BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Editor’s Note: The sixth in our All in a Day’s Work series profiles Erika Jones, CEO of the party planning and special events firm, A Social Life, who combines the joy of her work with her passion for the Red Clay Dance Company, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. It was one of the world’s most celebrated dancers—Katherine Dunham—who led Erika to Red Clay Dance.
We welcome your suggests of savvy people who have turned their day dreams into day jobs.
In the pantheon of Chicago dancers and choreographers who have become famous throughout the world, Katherine Dunham was perhaps the most revolutionary, transforming dance in the 1930’s by drawing on the roots of African and Caribbean folk and ethnic choreography to create the anthropological dance movement. As one of the University of Chicago’s first African American woman students, she received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology there and later made dance anthropology an academic discipline.
In 1930, she founded Ballet Negre in Chicago, one of the country’s first African American ballet companies. She opened dance studios in Chicago and in New York, where students included Marlon Brando and James Dean, and choreographed “Aida” for the Metropolitan Opera in 1963. Her dance troop performed in 57 countries on globe-hopping tours. Late in life she returned to Illinois where she founded The Dunham Arts Training Center and the Dunham Dynamic Museum in East St. Louis, and a young high school student, Erika Jones, walked through her door.
“I was able to participate last minute in a Dunham technique workshop for adults and children as a junior in high school. It also happened to be my first introduction to dance and from there I found my love for it. Katherine Dunham was present for the last day and the closing recital, although she was in a wheelchair at that time. Now that I think about it I was actually able to sing a little too during the performance. She did sit and watch during a couple of classes as well.
“She would be impressed with Red Clay Dance since its focus is on dance from the African Diaspora, and would be proud that it is keeping her legacy alive. To me, Katherine Dunham and her teachers were the introduction to the dance of Africa and the Caribbean. She created her own techniques using a fluid style and so many dancers are absolutely inspired by her.”
When she took a class at Red Clay Dance Academy, her teacher recognized that the Haitian roll of the body that Erika used while dancing was characteristic of Katherine Dunham’s style that combined modern movement with classical ballet.
What began as a dance class for Erika at the Red Clay Dance Academy has evolved into a working volunteer partnership between Erika and the company.
“I had mentioned that I was a party planner and they asked to do centerpieces for their annual benefit, the “Paint the Town Red”. As I learned more about the company which combines global with local ideas I saw how thought-provoking their work was. I felt that what they created was more than just entertaining.
“I volunteered to help with sponsorships and spend as much time there as I can. At 40 I realize that I won’t be a dancer but I can be part of the dance.”
Chicago native Vershawn Sanders-Ward founded the company and serves as its Artistic Director. Her works have been performed across the country and in Uganda and Senegal. Several of the company’s dancers are graduates of Columbia College, Erika’s alma mater. Red Clay Dance just received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and several others from Chicago businesses, thanks in part to Erika’s expertise in underwriting and her desire to tell the company’s story.
Throughout February, honoring Black History Month, Red Clay Dance has taken dancers to local schools to perform. On March 14-16 the troop will perform at La Femme, an annual presentation of works composed by black women choreographers at the Green Line Arts Center at 329 East Garfield Blvd.
The Art of Resilience 2.0—a re-imagining of their 2016 piece–will be held May 16-18 with the Paint the Town Red gala held following the ending performance at the DuSable Museum Roundhouse.
A career in special events is an opportunity to use not only logistical skills for non-profits such as Red Clay Dance but to put to work a naturally outgoing nature as well. We asked Erika to tell us about a job she loves:
What traits are essential for an events planner?
“Personality is everything. And realizing that you play a role as an ambassador. If you are going to be able to take things further you have to be able to talk to people but also know how to talk less and listen more. Clients have to know that they have been heard and understood.”
How do you plan a really great party for your client?
“When you look around and see that everyone is talking and having the opportunity for social networking that’s a sign of a good party. For the client you have to make sure that they feel they are getting a good return on their investment and that the guests know why they are there, and have learned about the organization but also they felt comfortable and had a really great time. The goal has to be agreed upon with the client from the start.
“The dinner parties we plan are usually more intimate and the purpose more concise. The people you need to have at the table are there, and then major connections need to happen.
“The budget is the beginning and a party planner has to be expert in using what funds are available.”
How long does an organization have to inform their guests
“I have the 30 minute rule for myself and I have noticed that if at our events people stay as long as 45 minutes we are really cooking!”
For more about the Red Clay Dance Company visit redclaydance.com