. She has performed for every president since Lyndon Johnson, and Jackie Kennedy Onassis edited her autobiography. When asked who the most impressive person she worked with was, Jamison struggled to find a single person. In a life marked by travel, she said, “Spending time with ambassadors all over the world influenced me because they were in the midst of some messes.” Her career has led her to meet people ranging from Kofi Annan, before he served as U.N. Secretary General, to a close relationship with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Beyond her experiences with various dignitaries, Jamison was also clear that life is a reflection of art. When asked why she chose dance, she responded by saying, “Why not? Don’t we all dance?” She explained that she does not believe anyone or everyone can be an artist, but she was adamant that “If you have something to say, then your art can say it.”

She has used her career in dance to increase the relevance of African American artists. In an interview, she said, “The nice thing about the arts is you can be circuitous to go about your method, but you can achieve change.”

When she took over as Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey company, they were roughly one million dollars in debt. Since then, the company has expanded and is currently one the most well-regarded and popular companies in the U.S. and abroad. During her speech, she said, “I believe that each generation informs the next.” She has used this theory to inform the mission of the company. They currently work to help at-risk youth find ways to express themselves and tap into their talent through their six-week dance and creative writing intensive summer camp.

While she did focus on her life as a dancer, she made an effort to connect with the audience and with Hamilton. Voices of Color Lecture Series Chair Reuben Dizengoff ’15 said, “The committee was struck by Ms. Jamison’s work, and her story…[she] broke down racial and gender barriers.” She used the school’s motto to tell the audience to know themselves and what service they provide to serve global communities. She inspired the chapel, finishing her speech by saying, “all of us are capable of walking a shining path.”

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