COMMUNITY-CENTERED DANCE MARVEN
Within five minutes of our meeting at a coffee shop in Old Town Littleton, Joe DeMers was demonstrating his dance moves. This enthusiasm carried over into the rest of the interview. Our compelling conversation covered several topics, including how his non-traditional entry to dance developed into his current role as Director of Dance at South High School in Denver Public Schools. Joe discussed his goals, hopes, and overall vision for the South High School Dance program. He emphasized his personal views on the significance of inclusion and discussed his next endeavors as a member of the Denver dance community.
To prepare for his high school’s prom Joe signed up for a social dance class, completely unaware this choice would transform his life. He quickly fell in love with the movement and social aspects of dance. While dance was not something Joe had previously been curious about or interested in, this experience fulfilled something within him. He had found a sense of community that he didn’t know he’d been seeking. While earning his degree in Biology at Colorado State University Joe was also earning his “unofficial degree” in dance by joining Swing Dance and Lindy Hop performance troupes, traveling for conferences and conventions, entering competitions and otherwise becoming “immersed in the Swing Dance community.”
His interest in learning more about the social components of dance led Joe to develop the emergent form of Drag Blues. Joe does not, however, take the credit or consider himself to be the almighty creator of Drag Blues. “If anything, I am standing on the shoulder of giants thinking, hey, I’m gonna take this movement, this one, (and) this one and put them together.” Joe listed some specific styles and elements of dance such as Jookin’, Savoy Slow Drag, Strut, Lindy Hop, and more. He suggests that his contribution lies in amalgamating certain qualities of these various dances, with the result of Drag Blues. When Joe attended a competition with a friend and, to his surprise, won the entire competition with a Savoy-style Drag Blues, he realized he needed to learn more about what he had started.
When I asked Joe to explain Blues Dance, he responded with a brief history lesson on music and dance in the United States from the early 1600s onward. Joe stood up to show the differences in dance styles, comparing shapes and rhythms, which he described as “deriving from the African diaspora.” His movement demonstrated how in Blues Dance you “explore movements in close embrace, such as Grinds with your partner.” He has an understanding of not only the technical aspects of these social dance styles, but their rich history and roles in American society as well. “Blues was created from a system of oppression, recognizing there is a lot more to learn than just simple movement.” It was evident in his demeanor that Joe has a passion for dance based not only on the movement itself, but also its impact on society and human relationships.
Joe used to have a job teaching Science in the public school system– putting his official degree into use– which he didn’t truly enjoy. He thought the curriculum lacked room for creativity or nurturing a desire to be in the classroom. After some years, a mill levy enabled the opening of a Physical Education and Dance teaching position at his school. This opportunity would allow Joe to further follow and share his passion of dance. Having a great relationship with his Principal, he attended the interview and passionately shared his vision, saying “I won’t teach P.E. I will only teach dance, but you need to hire me!” Whether it be his charming personality, enthusiasm, sincere confidence, or a combination of all the above, Joe was offered the job as a full time dance teacher.
Once again, life transformed. He went from disliking teaching (in a school setting) to loving it. “I was in a happy place and the kids were in a happy place. They [the students] are beautiful people with ambitions, who love art.” A year after starting the program, Joe won Colorado Dance Teacher of the Year and National Dance Teacher of the Year. Joe credits this not to his skill but to his values and beliefs about community, and after spending over an hour with him it was clear to me that he has an impressive ability to empower and communicate effectively with those around him. He demonstrates the meaning behind dance to his students and makes it possible for the art to exist as a point of strength within them.
Joe is currently implementing a program based on inclusion, drive, and artistry at South High School. The student population ranges widely in ethnicity, language, and dance experience. Beginning level classes are a P.E. credit. Those students who wish to further pursue dance can elect into advanced study, fulfilling a Fine Arts credit. This allows students to achieve credits for graduation while staying involved with their interests. When Joe inherited the dance program he re-envisioned it as a “culture that will focus on the artistry of dance as opposed to the status of dance.” He meets the Colorado education standards for dance by instructing his students in movement and technique, providing opportunities for them to choreograph, promoting understanding of dance via its history and culture, and enlightening them about dance by thoroughly engaging them with it.
Within the program, Joe has built relationships with various local dance companies. He invites them to teach his students, which provides chances for his students to connect with their community. The Denver South Dance Company attends shows throughout the year, and members are encouraged to take classes in studios around Denver. This builds student professionalism in the art form and deepens connections to dance. Joe models this professionalism by developing his repertoire and technique through conference and class attendance on his own time. He then passes on his enrichment to his students. After directing the program for a little over a year– making significant changes to its intent and direction, with support from the school’s administration– Joe reasonably believes he is building a program that “embodies what the school values: diversity.”
Joe’s passion for dance, desire for community relationships, and enthusiasm for teaching is changing lives for the better. It was a privilege to hear him speak about the numerous and various experiences that have brought him to where he is. His ownership and drive has created a wonderful program for his students that will continue to blossom with diversity and artistry at the forefront. “What I see in dance is an incredible opportunity for understanding who you are, expressing yourself, and connecting with yourself in a way you never have before.”
Sutton Anker currently lives in her hometown of Littleton, Colorado. Her love of dance took root at a young age when she began dancing at a local studio. This passion grew and carried through into college and beyond. Sutton earned a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Dance Science from the University of Wyoming, followed by a Master’s of Science in Dance Science from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London. Her technical training is in ballet, release technique, Horton, modern, tap, jazz, vertical dance, hip-hop, pointe, and functional fitness. Throughout her B.F.A. at UW, Sutton performed in various productions including From the Ashes: A Cinderella Ballet, Duet and Power/Full (a Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company production), The Nutcracker, Boxed Set, and Six Songs from Ellis.
Sutton has a keen interest in motor learning, motor development, and pedagogical techniques, taking several kinesiology classes in her undergraduate and graduate programs. Sutton has presented at several dance science conferences, including the 2010 Performing Arts Medical Association Conference (Specific Stretching for Individual Needs), the 2013 International Association of Dance Medicine and Science Conference (Effect of Mirrors on Dancers’ Ability to Learn Movement), and the 2016 International Association of Dance Medicine and Science Conference in Hong Kong (Master’s thesis – An Investigation of the Pedagogical Rationales for Current Mirror Use in a Ballet Technique Class).
Sutton currently works at Foothills Park and Recreation District in Children’s Programs. She has a passion for empowering kids’ creativity and educating youth on physical and mental health. Sutton continues to engage in dance by teaching at local studios, participating in classes and workshops, volunteering with Presenting Denver, and pursuing her research interests.