Black History Month – Iris Rosa: Dancer, Storyteller, Collaborator, Educator

We are proud to feature Indiana’s own, Iris Rosa, Professor Emerita of African American and Diaspora Studies, and the former and founding Director of the African American Dance Company at Indiana University.

I reached Iris by phone at her home in Indianapolis – and it wasn’t easy to find a perfect time, given that she’s one of the busiest retirees around. For a full hour, Iris graciously gave me a glimpse into her extraordinary background, as a dancer, storyteller, collaborator and educator at IU from 1974-2017.

Here is Professor Iris Rosa (or “Pro-Ro” as her former students called her) in her own words.

I was born in Puerto Rico. My father moved us to East Chicago, Indiana when I was very young, as the promise of a steady job in the steel mills was enticing to immigrant families like us.

Growing up in East Chicago was very different than my birthplace — obviously, it was much colder! East Chicago neighborhoods were also quite diverse — Latinos, Mexicans, African Americans, Polish, and Yugoslavians, among many others — but we all lived separately, in our own blocks. Our families all worked in the steel mills, so we had that one thing in common.

My first mentor in dance was Mildred Morgan Ball. There was no dance program in our area, so Mrs. Ball created one. But we young girls didn’t just learn how to dance: we learned discipline, how to study to be better students, and how to get along with one another. We danced at school functions and throughout the city. Mrs. Ball called her program the “Top Twenty” and it lasted for many years.

My bachelor’s degree at IU is in physical education with a concentration in dance. At that time, that’s the only place where modern/contemporary dance could find a natural place in higher education. After finishing my master’s in dance at IU, Dean Herman Hudson asked me to interview for a newly created position: the director of the (then called) Afro-American Dance Company. I got the job, but I knew it would be a difficult journey. I first had to expand my own learning into more genres of dance: traditional cultural dance forms, jazz, contemporary, etc. And I also needed to study! This course was not only dance, but dance history, and I needed to talk the talk.

My students had to audition to take my course, but anyone from any background and experience-level was welcomed. Students learned history, performance, technique, style and storytelling. We learned how to collaborate with other departments. We broke down the stereotype that the African American Dance Company was “only for students of color.” We took our programs to schools nearby, outside Indiana, and even to Cuba and China. It taught us all how to expand our horizons and our appreciation of traditional cultural dance forms.

One of my favorite moments was collaborating with Valerie Grim, a professor of African American history at IU, on the story of laborers in the Deep South – from the joy and pain of people working on the farms during the week to the spiritual celebrations of these individuals on a Sunday morning. The piece was titled “Once Upon a Rural South,” and it was a perfect collaboration. We were learning from her, and she was learning from us.

Teaching is transformational when you get to know your students in and out of the classroom. Sometimes, I would have a student or two who would act like a “diva,” which can negatively impact other students. I learned that these students were just going through a rough time with family, school, or experiencing low self-esteem. They needed a safe space, and I always provided that in my class.

Retirement gives me the chance to re-invent myself. I love to sew and make crafts – so now it’s time for my own Etsy store! But I’m also very active in the dance scene with the goal of bringing many dance communities together.

Dance is always evolving. And because it evolves, you should never stop learning. That’s really life’s lesson, isn’t it?

As told to Jessica Di Santo, senior director of communications