“To Thy Own Self Be True”: Reflections by a Modern Dance Icon
The Hamilton College Voices of Color Lecture Series welcomed renowned dance icon Judith Jamison for an intimate talk in the Chapel on April 18. The Series honors C. Christine Johnson, former director of the Hamilton College Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP). In the context of being an empowered role model, eager to give back, Jamison reflected on her career in the performing arts, most significantly her involvement in classical ballet.
Before beginning her story, Jamison took a moment to praise Johnson, saying that if we all took the time to look back and look out for one another, stories like hers would be much more common. This concept is near to her heart, working as artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to provide opportunities of artistic expression to youths of color.
Jamison has been dancing since she was six, and now, more than six decades later, she works to provide an equally beneficial and transformative experience to others. Recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor, in recognition of her lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts, Jamison has gone above and beyond to help others and promote American dance.
Reflecting on her past, Jamison said that the Hamilton motto, “Know Thyself,” resonates with her. Having grown up with a Shakespeare quoting mother, “this above all - and to thy own self be true” has been a guiding mantra throughout her life. Jamison acknowledged that while you will often come to the proverbial closed door, “a lot of them get shut in your face and supposedly you don’t know what to do, guess what, you do know what to do: trust yourself.”
Raised in the pre-civil and worker’s rights era, Jamison had few African-American role models to look up to in popular culture. Yet at home, a combination of her mother’s strong will and her father’s integrity and dedication provided a template for Jamison’s success. Her father, a sheet metal worker and carpenter by trade, shared with her his love for classical piano. Without trying, he instilled in her firm notions of dedicated practice and true completion, concepts that she later used and developed throughout decades of dance.
In her formative years, Jamison also drew inspiration from her church, admiring the “pageantry” of the choirs, the preacher and the congregation. For Jamison, these religious services and her dance performances accomplished a similar goal. Although members of the audience come as individuals, they “see themselves reflected in the humanity and emotion expressed by dance” and leave as part of a community.
Today, Jamison’s work focuses on promoting self-growth and expression through performing arts. Although the arts are diminishing in the public sphere, for groups who have been historically marginalized, artistic expression provides a beautiful and meaningful outlet.
Education in the arts is essential, Jamison claims, because only then do we understand the transformative power it has. Thankfully, Jamison and her colleagues understand the influence of dance and have worked to expand the center, which now includes 12 studios, two black box theaters, and spans 77,000 square feet (the largest building in NYC dedicated to dance).
When the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater was founded, 500 students went through the program each year. Today, more than 75,000 dance students annually attend classes, workshops, and camps; introducing new roads to their lives and transforming the future one plié at a time.