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Killacky: Remembering Denise

10/05/10 7:55AM By John Killacky
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(HOST) John Killacky is the new executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington. In a recent morning scan of online arts news, he came across an obituary that gave him pause.

(KILLACKY) Denise Jefferson had died. Her smiling photo brought back so many memories. She was one of my first dance teachers in Chicago in the 1970s.  A school trip to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater convinced me I wanted to dance; that very weekend I started taking modern dance classes with Ms. Jefferson.

A few years later I got a scholarship to study with the Harkness Ballet, and off I went to begin my career in Manhattan, first as a dancer and then arts administrator.  Denise Jefferson also relocated to New York to direct the Alvin Ailey School.

I am so grateful for her early support, belief, and encouragement.  As my career progressed, my dancing days continually proved invaluable.  When colleagues approached problems in a linear fashion, I knew how to tackle issues from multiple perspectives, improvising my way to a solution.  

Dance gave me poise, self-confidence, musicality, and cultural literacy.  I learned to work in an ensemble, as a soloist, or in the chorus. Improvisation illustrated how group wisdom was superior to solo problem solving. Choreography helped me understand gesture and spatial design. I was able to locate myself in the world.

The discipline, training, and never-ending aspiration to get better gave me a wonderful perspective in life: every day start over again, go deeper or higher.  If something doesn't work, think of something else.  If it does work, make it better.

Reconnecting to my dancing self was essential in recovery from spinal surgery fourteen years ago.  Initially, I was paralyzed from the neck down, lost sensation in my right side, and had no sense of location on my left.

Standard physical rehab provided little success.  However, I realized when being transferred from bed to wheelchair that my body could hold itself up, although briefly and with assistance. While the kinesthetic connections were lost, I thought I might be able to learn to stand up visually.

I asked to work in front of the mirrors.  Therapists were skeptical and reminded me everything is backward in a mirror.  "Yes," I countered, "but I learned to dance with mirrors."

It took some days with leg braces and a walker, but eventually I stood in front of that mirror.  What I couldn't feel, I could see.  What I couldn't do kinesthetically, I accomplished visually. Over the next weeks, tentative steps grew ever more confident in front of the mirror.  The dancer in me taught my mis-circuited body to walk again.

Fourteen years later, I continue dancing through life; albeit slowly and with the assistance of a cane.  Many have helped along the way.  Today I am grateful to my early dance teacher, Denise Jefferson.
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