New challenges await dance instructor Zari Le’on
By Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
Zari Le’on is going to jail. At least, she hopes to be. You could say it’s a career goal.
Hold on, we’ll explain. Le’on, an adjunct dance instructor at Grand Canyon University since the fall of 2011, will return soon to California to pursue other opportunities. A piece she choreographed for next week’s spring dance concert at Ethington Theatre might be farewell, at least for a while.
A couple of those other opportunities already are on her calendar. Le’on will teach at AileyCamp, an innovative national program that provides free, world-class training for youth in the arts. Her dance company, Zari Le’on Dance Theater, is scheduled for a residency at an arts center in the Bay Area.
Those things will keep her busy, but she also wants to work with incarcerated juveniles, an interest that has been building since she first made the acquaintance of Rhodessa Jones nearly 10 years ago.
Jones, the sister of legendary African-American choreographer Bill T. Jones, founded the Medea Project, an effort to explore whether an arts-based approach could reduce the number of women returning to jail.
“She inspired so much of my work,” says Le’on, who has taught at the college level for nine years and has a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Michigan.
The Medea Project is “a way for incarcerated women to tell their own stories and reclaim some of their power through dance and theatre,” she says. “People in prison go deep right away, and that’s always my approach — getting to the heart of it.”
Such barrier-breaking access to the arts has been a guiding philosophy for Le’on throughout her career. She is a product of community-based arts programs, having begun dance classes at age 7 with her mother at a community center in Santa Cruz, Calif.
“There were all ages, all abilities,” she says.
The form of dance that she teaches, which she calls “contemporary vernacular,” is a distinctive, multiethnic stew consisting of the Katherine Dunham technique, yoga, and styles that include jazz, funk and hip-hop. It’s high-energy, athletic and demanding.
“Dance has to be a current expression of what people are doing,” Le’on says. “Hip-hop went from the street to the exercise gym to the dance studio. For this generation, it’s their way to communicate. They have ownership over it.”
She says the future of dance depends on the value that society is willing to place on the unseen.
“With dance, there is no script, no product,” she says. “There has to be value in the moment, in the work of the soul and spirit. That’s what this is about.”
GCU’s dance director, Susannah Keita, says Le’on “has brought a perspective of realism” to the program, which has made impressive strides since its beginnings in the fall of 2010. Although Keita remains the program’s only full-time faculty member, she has received significant contributions from a half-dozen adjunct instructors, including Le’on, Jenny Showalter and Katie Felis. The latter two recently conducted a five-week, motor-skills program with patients in the neuro rehabilitation unit at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Keita says Le’on “levels with students and doesn’t just tell them what they want to hear. She is comfortable teaching many genres of dance…. Zari can read a room at a single glance, evaluating students’ readiness for learning.”
One of those students, graduating senior Ashley Brown, who will go on to teach dance herself, found it “inspirational” to learn from Le’on.
“Her courses are vigorous, but the challenges prepared us for the situations we will encounter in our careers,” Brown says. “She has had such a positive impact on my life as a dancer and teacher.”
The Ethington Dance Ensemble’s spring concert, “reNEWal,” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday, April 22 and 23, in Ethington Theatre. Zari Le’on’s piece “Colossus” will be part of the production. For tickets, call 639.8880.
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].