A Life of Movement

Judith Jamison, 20th century dance legend, celebrated diversity with the UChicago community.
For Jamison, dancing was not only a mode of creative expression but also a way to express her culture and show that everybody is “one and the same under the skin.”

Persevere through hardships and savor life, urged Judith Jamison, the dance icon who served as the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Junior Commemoration service January 14 at the University of Chicago.

Jamison has lived a life full of movement, both through dance and civil rights. She defied many odds and became a renowned dancer and choreographer. She is most notably the outgoing artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a company that currently has 49,000 dance students.

She spoke to a crowd of nearly 400 in a room in which Dr. King, himself, had spoken twice. 

“You feel down in your gut in the deepest part in your soul that the right things will happen,” Jamison said, discussing her lifelong optimism. “That flower,” she added, “that life, that light will still rise.”

Jamison spoke about growing up in an artistic household in Pennsylvania.  Her love for creativity and art, cultivated at an early age, was met with many obstacles.  As part of a group of fourteen-year-old girls that traveled to New York to take a partner dance class, Jamison said, “[We] walked into that class, and no one would touch [us].”

Gasps and nods of disbelief passed through the room. Jamison continued, “When that door shuts in your face, you got to carve another doorway and go another way.”

Six years later, Jamison was dancing with the Alvin Ailey troupe, which was a group of young black modern dancers. Just moments before a performance at Lincoln University, Jamison heard the news of Dr. King’s death. Despite the news, they still performed.

“[We] wiped our tears and we went on stage and showed that we would not be cowed, and that we would not be defeated and we knew the signs of freedom were coming up on all fronts and our signs were our bodies' excellence.”

For Jamison, dancing was not only a mode of creative expression but also a way to express her culture and show that everybody is “one and the same under the skin,” an idea that she celebrated throughout her speech.

Hayley Doner, a second-year student at the College, greatly appreciated Jamison’s words. “It was so interesting to hear from a first-hand source what racism was like on a personal level, and not just in terms of a political movement."

Jamison finished by pressing the idea that our work is not yet done, for we should always strive to be something more.

“As we forge into the 21st century, our ascent into the light needs to be guided by torch bearers who have stood on each other’s shoulders since the beginning of time…and become the embodiment of the best that is possible in each other.”

Tagged: Diversity, MLK, Jamison