A Moment of Silence for Dance Legend, Denise Jefferson

A big loss to the dance community this past Saturday; Dancer, teacher, and director of the Ailey School Denise Jefferson died of ovarian cancer at age 65.


She came to Butler University in my senior year, I believe to review our program (I can’t really remember). What I do remember is listening to her calm, wise voice as she addressed the dance department in a lecture on Valentine’s Day- that honestly, a lot of people were peeved to have to attend. We were then required to write papers based around a subject she brought up in the discussion. I of course, being the maverick that I soooo am, did not do this, and wrote instead about a possible reason for why at the end of the lecture, no one had a single question for her.

I am posting this poorly written paper (let be frank, I wrote all of those papers the day before and never revised- sort of like how I write these entries) to suggest a moment of silence for this great woman and contributor, to allow us all to gather our thoughts and refocus on what we in turn, have to say.

Jess Ruhlin

Dance History

Prof. Reid

An Explanation for the Sound of Silence

“Hear my words that I might teach you

take my arms that I might reach you

but my words like silent raindrops fell echoed in the wells of silence”

–Simon and Garfunkle

UNnamed Ocean by my Grandfather- Herbert Ruhlin

This small writing will not discuss an idea or thought Denise Jefferson brought up in her lecture on ‘Perspectives in the Arts’, regarding the past and present of dance. It won’t bring up anything that she in fact said. This is not because what she said was not insightful, poignant, or inspiring. In fact, her sharing her personal journey through a career in dance was as John Cartwright would say, fierce. It was very informative, including the trends she has noticed in dancers today and the possibilities open to us in transitioning from the stage performer to what ever it is that may lie beyond. I especially liked the small anecdote about our Professor, Susan McGuire. To hear that a teacher I see and talk with on a regular basis is a good friend of this incredibly established woman brought her rich sense of history and accomplishment that much closer to me, and made it feel more tangibly possible for myself and my friends to have such an impact on the dance world. Yet, the time came at the end of her speech for us to ask her questions and no one said a thing. I can only suppose the reason for this is one of the following three; that we simply had other things on our minds and lives to get on with, that we were overwhelmed with information and could not gather our thoughts quickly enough to present a question that would helpful for all to hear, or that we are not looking for answers and perspectives handed to us.

It’s an old saying that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I worry that that is the opinion of those of us who attended the lecture and asked nothing, that we were presented with a great opportunity that slipped through our fingers. I’m sure there were many in the room that, given that it was Valentine ’s Day especially, wanted to get out, see friends, finish homework, take care of the things that must be done before the night is over. If life is looked at in a day to day matter, what advice could Denise Jefferson give that would affect me the next day? Could she guarantee me a job before I graduate, or tell me the secret balance between the passion she noticed of dancers of yesteryears and the technicians of today? Probably not. And to be honest, I was a little peeved that she mentioned NYU’s new program because I have already heard of it,  and hoping to possibly attend for either a masters in pedagogy or choreography, because the last thing I want is more competition for the spots. So what were we supposed to ask? The only thing I could think of was that I wanted to hear her opinion, her true opinion of our show, and if she noticed me particularly. But no one wants to be the kid- the suck-up or annoying one- that keeps everyone else waiting around because they want to appear eager or hungry for knowledge. There is a group on facebook called, ‘put your hand down in lecture and shut up, no one cares’ and I’ve been that one with the hand up enough and prefer not to be hated by my peers.

We aren’t the only audience to have a master in our presence and to have nothing to say. I recently read about Katherine Dunham, and how Jacob’s Pillow honored her contributions to dance in 2002. Similar to our experience, she gave a beautiful speech and at first, no one had anything to say, to which she responded “Don’t be concerned about the silence. Silence helps us know ourselves better and meld our mind, body, and spirit. Silence helps us find peace and tranquility”. Of course, after that a few hands shot out in the crowd, and I can only suppose that no one in our group found ourselves and how we relate directly to her speech quickly enough to ask something. I think perhaps that no one asked a question, not because we don’t care what she has to say, but it’s hard to think of what we as a group need to know at this stage of our lives. There are those among us who aren’t ‘masterful technicians with little performance quality’ as she said the trend of dancers seems to be today, and it’s hard to think about the transition out of a performing career when the group she was addressing is desperately thinking and working to enter into the performing stage. How do we think that far into the future? Paul Taylor, known as an innovative choreographer and forward thinker, was once reviewed for his concert of ‘7 New Dances’ in 1957 by Louis Horst who merely signed a blank page, and had nothing to say about the new works. No one really knew what to make of it. Yet, it was this review that brought so much notoriety that his name became known. As an aspiring creator myself, I hope to be innovative in some way that what I have to say hasn’t been said in the same way before. So, with this in mind, I think it is also feasible that some of us didn’t ask questions because we hope that our careers don’t follow ‘the beaten track’ and hope to pave our own way. This does not mean that I would shun advice, or greatly appreciate it as I appreciated her coming to Butler, but I don’t know what I could have asked someone that didn’t know me on a personal level, since as she said Ailey didn’t want cookie-cutter dancers, I don’t want cookie cutter advice that could be meant for everyone in the room.

2 thoughts on “A Moment of Silence for Dance Legend, Denise Jefferson

  1. I suspect Ms. Jefferson would have liked and appreciated the paper you wrote for Professor Reid. Her focus on the past and present of dance is something you also address regularly in this blog. That’s one reason I really enjoy reading it. Because her thoughts came at the end of her career doesn’t make her perspective more valid than yours or other dancers/artists who are at the beginning of theirs. She would have been pleased to know that someone who listened to her gave so much thought about the response — or lack of it. Growing as an artist requires holding a mirror up to yourself and your art and taking a good hard look. I think that’s what your paper was trying to do.

    Rest in peace, Denise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s