Getting her kicks: Governor's Arts Awards honoree Jo Rowan relishes helping dancers reach their dreams
Forget the guy on the beer commercials.
For thousands of students who have attended Oklahoma City University over the past four decades, the most interesting person in the world is actually a woman, one who can be routinely found in one of the dance studios with her hair dramatically wrapped in a band, her daily barre routine just finished and one of her legs kicked up shockingly close to her head.
She is Jo Rowan, the founder and a full-time faculty member of the OCU dance program, chairman of the Ann Lacy School of American Dance & Entertainment, and the director and founder of its American Spirit Dance Company.
“She’s like a character in a book or a movie. ... Everything about her is so unique and interesting and hilarious. She’s one of a kind. They absolutely broke the mold,” said Nathan Peck, a 1997 OCU graduate who was a swing performer and dance captain on the just-closed Broadway musical “Kinky Boots.”
The interesting dancer, teacher and choreographer will become a Governor’s Arts Awards recipient on Tuesday, when Gov. Kevin Stitt honors 17 individuals and one organization for their contributions to the arts in Oklahoma.
“I made up my mind that I wanted to be an official Oklahoman, even though I’m from Kentucky. ... This is the place where I want to die," Rowan said. "So, to have someone tell me that after 38 years that the work that I do, which is joyfully and many-faceted, that that would be recognized here by the governor of Oklahoma, is really deeply meaningful."
Sharing a dream
Rowan said she always loved to move but her first favorite mode of motion was horseback riding.
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“I had a bad vocabulary from being around too many horsemen. I didn’t know what I was saying, but my dad knew ... so what he did when I was a teenager was he sent me to dancing school," she said. "Since my mom had died, that was the only place where I really felt that someone protected me and hugged me. ... To go to study ballet, to me was like leaving all of the work I had to do behind and being someplace where I could move to music and be creative."
At the School of American Ballet in New York, she expanded her love of dance.
“I found that I really, really loved doing opera and musical theater,” she said. “I felt there were such wonderful ballet/modern (dance) schools in American in the ‘80s that it was a shame we didn’t have a place where people could go and study tap, jazz, ballet, singing, acting, how to read a contract, how to be safe and successful in New York or L.A. or Chicago.”
When she started at OCU in 1980, she took along her dream for launching that sort of multi-faceted program. In just four years, she built a dance program, and it has evolved into one consistently ranked on Top 10 lists alongside Juilliard, The Ailey School and NYU.
Making a living
Alongside Dean John Bedford — her husband of 50 years — she has continued to refine the program, where students can now major in dance performance, dance teaching or dance management.
“The thing that we wanted to do was make sure that people were able to learn a living,” Rowan said. “We’re very successful in teaching Rockettes. We’re very successful in having people on Broadway — I think we’ve been in 84 shows so far — and we also have many people who are on tour and on cruise ships."
When “Kinky Boots” closed on Broadway April 7 after winning six Tony Awards and playing more than 2,500 performances, it marked the end of a seven-year journey for Peck. He said Rowan instilled in him a confidence that is vital as he starts a new phase in his career.
“In ballet class, just at the barre doing simple exercises, she would say, ‘Take your leg up and serve it up to God.’ It was literally like, just be thankful for what you have, be thankful for this moment, be thankful for your leg in the air,” he said with a laugh. “It’s all these sort of things like that really stick with you, especially in a business that can be really, really difficult and hard on your ego and on your soul at times. She definitely helps to sustain you and keep you going.”
Rowan’s encouraging spirit wasn’t limited to Broadway-bound dancers. For April Kile, owner of April’s School of Dance in Chickasha, her dream was to live in her hometown, raise a family and teach children to dance — and Rowan couldn’t have been more supportive, she said.
“She had these quotes, and I use them every day. … Like she used to tell us ‘stop blessing hamsters,’ if your hands are like this,” she said, laughing while demonstrating the proper balletic form.
“I am glad she is being honored. ... I think it’s long overdue. I think she is gold to Oklahoma. She has been such a blessing to me.”
43rd Governor’s Arts Awards
When: 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Fourth floor rotunda at the Oklahoma State Capitol.
Admission: Free and open to the public.