By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jack Mitchell.

One woman changed forever the image of black women in dance.

Judith Jamison, outgoing artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and one of the great dancers of the 20th century, became a star by embracing her identity at a time there were few African American performers on stage.

“This is about what is coming from us from the depths of our souls,” Jamison said in a 2008 interview with CBS News. “This isn’t just wonderful technique; it isn’t just how high can you jump ... It is about being specific about who you are.”

The 67-year-old dance legend will kick off the University of Chicago’s Black Heritage celebration as the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Service on Friday, Jan. 14 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.

The theme of this year's annual Black Heritage celebration is “We are tied in a single garment of destiny,” from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. The Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, the Laboratory Schools, and the University of Chicago Medical Center are jointly hosting the MLK events this year.

Rosa Yadira Ortiz, assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and MLK chair, is excited to have Jamison speak at UChicago. “Her extraordinary career speaks to the importance of bridging art and culture with civil rights, and we are delighted to welcome her to the University,” Ortiz says.

Ailey’s troupe, now arguably the world’s most successful modern dance troupe, was founded in the midst of the civil rights movement in 1958, as a home for black dancers who could not get hired in mainstream halls. It became a New York institution, which toured the world and later expanded to include schools offering classes for youth, adults, and professionals.

Celebration to Honor Diversity Leaders

The celebration at Rockefeller also will recognize 2011 Diversity Leadership Award winners James Bowman, Professor Emeritus in Pathology and Medicine, and Lynda Hale, administrative director of the Primary Care Group.

President Robert J. Zimmer will confer the awards on Thursday, Jan. 13 at a special reception at the Quadrangle Club. The annual honor recognizes extensive work promoting diversity, equality, and community action.

Bowman, an internationally recognized expert in pathology, genetics, and sickle cell anemia, is being honored for placing a spotlight on health disparities and emphasizing the need for quality medical care for underserved minorities.

His work made Bowman a role model to many Pritzker School of Medicine students. That legacy continues through the Bowman Society and lecture series, which Pritzker School and UChicago launched jointly in 2005. The series brings together senior faculty, fellows, residents, and guests, who share their knowledge regarding the health care of minority communities, scholarship, and activism.

“I never envisioned all of this, and that’s life,” Bowman said in a 2009 interview with Medicine on the Midway. “Sometimes the best things are not planned.”

Hale is recognized as a tireless advocate for her staff’s career advancement and educational enrichment. She extends her mentoring role to volunteer work with the international program Dress for Success, which provides career coaching and clothing for disadvantaged women seeking permanent employment.

“[Hale] sets a standard for the internal medicine residents and students trained at our institution that we hope they carry with them throughout their careers as physicians,” wrote Lisa Vinci, assistant professor and medical director of the Primary Care Group, and Monica Vela, associate professor in medicine, in a letter nominating Hale for the award.

A Dancer ‘For All Black Women Everywhere’

Jamison’s legacy stems from her historic contributions to American culture.

Discovered by dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey in 1965 after an ill-fated audition, the classically trained ballet dancer—who stands 5-foot-10—went on to international stardom for her 16-minute solo dance performance, “Cry.” Her signature piece, which Ailey choreographed “for all black women everywhere, especially our mothers,” showcased a black woman’s journey from slavery to grace.

Jamison danced with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater until 1980, when she left the company to star in the hit Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies. In 1988, she formed her own company, The Jamison Project.

Ailey personally chose Jamison to succeed him as artistic director of his dance theater before his death in 1989.

Jamison is the author of the 1993 autobiography, Dancing Spirit, which Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis edited and published. Among Jamison’s many awards and honorary degrees, she has received a primetime Emmy Award and the Kennedy Center Honor. Most recently, she was awarded the highest rank of the Order of the Arts and Letters, an honor that recognizes those who have contributed to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world.

Jamison will deliver her speech at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 14 in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. The MLK Commemoration Service is free and open to the public. Guests are invited to attend a reception following the service at Ida Noyes Hall.

On Saturday, Jan. 15, an MLK Day of Service will be held in collaboration with the University of Chicago Community Service Center in several areas around the community. Anyone interested in volunteering should visit the USCS website.

The Sunday, Jan. 16 Rockefeller worship service at 11 a.m. is open to all and will be a musical and liturgical celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. King. The Rev. Ayanna Johnson, of the Chicago Theological Seminary, will be preaching, and the Rockefeller Chapel Choir’s Women’s Board Choral Scholars will sing the music of Moses Hogan.

Originally published on January 10, 2011.