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ASU’s renowned dance program reaches world stage

Alabama State University's College of Visual and Performing Arts (COVPA) is one of the top performing arts colleges in the nation. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)
Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times

Alabama State University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (COVPA) is one of the top performing arts colleges in the nation. (Provided Photo)

The Alabama State University (ASU) dance program has launched the careers of several performers who have appeared on local stages and the world stage—on Broadway, at the Kennedy Center, in venues near and far.

Tonea “Tommie” Stewart, PhD, dean of the school’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (COVPA), gets to see the talent firsthand and acknowledges that she is sometimes mesmerized. All one has to do is see the look on her face as she watches dancers from the school’s Bachelor in Fine Arts (BFA) in Dance perform.

“[People] say that I am so into what [dancers] are doing that it looks like [I] want to get up and get out on the floor with them,” said Stewart. “I’m guilty. I am so proud of our dance program.”

Hers is a pride that comes from bringing something to fruition and fighting to keep it going. ASU’s dance program has launched the careers of several performers, including Jaylon Givan, a senior artist with Dissonance Theatre in Washington, D.C., who also attended Birmingham’s Ramsay High School.

Fully Accredited

ASU has one of the top performing arts programs in the land.

“We became the first African-American school in the nation to have a BFA in Dance program—[here at a] a historically black college or university [HBCU],” Stewart said. “Once I became dean, we have become the only HBCU in the country with all areas in our programs fully accredited. Music, theater, and art are all fully accredited programs by the national accrediting bodies.”

ASU President Quinton Ross, EdD, pointed to the prominence of the program.

Tonea Stewart. (Provided Photo)

“[Stewart] has a staff that provides opportunities for our students to prepare and perform on the world stage,” he said. “Our students have gone on to dance at the Kennedy Center. They have won several awards.”

“Students Need Movement”

Stewart, who recognizes the dance faculty for their commitment, is not shy about her efforts fight to bring the program into existence. She recalls how the university initially offered dance through physical education and when the dance professor retired from teaching the program was going to end.

“We had the dance studio right there in the building, so I went to the vice president and said, ‘Our students need movement. They need dance. Can we please keep the program?’”

The vice president allowed for a dance class, but two students at the time—Ruth Spencer and Tim Ware—saw more. They were instrumental in creating a dance company. Stewart credits Spencer and Ware with becoming such a force that a dance professor was hired.

“Those of us who were not really dancers were not doing justice to the program,” Stewart recalled. “The students were the leaders. That was Ware, who has also created a show and been on Broadway and [in the play] ‘Kinky Boots.’ That was Spencer, who now is the coordinator for our HoneyBeez,” the dancers featured with the ASU Mighty Marching Hornets band.”

Stewart, who began at ASU in 1990, said the institution is “one or two in the country” in graduate students who’ve gone on to get the Master of Fine Arts degree, more African-American students,” she said.

“This has been since 1994. From that [time], from the first graduating class, we’ve had a high number, and these were all given fellowships and scholarships, full rides to graduate programs because they were so good.”

Notable Alumni

Alumni of the program include Courtney Coleman, who’s studying and working as an aerial artist in Los Angeles, Calif.; Darius Marshall, a dancer with Birmingham’s Red Mountain Theatre Company; Brandon Mitchell, with Birmingham’s Arova Contemporary Ballet; and Lauren Smith of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble in Denver, Colo.

Bonita Hamilton, a 1995 ASU grad, was a 14-year member of the cast of “The Lion King” on Broadway. LaQuangela Littleton, a 2017 ASU graduate, teaches dance at Booker T. Washington Magnet School in Montgomery.

ASU’s Givan embarked on his dance journey with Birmingham-

ASU helped launch the career of Jaylon Givan, a senior artist with Dissonance Theatre in Washington, D.C., who also attended Birmingham’s Ramsay High School. (Shawn Short Photo, Director of Dissonance Theatre)

based M.A.D. Skillz Dance Company. He’d learn moves by watching music videos featuring entertainers like Chris Brown, Michael Jackson, Missy Elliot, and Ciara. His first encounter with dance outside of hip-hop was in the “Chocolate Nutcracker,” shortly after he started attending Ramsay High School. During his senior year of high school, he studied dance under Annie Lindsay and Jacqueline Lockhart’s Performing Art Institute.

“Now the ball was rolling, and I was more curious than ever after getting past the fear of being judged for doing ballet movements or wearing tights,” he said.

When Givan visited ASU for orientation, he went straight to the theatre building. To this day, the student who once considered a business major has never once set foot in the business building.

“I went over and spoke with Wendy Coleman, the chair of visual and performing arts,” he said. “I introduced myself and told her I wanted to dance, maybe audition for the Eclectic Dance Company, an ASU [group] I had researched prior to my visit.”

Coleman introduced Givan to Michael Medcalf, Kavin Grant, and James Atkinson, who would lead the new BFA in Dance program.

“Of course, I didn’t know exactly what [BFA in Dance] meant or the weight of it all,” Givan said. “They invited me to a placement audition for classes, and then suddenly I began dancing more than I ever had in my entire life.”

Updated on 10/25/2018 at 3:24 p.m. to correct title for Jaylon Givan and correct credits on photo cutlines.

Click here to read more stories from this Magic City Classic Special Edition of The Times; Legion Field; AAMU Engineering; AAMU’s Vernon Moland Jr.; ASU’s Ezra Gray.