By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau
Dancers over the decades have pivoted away from authentic jazz dance. But it's not something Grand Canyon University's Dance Department will step in line with.
Dance Director Susannah Keita said maintaining a strong jazz dance curriculum is so much more than just a factor that differentiates the College of Fine Arts and Production’s dance program from other universities.
It’s about conserving the art of the qualities and movements that make up traditional jazz dance.
“What we’re seeing in the dance studios, in the competition world and in shows like 'So You Think You Can Dance,' the actual authentic jazz tradition is being submerged in favor of more leaps and turns … and those of us that hold this tradition very dear to our hearts see it as a watering down process because that’s not authentic jazz,” Keita said. “We want to see jazz maintain its original qualities and we want more studio dance teachers and more people who are not already in this tight community to join us. We cannot lose this vast cultural tradition that is uniquely American.”
GCU's dance students can explore a different form of dance few other programs offer, despite jazz dance being a fundamental part of what can make a dancer that much more marketable after graduation. It is a part of the dance program the faculty is especially proud of.
“One of the reasons I’m really proud that we have it is that a lot of universities, and our university in particular, focus on making sure people are prepared for careers when they leave college, and jazz dance is definitely a very commercial art form,” said GCU dance instructor and artist-in-residence Kevin Godfrey-Chevalier. “I think it’s really important that our students study that because it’s their job, like this is what’s going to get them paid so they’re not struggling to find work.”
Godfrey-Chevalier also believes GCU’s jazz-friendly approach makes the program stand out among others.
“I definitely think it’s part of why some students come to our university, for sure, because they want that,” he said. “They go to other universities where there’s just modern or just ballet or even other Christian universities where there’s maybe just praise dance. They’re looking for something that’s going to set them apart in a competitive employment field.”
Students who pursue the dance education degree are required to take three levels of modern, ballet and jazz in what Keita calls the program’s “triple track.” For dance students pursing a bachelor of arts degree, five levels of the three forms are required along with tap and hip-hop/urban dance.
“We want our dancers to be prepared for the commercial dance world and the concert dance world,” Keita said. “Jazz can be in either.”
One student who benefited from the program is 2019 dance graduate Chesney Thompson, who will be utilizing the skills he learned while touring with Princess Cruises. And 2018 dance graduate Turiya Chavez performed a solo in July at the Dance in the Desert 21st annual Festival in Las Vegas.
“There are so many paths that a jazz dancer can choose: commercial work, musical theater, concert dance and becoming the next generation's dance professors,” dance instructor Alicia-Lynn Nascimento Castro said. “Jazz dance has evolved so much with our contemporary times but is still recognizable by the rhythmic sequences, isolations, and the connection to urban culture, to the streets and to music.”
Nascimento Castro credits the success and development of the program to Keita’s knowledge in jazz and her realization of the importance jazz dance history.
“She is the reason the jazz program here thrives in a real, living, breathing way,” she said. “I am just happy to be a part of the team that is keeping jazz dance alive.”
It is a program that continues to evolve, partly due to Keita’s involvement with the National Dance Education Organization, which is focused on advancing dance education.
Recently, jazz dance enthusiasts gathered at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island to attend NDEO’s second jazz conference and share knowledge in different areas of expertise within jazz. For her second conference, Keita presented a movement workshop on “Dunham Jazz,” paying tribute to Katherine Dunham, a 20th-century African-American dance artist and icon responsible for creating the Dunham Technique, in which Keita is certified.
“It was a wonderful place to be,” Keita said of her time at the conference. “It gave me a sense that there are others doing the kind of work that I’m doing who are interested in preserving the legacy of jazz.”
It was an opportunity for her to share and gather knowledge and bring back what she learned to her students. Keita has been a member of NDEO and has attended conferences since 2002. She has attended both jazz conferences, the first of which was is in 2016 and second this summer.
“I met a lot of new colleagues or made stronger connections to people that I’ve met who are working in different lineage-based techniques and other higher ed institutions. I loved being able to compare perspectives,” Keita said. “I can bring those best practices back to GCU, allowing our students to certainly benefit.”
The jazz-friendly focus has been something students have appreciated, too, about the program.
Aubrianna Stough, a 2018 dance education graduate, said she chose GCU’s dance program specifically for the its strong emphasis on jazz.
“Jazz has always impacted me,” Stough said. “It has always been a major influence in my particular style and way of movement. GCU became my main choice of school. I’m really glad I had that opportunity.”
Contact GCU staff writer Ashlee Larrison at [email protected] or at 602-639-8488.