Morgan State teacher offers stage presence

Performance: Iantha L. Tucker has led the university's Modern Dance Ensemble for 27 years.

November 30, 2003|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The thumping beat beckons the dancers to the floor of the Hurt Gymnasium at Morgan State University.

On command from Iantha L. Tucker, artistic director and principal choreographer of the university's Modern Dance Ensemble for the past 27 years, arms, legs and hips sway to the jazzy New Orleans-style music.

"OK, here we go. Dance, people. Smile," Tucker says, kneeling in front of the 12 dancers, watching their every rehearsal move.

Since 1976, Tucker -- a dance historian and associate professor in the health, physical education and recreation department -- has led the school's modern-dance company, drawing the respect and the admiration of students and colleagues.

"She was the one who gave us a sense of stage presence," says Stanley Harrison, who graduated from Morgan about 25 years ago and spent 12 years dancing professionally. "She was instrumental in teaching us different dance styles. ... She combined ballet and modern dance and jazz and infused Afro-Caribbean styles."

Tucker's most recent efforts include overseeing the Modern Dance Ensemble's work as host of the 28th annual Dorothy P. Stanley Scholarship Fund Dance Festival, held this month.

The annual festival is named for the Morgan alumna who sponsored the first modern-dance group at the university in 1953. Stanley studied with such dance pioneers as Martha Graham, Louis Horst, Jose Limon and Doris Humphrey.

The festival draws hundreds to the campus annually to watch the talents of collegiate and high school dancers and local and regional dance companies. About 600 people attended this year's festival, and at least one dancer will receive a scholarship.

In the past, ensemble members have been awarded scholarships from $800 to $2,000 and have garnered acclaim in Broadway shows, and as dancers and choreographers with the likes of Madonna and other superstars.

Students will receive scholarships to attend dance camps and have furthered their training at renowned dance companies such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and the Bates and American dance festivals in Maine and North Carolina, respectively.

"It's a great coming-together of dance companies in the area and dance schools and colleges," Tucker said of the festival. "It's a sharing of dance and a wide variety of styles."

Aaron Lewis, a graduate student at the university, was awarded a scholarship in 1982 and attended a dance camp at Ailey. A dancer in the recent festival, Lewis also operates his own dance company, Prophetic Praise, at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore.

"I was happy that they saw fit ... to award me the scholarship," he said. The dance festival, he said, "continues to give students and dance companies a chance to share talents on a noncompetitive basis."

Charise Byers, an engineering student at Morgan, was awarded a scholarship this year to attend a dance camp in Milwaukee.

"For six weeks, I learned a lot of things ... ballet, jazz and modern dance," said Byers, who also choreographs dance moves for the Foxxy Dancers, Morgan's dance team with the university's marching band.

Byers has been dancing since she was a little girl and said that participating in the ensemble, including as a dancer in this year's festival, has enabled her to become well-versed in a variety of dance forms.

Former participants who have long since left Morgan also reflected fondly on their experiences with the ensemble.

The ensemble "solidified the idea in my head that I wanted to be a dancer," said Harrison, who went on to dance with such companies as the Contemporary Dance Group, Fred Benjamin Dance Company and Rod Rogers Dance Company, all in New York City.

Kemba Shannon, who performed with the ensemble during the early 1990s, has used her experience to land gigs with Madonna and on Broadway in such critically acclaimed musicals as The Lion King.

"Dr. Tucker has a warm spirit," Shannon said. "She gave me a lot of personal attention and took time to clean [my dancing technique] up. "

Tucker took the helm of the ensemble in 1976, changing it to its current name.

Her resume is extensive: member of the board of directors of Talking Drum: The Black Dance Newsletter; co-writer of the state of Maryland curriculum framework for dance in public education; recipient of the Fulbright Hayes Fellowship for summer study in Africa; co-founder and past president of the Black College Dance Exchange; and recipient of the Mouscar, Walt Disney Corp.'s highest award for contributions to the field of dance.

Tucker started dancing at the age of 4 at the YWCA on Madison Avenue in Baltimore. She attended Harlem Hospital School of Nursing before going on to Morgan to earn bachelor's and master's degrees. She earned a doctorate from New York University.

"I have wanted to be a dancer since that first day in dance class," she said. "I danced all through elementary school at special school functions and throughout junior and senior high."

"I love the feeling you get when you perform," she added.

Tucker doesn't stick to one type of dancing with her program.

"I use a variety of dance styles," she said. "Within our program, we try to offer as many different and varied exposures to dance through guest choreographer/master class teachers and any methods we can."

Although Tucker has enjoyed success with the ensemble through the festival, her students' growth and partnerships with other historically black colleges and universities, one important goal eludes her: developing a dance major at Morgan.

Tucker has lobbied hard for such a program. Obstacles include staffing shortages at Morgan and concerns that such a major might duplicate a program elsewhere.

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