Interviews, photos and videos: Oklahoma City University dance program founder Jo Rowan to receive Governor's Arts Award
An abbreviated version of this story appears in Monday's The Oklahoman.
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 rigorous daily barre routine just finished and her one of still-fit 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. She is one of the most interesting people I’ve met in my entire life. She’s also very specific: the way she dresses, the way she animates herself, the way she speaks. Everything about her is so unique and interesting and hilarious. She’s one of a kind. They absolutely broke the mold. When you say, ‘Jo Rowan,’ everybody that knows (her) can put a picture in their head of what she looks like, what she’s wearing, what she’s doing. It’s magnificent,” said Nathan Peck, a 1997 OCU graduate who just finished a six-year run on the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots.”
“Every person that’s come out of OCU – and there are so many wonderful people in different parts of the business that went to OCU – even if we didn’t go to school at the same time, it’s like we’re in some kind of secret society because we all know … what it’s like to work with Jo. There are her little strange things she would always say during class that we can share with one other. It’s kind of really cool.”
The respected dancer, teacher, choreographer, entrepreneur and visionary on Tuesday will become a Governor’s Arts Awards recipient.
Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Oklahoma Arts Council will honor 17 individuals and one organization for their contributions to the arts in Oklahoma during the 43rd Governor’s Arts Awards Tuesday afternoon at the state Capitol. Along with esteemed opera singer and teacher Barbara McAlister, Rowan will receive the premier prize, the Governor's Award recognizing longtime leadership and significant contributions to the arts.
“I made up my mind that I wanted to be an official Oklahoman, even though I’m from Kentucky. I like Oklahoma … and this is the place where I want to die. I may not have been born here, but I like it. 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 to me,” Rowan said.
Sharing a vision
Spend a little time with Rowan, and it’s no surprise that she’s always loved to move. But she said her first favored mode of motion was actually horseback riding, not dance.
“I had a bad vocabulary from being around too many horsemen. I didn’t know what I was saying, but my dad knew what I was saying. And so what he did when I was a teenager was he sent me to dancing school. And I had a great teacher who was really wonderful to me, and since my mom had died, that was the only place where I really felt that someone protected me and hugged me,” she recalled.
“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. And if I wanted to feel like I was in a fairy wonderland, I could do that … it was just wonderful.”
She continued her training at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York, where she expanded her love of dance.
“I found that I really, really loved doing opera and musical theater, because there I could kind of let go as a character,” 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 just that sort of multi-faceted program.
“I suggested to the president at that time that there was no real place for dancing musical theater students to get a good, strong liberal arts education and learn how to sing, dance and act,” she said.
“President (Jerald) Walker said, ‘Can you do that?’ … so I told him, ‘Absolutely. I’m sure, I know, I can do this.’ And I had my fingers crossed in the back. I wasn’t so sure, but I think if you’re gonna do great things sometimes you just need to jump in and you have to believe in yourself and do it.”
In just four years, she built a dance program that has since evolved into one of the most successful and prestigious in the country, consistently ranked on top 10 lists alongside Juilliard, The Ailey School and NYU.
“She didn’t just come and be a teacher – and that’s a very honorable thing,” said Donald Jordan, a 1980 OCU graduate and the founding artistic director of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre.
“It’s hard to run a program, but one person hardly ever founds a program. That’s not a thing that happens with regularity. It takes one person of exceptional drive and vision and, I think, sacrifice. I think if you ask any dean or leader of any school, “Is your job hard and do you work long hours?’ the answer, of course, would be yes. But the idea that she built a program where one had not existed, that’s the kind of thing that is truly exceptional.”
Making a living
Alongside Dean John Bedford – Rowan’s husband of 50 years – she has continued to refine the dance 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. We want to teach in a way that what they learn is pragmatic. And it changes. This is a business where you cannot be tenured and just sit. You’ve gotta keep cooking. You’ve gotta stay in the business and schmooze people and get to know what’s new. You really have to stay on top of things in order to teach dancers well how to get jobs on Broadway or there’s a lot of crossover,” 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 or working in Vegas or L.A. or Chicago and places like Branson in between.”
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, who started with show in 2012 when it was still in workshops in Chicago. As he shifts his career more toward teaching than performance, Peck said the training he received with Rowan at OCU is helping him do it with confidence.
“She is so smart and sort of instills all these sort of tenets in you while you’re at school. She always says there’s no such thing as luck; she says luck is preparation meeting opportunity. And that in itself is everything. You prepare yourself, you do everything you can to make yourself the best, valuable product – and then you be there at the right time. And that’s half of show business,” said Peck, who was a swing performer and dance captain with “Kinky Boots.”
“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 added 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 just limited to dancers who were Broadway-bound. On a recent Tuesday, April Kile, owner and instructor at April’s School of Dance in Chickasha, was meticulously taking parents and youngsters through her plans to make this year’s spring recitals professional-style shows that “give back to the audience.”
When she attended OCU from 1990-94, Kile’s dream was to do just what she has – 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,” Kile said, laughing while demonstrating the right and wrong form. “Then, she’d say, ‘Stop holding your breath, stop praying to God, He’s got enough on his plate, just turn. Do the right thing and turn.’”
“I am glad she is being honored,” she added. “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.
2019 Governor's Arts Awards honorees
The Governor's Award recognizes longtime leadership and significant contributions to the arts. Honorees are:
Barbara McAlister (Muskogee)
Jo Rowan (Norman)
The Business in the Arts Award recognizes individuals, businesses and corporations that exhibit outstanding support of the arts in Oklahoma. The honoree is:
Wonder City Coffee (Locust Grove)
The Arts in Education Award recognizes an individual, organization, school, educator, or group for their outstanding leadership and service in the arts benefiting youth and/or arts in education. Honorees are:
Jay Ferguson (Edmond)
Scott Booker (Oklahoma City)
Chris Ramsay (Stillwater)
Pamela Catt (Fairland)
Roselle Tyner (Tulsa)
The Community Service Award recognizes significant contributions to the arts in specific Oklahoma communities in the areas of leadership and volunteerism. Honorees are:
Daniel Worcester (Lone Grove)
Deborah McAuliffe Senner (Edmond)
James Loftis (Oklahoma City)
Juanita Pahdopony (Lawton)
Mary Ann Hawkins (Woodward)
Bob Sober (Tulsa)
Wilmari and Robert Ruiz (Norman)
The George Nigh Public Service in the Arts Award recognizes Oklahoma government officials for their outstanding support of the arts. Honorees are:
Ann and Burns Hargis (Stillwater)