Dancers' feats celebrated in Black History Month

Several students and alumni participated in multiple productions celebrating prominent figures in black history.

By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau

Black History Month, celebrated every February, is another opportunity for the Dance Department at Grand Canyon University to highlight the impact students of color have had on the program.

Students have seen how the dance curriculum in the College of Fine Arts and Production helps them learn more about different cultures and styles. Three of this year’s four residency artists are women of color.

“We’re developing artists who can be versatile and work in a range of environments, but we also make sure they have plenty of experience working within a theatrical setting,” said Susannah Keita, Director of Dance.

Inviting a diverse group of residency artists is important for another reason: the lack of representation and access to training in dance for people of color.

Destiny Magee will be one of several dancers in Heather Beal's piece for this spring's dance concert.

One of those residency artists is Heather Beal, a teacher of Dunham Technique and performing artist and associate with The Black Rep in St. Louis. Beal has created a piece for this spring’s dance concert, "Moving Forward," that will tackle topics through the experience and identity of black women and address serious topics that tie into GCU’s #ItsOnUs and anti-stalking campaigns. The concert is scheduled for April 17-19.

The piece will be performed by several students of color who had 15 hours over three days to learn it. One of those students is junior Destiny Magee

“This piece is about advocating about women’s voices in societal silence but also brings forth woman empowerment,” Magee said. “It’s special to be a part of something like this because I have personally had bad experiences because I am a woman, and it is very important to be able to help empower other women through this dance.”

Some other current members as well as alumni of the Dance program are working to make an impact on the world of dance but in a way that pays tribute to their cultural heritage and those who came before them.

For 2018 graduate Khaila Matthews, the opportunity to choreograph for Kevvin Taylor’s recent theatre production, “Black Women Walking,” did just that. The show featured a series of monologues that talk about the influence of African-America women who aren’t well-known. Matthews choreographed a majorette-style dance for the scene highlighting Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, activist and founder of  Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla. Bethune also established the 14 Karat Gold Dancers, who were portrayed in the play.

Khaila Matthews choreographed a dance for Kevvin Taylor's theatre production of “Black Women Walking.”

“The whole entire experience was just an amazing one,” Matthew said. “I felt like I learned so much. It was a really awesome experience and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Although she admits to at first being unable to see the value of a degree in dance while she was a student, she said she was able to see why her experience in GCU’s Dance program was important in her career, especially when creating connections and foundations for future endeavors. Without Keita’s determination to introduce students to choreographers and dancers from diverse backgrounds, Matthews said, she likely would have never met Taylor.

“I was fortunate enough to have Susannah Keita be our director and our instructor in some of our classes,” Matthews said. “She makes sure we are learning a wide genre and diversity of different dances and different cultures. We learned about so many different cultures just other than our own within that program because she really felt that it was important, as dancers, that we know that dance is a multi-language type of thing.

“It’s not just one type of person doing dance, it’s all types of people.”

Matthews was also one of few students within the program to present a solo in a GCU faculty concert during her time on campus.

Freshman RayShawn Watkins participated this month in a production that paid tribute to a notable figure within black history -- Desert Dance Theatre's production of “Sister Moses: The Story of Harriet Tubman.” It shared, through dance, the story of Tubman and her drive to free her people from slavery through the underground railroad. Desert Dance Theatre has been sharing that story for more than 20 years.

RayShawn Watkins (in white shirt) was part of Desert Dance Theatre's production “Sister Moses: The Story of Harriet Tubman.”

“It’s just really crazy, the experience, and I’m at a loss for words of how good it is,” Watkins said. “It helped me understand a lot about different point of views from dancers and all of their backgrounds and how we all got to be able to dance from what we went through in the past and how we came together.”

Watkins said his first year in the dance program already has made a difference. 

“I’ve grown so much within the program and just me as a person,” he said. “They help build character … it’s been amazing.”

As with Matthews' opportunity, Keita had a key role. Lisa Chow, Artistic Director and Choreographer for Desert Dance Theatre, reached out to Watkins about a spot in the production, and Keita gave Watkins more information.

Though there are multiple students and alumni of color in the Dance program using their talent to celebrate the achievements of those who came before them, many students are paving the way for others through their own accomplishments as well.

Isiah Johnson piece “A Hole in the Roof, A Hole in My Sock” will represent GCU at the  American College Dance Association’s West Region Conference.

Seniors Isiah Johnson and Alyssa Quiett are representing the University at this year’s American College Dance Association’s West Region Conference after their choreography  were selected by the GCU Dance faculty. Quiett’s piece will be titled “It’s Fine.”

Johnson’s 7 1/2-minute piece, “A Hole in the Roof, A Hole in My Sock,” was created for last semester’s Student Spotlight Concert and is based on experiences he had in Texas last summer. His primary focus was on bettering himself.

“I was kind of hoping for it, so when it happened it was really exciting,” said Johnson, who also created choreography for Lip Sync last semester. “I had two pieces that were adjudicated ... so it was really cool that it was this one that made it because it was the newest one I made and I felt the most emotionally connected to it.

“It was kind of full circle a little bit, coming into the program and not knowing anything, and now I’m taking a dance I made to a conference to perform in front of hundreds of people.”

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected]


Related content:

GCU Today: Dance Department ‘ReInvents’ tradition at concert

GCU Today: Dance program makes big splash at conference


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