Jo Rowan, professor of dance and chairman of the Ann Lacy School of American Dance, received her second and third Lifetime Achievement Awards this semester.
Rowan has taught at OCU for more than 30 years and is responsible for many of the programs here, as well as other national programs. She has performed as a soloist at Radio City Music Hall and has appeared in more than 60 musicals.
Rowan won her first Lifetime Achievement award in 2009 from the National Association of Dance and Affiliated Artists for her performance in all types of dance.
The second was awarded to her Sept. 21 at the Industry Excellence Awards, presented by the Association of Dance Conventions and Competitions. This award was focused more on teaching and choreographing.
Rowan received her third Lifetime Achievement Award on Oct. 13 from the Annie Oakley Society. It was presented to her by Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
The third award means the most out of the three because of its connection to Oklahoma and its emphasis on female excellence, Rowan said.
Rowan came to Oklahoma in 1980 after studying in Russia. She accepted a position at the Ann Lacy School of American Dance, but OCU only offered a ballet program at the time, which Rowan said was typical of American studios.
“If you wanted to study and have a good liberal arts education but be a dancer, your choice was a ballet modern program, but nothing that really brought respect to American dance,” she said.
Rowan preferred the tap and jazz she learned in Russia, so she met with Dr. Jerald Walker, former university president, to discuss the prospect of offering alternate degree paths for dance.
“I pitched the idea that we would be the first university in Oklahoma City, in Oklahoma, in America, in the world, probably also on Mars, that would offer a degree with an emphasis in tap or jazz, a music theater dance basically, to teach people how to be employed triple-threats,” Rowan said.
Rowan’s program was approved and has been in operation for 36 years.
Rowan founded the American Spirit Dance Company in 1993 in Edmond, Oklahoma. The dance studio is still operating out of Edmond, and Rowan tours with the dancers all across the country, as well as to Asia.
Oklahoma Woman magazine once featured her on the cover and named her among the “7 Incredible Women of Oklahoma.”
She served as spokesperson for National Dance week in 2002, 2003 and 2004, alongside famed dancer Tommy Tune.
“Throughout the nation and wherever I’ve toured and performed throughout the world, people know me as an artist, but here I’m just students’ buddy teacher,” Rowan said.
Rowan added that she prefers not to use the term “teacher.”
“They have to call me a professor because I talk all the time,” Rowan said.
She said she can only teach students who are as invested in learning as she is. If her students become successful in dance, it is because they took the information given to them, Rowan said.
“I want them to take responsibility,” she said. “So I tell them I’m their encyclopedia. I’m their cheerleader.”
Morgan Wilson, dance pedagogy senior, has taken six semesters of dance with Rowan.
She said Rowan deserves her awards because she is involved in her community and works hard for the dance school.
“She’s not just teaching,” Wilson said. “She loves us. She always calls us her ‘grandkids.’”
Rowan’s lessons are easy to remember because she uses a lot of visual examples, Wilson said.
Rowan sometimes brings stuffed animals to class and places them on her arm to teach her dancers about form. She tells her students how to smile in pictures and how to impress people in the dance industry.
Rowan tells her students that she’s trying to help them, not push them down. Since the first day, Wilson said Rowan reminded her of her grandmother.
Rowan teaches her students how to eat properly and navigate weigh-ins. With Thanksgiving Break coming up, many dance students are being taught not to indulge during the holidays.
Many students said they are fascinated that Rowan is still dancing and teaching at her age.
“She’s been around forever,” Wilson said. “We don’t know how old she really is, and her body is in great shape. It’s insane. I don’t know how she does it.”
Wilson attended a dance workshop at OCU when she was in high school, and she remembers being impressed by Rowan.
“I was like, ‘this woman’s crazy, but it’s making sense now,’” Wilson said. “Nothing’s ever made sense, and now it does. I had to come here. This woman in a tutu is older than my grandma.”
Rowan is known for her obscure sayings, which students call “Jo-isms.”
Some of these quotes were collected and sent to Rod Jones, assistant director of media relations, who put them together on a website. These are some examples:
- “The 11th Commandment is ‘thou shalt not bore thy audience.’”
- “Compete with yourself, not others.”
- “For success in showbiz, simply make yourself desirable.”
- “Employers are not interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.”
To teach a specific dance move, Rowan tells her students that there is a cookie on their foot, and they are feeding it to the mouse.
Rowan uses the phrase “holy blue cookies,” which students said they find peculiar. A dance student actually made blue cookies for Rowan last year.
Wilson’s favorite quote from Rowan is “so you can love someone more than you need them.”
Rowan said this about her husband, Dean John Bedford. This quote is meant to inspire independence, Wilson said.
“[She and her husband] run this school together, and she loves him, but she could still do it on her own,” Wilson said.
She said Rowan is constantly inspiring her students to support themselves.
“She’s a big advocate for standing on your own two feet and not relying on anyone whatsoever,” Wilson said.