Acclaimed dancer delivers lessons on leadership

Judith Jamison visited Elon University this week as the 2012 Isabella Cannon Distinguished Professor of Leadership.


She gained international fame as one of the most prolific dance performers and artistic directors of her generation. That attention led her to rubbing elbows with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Oprah, the Obamas, countless theatre and Hollywood legends, and some of the biggest names in music over the past half century.

But when Judith Jamison offered wisdom to her audiences on Monday as the 2012 Isabella Cannon Distinguished Professor of Leadership at Elon University, it was not without humility, a trait from her active involvement in her church as a child in Philadelphia.

“I’m a really spiritual person that you’re talking to with a great sense of humor,” she said with a laugh Monday in a first-floor classroom of the Isabella Cannon International Pavilion in the Academic Village. “My ‘leadership’ has a great deal to do with how I grew up. … It isn’t simply by ‘being so good.’”

Speaking to students in Professor Nancy Midgette’s afternoon “Foundations of Leadership Studies” course, the artistic director emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater previewed her March 5 university lecture that evening by sharing stories of her career and advice on being a strong leader.

The affable Jamison fielded questions related to the way she balances short and long term goals. For Jamison, there was never much thought given to the long term. Instead, she focused on the short term, which often meant nothing more than getting through performances.

“What was constantly in front of me was, ‘We need to get this company on the map,’” she said, pointing out that for a modern dance company of black performers in the middle of the Civil Rights era, it was no small feat to accomplish. “That’s it. There was nothing else.”

She frequently reminded students to never lose sight of their ultimate life goals and to enjoy what life had to offer. “You have to see the world around you,” Jamison said. “Eye on the prize!”

What is the hardest thing about being the leader of such an acclaimed dance company, a position she held from 1989 until her retirement last summer?

“I can not stand firing people. I hate firing people! That’s when you really have to stay focused. The hardest thing for me to do was shed those people who I knew would not work,” she said. “You become a caregiver of spirits, and you have to handle with care.”

Jamison said she was thankful she didn’t know certain things when she was the age as the students seated before her. “I’m glad I didn’t know about that much about boys! I’m serious. That would have changed my life completely,” she explained. “I’m glad I was as naive as I was. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been on stage, I wouldn’t have been dancing.”

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Jamison discovered as a child the thrill of performing for audiences. She joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1965 and, according to her biography on the company website, “quickly became an international star.” Over the next 15 years, Ailey created some of his most enduring roles for her, including the solo Cry.

During the 1970s and ‘80s, she appeared as a guest artist with ballet companies around the world, starred in the hit Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies, and formed her own company, The Jamison Project. She returned to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1989 when Ailey asked her to succeed him as artistic director.

Jamison is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a prime time Emmy Award, an American Choreography Award, the Kennedy Center Honor, a National Medal of Arts, a “Bessie” Award, the Phoenix Award, and the Handel Medallion. She was also listed in “The TIME 100: The World’s Most Influential People” and honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the first White House Dance Series event.

Jamison has created many celebrated works, including Divining, Forgotten Time, Hymn, HERE . . .NOW., Love Stories and Among Us (Private Spaces: Public Places). Her autobiography, Dancing Spirit, was edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and published in 1993. In 2004, under Jamison’s artistic directorship, her idea of “a bigger place,” the permanent home for the Ailey company, was realized and named after chairman Joan Weill.

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