A Conversation with Judith Jamison

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Jamison’s speech on leadership feels like chatting with a wise aunt

Lizzie Harkey

Judith Jamison, award winning dancer and former artistic director at Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, took the podium at Elon University’s Whitley auditorium on Monday night to speak of leadership and passion and more often than not, her own life. Mrs. Jamison was chosen as Elon’s Isabella Cannon Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership for her work in the arts.

“I have not read a word of this,” she said pointing to her papers after spending 15 minutes telling the audience the similarities between dance and the black church and the importance of serving each other. Her unscripted nature became more obvious as her speech continued. She waved goodbye to students leaving early, went on tangents and became distracted by passing trains. With each digression a new piece of advice was offered such as “shut up and listen” or “recognize the beauty in all of us”.

Jamison emphasized the importance of mentors in our life journeys by mentioning various mentors in her life and inspirational people whose words she feels are worth repeating. Among those were her supportive parents and compassionate childhood dance teacher who gave her the confidence to pursue dancing and work hard at the path that would bring her happiness. Although this message “do what makes you happy” is a common one, her own life stories made the audience sit in rapt attention for whatever wild story she told next.

Her background as a dancer at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater inspired many of these stories as they often included her employer Alvin Ailey. His funeral in December of 1989 was devastating for Jamison but the 7,000 mourners present illustrates the passion one can have for a person and what that person represents. Among other themes, passion is key for dancers especially because it is the translator from body movement to communication between the audience and the performer.

Jamison’s warmth with a crowd of 100 students and faculty members gave the feeling of listening to a wise and beloved neighbor. The strict professional setting was shattered the moment she posed for a photographer saying, “This is a great shot!” Jamison demeanor is a perfect illustration of the balance between passion and lightheartedness, individuality and the willingness to learn. “You must reflect your lineage, become the embodiment of the best that is in each of us.”

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