BY JILLIAN RAFALSKI
A Chicago-residing IU Alumni that has left her legacy here in Bloomington, IN via her involvements with the African American Arts Institute, the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, and the creation and development of the African American Dance Company.
“You can dance and be political. You can dance and be social. Those are the types of things that are really important for people to understand...even when we dance, we tell stories.”
Iris Rosa immigrated to East Chicago from Puerto Rico at the age of three. She remembers growing up in what she called a “concrete jungle,” not having any thoughts toward her future. It wasn’t until she stumbled upon a dance group in high school, that she started to envision herself in the arts. Continuing on with dance in college, Iris graduated from Indiana University where she earned a Bachelor's degree in Physical Education with a concentration in dance and a Masters degree in Elementary Physical Education and Dance. Soon after, Iris was offered a teaching position at IU in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies. While teaching, Iris would take trips all around world to better herself and her teaching.
Iris said that it was important for her to keep improving herself because she wasn't offered dance classes like this when she was younger. She felt responsible to keep her creativity always at an all time high. In 2007, Iris was promoted to a full time professor position. Overall, Iris spent 43 years at Indiana University, eventually becoming the Director of the African American Dance Company and a full time professor who taught dance history and black diasporic traditions.
Tell us more about your journey you took to get where you are today.
“When I got into high school, I just happened to trip on a really wonderful woman who is actually my mentor today. Her name is Mildred Ball. She started this ‘dance group’ in my high school because she was a graduate of Indiana University in Physical Education and had a dance background. She was very concerned about the lives of young women, so she started this group for us girls, and I auditioned. This [dance group] sort of helped...me blossom...I was very shy...Where I lived there were no opportunities to take ballet or modern dance class...that was really for the upper echelon and we didn’t have any upper echelon where we lived...but Mildred Ball provided some of those things for us.”
“When I went off to college...I didn't do very well [in college]. I was changing my major 50,000 times...I tripped on this program of modern dance and I said ‘Oh, I did this in high school,’ so I auditioned and then eventually became a dance major.”
“(After college) I was eventually going to go back to East Chicago because I had a job waiting for me at the East Chicago school system, but I was called in for an interview by Herman Hudson, who created at that time known as, Afro-American Studies. He was creating this other arm which was called African American Arts Institute. Ultimately, I got the job. Herman was really responsible for giving me my first job at Indiana University. I was a coordinator, then I became a lecturer...then a bunch of us were promoted to assistant professors. From then on, I was just working, working, working every year on my artistic creativity. I would travel to New York to expand my own knowledge about dance and the contemporary traditions of modern dance. I took a lot of African dance and a lot of other diasporic dance classes. I took these trips to New York around two times a year.”
What challenges you have faced? As a woman of color in the industry?
“Being in an university as a woman of color and in the arts was a challenge. Especially doing what I was doing: serving a particular segment of students in the university doing dance and trying to forge something new. It’s always about trying to show your worth at a university. That was very challenging for me. I’ll have to be honest, for the last 43 years, every year was a struggle with that... I was told ‘Oh well, you really shouldn’t do modern dance. You should stick to “ethnic dance” or jazz because your students can’t do modern dance.’
“I didn’t have a space for a really long time, until the Neal Marshall was built. I had to borrow space from the contemporary dance programs. I felt like a nomad. With all of those challenges...I didn’t realize that they were making me stronger. I felt like I had to prove something. Every year, I’d try to be more creative and innovative… I think it paid off. I have alumni that were with me in the dance company in 1974, 1984, that still keep in touch with me. It’s like ‘Wow, these students really did get something out of what they did in the dance company. Out of the creativity. Out of the learning process. Out of them learning how to tell stories about the black diaspora...when you receive messages like that, 20/30 years later, I’m saying to myself ‘Maybe I did make some difference in people’s lives.’ My struggle, in a sense, paid off...At that time when you are struggling, you don’t realize the ultimate impact on you are having on students.”
What keeps pushing you forward, despite these challenges?
“My own perseverance and some good colleagues later on in my career...you can never do it alone. Like I was saying (before), in high school, I had a teacher who helped. There is always somebody along the way. I think for the last 10/15 years, I’ve had some colleagues that really understood the dance discipline. Our department was interdisciplinary, so there were people in literature, history, political science, and the arts. It’s always interesting, when you are in the arts, you have to sort of explain to people what you do, what you have to do, and how you do it because you hear sometimes from people out there ‘Oh, you’re in dance. That must be really fun!’ or ‘Oh, you’re a dance company? Are you a hip-hop group?’ They always make light of it...I shouldn’t have to explain to anybody the worth and the value of my discipline, because I can operate in a conversation with a sociology or political scientist, but can they operate in my world, as an artist? Not all the time. As an artist, you have to have multiple hats, especially at a university. I did find some good colleagues that said ‘Iris, I believe in what you’re doing here and I want to help you find the funding for this dance workshop.’ They understood the value of dance, not only to students, but how dance is so important to a black African American diasporic culture. You can’t separate ceremonies, traditions, dancing, and singing from everyday life...because in Africa, it’s all together. You can dance, and be political. You can dance, and be social. Those are the types of things that are really important for people to understand...even when we dance, we tell stories.”
Do you have any words of encouragement for someone trying to pursue choreography? African American studies?
Rosa as an Instructor & Director: “Black Studies is a discipline and there are important foundations to any discipline that one studies. I that once there is a realization that people want to study black life either in America or diasporically, there is just so much richness and so much history there...I’ve had a student who has a P.H.D because of what she did in the dance company. I think the richness helps transform lives. If you want to transform lives, you follow and persevere the things you want to study.
Rosa as a Dancer and Choreographer: “As far as dance is concerned, it’s the same thing there. Try everything to find out everything one can about the discipline they want to pursue. There's always new things coming out...I tell people ‘I don’t know everything. I’m still reading.’ I figured that is the key to be being successful: to keep an open mind, persevere and follow what you really want to do.”
Keep up with the IU African American Dance Company: