I can hardly believe that today officially marks my one year anniversary of directing the Chicago Dance History Project. We have accomplished so much in a year and yet have barely scratched the surface of investigating, documenting, and presenting Chicago dance histories.
I am privileged to share this adventure with the four brilliant individuals on CDHP’s Board: Ginger Farley, Elizabeth A. Liebman, Susan Manning, and Zac Whittenburg. CDHP exists because they care deeply about Chicago dance and is but one more expression of their commitments to the field and community. Our interns and volunteers – Maddie Kodat, Sarah Gonsiorowski, Jessica Seet, Naïma Hebrail Kidjo, and Ashley Deran – help in so many ways. Their thoughtfulness, dedication, and support are invaluable to me and, of course, to the Project.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if everyone with an interest in the history of dance in Chicago had the opportunity to share some time and space with everyone who played a part in shaping it? I wish that were physically possible. I’m still pinching myself at the realization that that is, essentially, my job description. I regard this work not as a job, however, but as a gift. My responsibility, therefore, is to share this gift with all of you, to craft ways in which we can all learn together, and to carry the oral and corporeal conversations forward in hopes that these legacies continue to inspire you as they have me.
Over the course of this year, I’ve realized that legacy not only shapes the content of this project, but it also plays an important role in how the project is executed. Performing the duties of this position allows me to continuously draw on my own dance histories, some of which I would like to briefly acknowledge.
The Ohio State University Department of Dance and the global tap dance community were the first groups to convey to me the infinite cycle of teaching and learning. I first felt connected to the history of dance by participating in these communities. There are too many teachers and artists to mention here, but I do want to recognize a few who have played pivotal roles in preparing me to lead CDHP. Candace Feck not only caught me up on dance histories when I was way out of my league, but taught me how to think and write critically about dance. Lynn Schwab taught me that learning steps is just the beginning of studying dance – that has made all the difference. Vicki Uris knows how to honor the life of a dancer through a camera lens. Every time I hit the “Record” button, I aim to do the same. I would not be reflecting on this milestone at all if it weren’t for the influence of Donn Vickers.
I draw daily on my experiences making Thinking On Their Feet: Women of the Tap Renaissance and writing Columbus Moves: A Brief History of Contemporary Dance. Like CDHP, they were truly collaborative endeavors with those artists who graciously shared their histories and the folks who helped me to preserve and present them.
My introduction to the potency of dance history came in Kristina Isabelle’s jazz class. There, I saw Labanotation for the first time and met Bob Fosse (a Chicago native) through his choreography for Sweet Charity. It is entirely fitting that, 17 years later, Kristina was the one who informed me of this job.
Through performances, panel discussions, and oral history interviews this past year, I have had the honor of witnessing firsthand many beautiful embodiments of Chicago dance legacies. If, like me, you have been at all touched by the work of this rich and diverse dance community – on stage, in a studio or classroom, behind the scenes, in an audience, at a library or museum, on screen, in print, or in conversation with another person – then please take a moment to reflect on those who preceded us, whose efforts made our experiences possible. Then, consider what we can do now so that future generations of Chicago dance can continue to thrive in ways we can only imagine.
Onward, into the past, present, and future!
-Jenai Cutcher West