University of Memphis' Holly Lau, Dance Advocate

Lau is part of a community outreach project with improv theater, Playback Memphis. Photo by Jenny Myers, courtesy of Playback Memphis

When Holly Lau learned in 2002 that the University of Memphis dance degree program had been cut, she was shocked. “It came out of the blue," says Lau, who had been a professor in the program for 11 years at that point. Though classes would continue (and soon dwindle in enrollment), students could no longer earn the BFA in theater with a concentration in dance.

Fast-forward to today—14 years later—and the dance degree is back and thriving, thanks to Lau. Now the chair of UofM's Department of Theatre & Dance, Lau has spent the entirety of her 25-year career advocating tirelessly for dance at the university.


Against All Odds

Lau has had a firm foothold in Memphis' arts community for more than two decades, but her path there wasn't so straightforward. While working with a theater troupe in Maine in college, she was invited to join a dance company. Though she had no prior experience, she jumped at the opportunity. After a few years she moved to New York City to train with Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis, immersing herself in the '70s avant-garde dance scene.

Dance would serve as a constant in the years to come, as she married, had her first son and then lost her husband to cancer. “It was nice to be able to continue dancing while I was a young mother and then a widow," she says. At 39, she decided to earn her MFA at Ohio State University, where she met her second husband, with whom she eventually had another son.

When Lau was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Memphis in 1991, she tasked herself with making positive changes in the department from day one. “When I started here, the dance program really was all white, and I thought, 'This is ridiculous,'" she says. “So the very first thing I did was reconstruct the Negro Spirituals by Helen Tamiris. My intention was to open the doors to greater diversity." Within five years, the department's student enrollment was significantly more diverse.

Rebuilding from the Ground Up

When the dance degree was pulled in 2002, Lau hatched a plan to keep dance alive at the university. With her colleagues, she created a new dance education curriculum that could be housed in the university's interdisciplinary degree program. Students earned a bachelor of professional studies with a dance education concentration. “So we continued teaching all the classes we'd taught all along, just with fewer majors," she says.

It would be more than a decade before Lau would see the degree program reinstated, but that never deterred her from her mission to provide dance opportunities to UofM students. “We kept it going. We kept teaching. We didn't have any budget. We had no money anymore. Nothing. Zero. And yet we still did concerts," says Lau. “You get costumes out of your closet. You pay for it yourself. We just continued, and continued to have kids who were drawn to it, were inspired and were changed by the experience."

When the Theatre & Dance Department chair stepped down in 2012, Lau, as the newly appointed chair, found herself in the position to make an even greater impact. She made sure to hire faculty who were eager to work with the dance program, like lighting design professor Anthony Pellecchia. “He thinks it's really important for his lighting students to light dance," says Lau. “The whole thing is shifting in a really positive way."

Creativity and Compassion

When she's not teaching or running the department at UofM, Lau does community outreach with the improvisational theater company Playback Memphis. Her most rewarding opportunity with the troupe has been working with police and ex-felons through LifeLine to Success, an organization that reintegrates previous offenders into society. Members of the police force and former criminals are brought together to speak about their experiences while Lau and her fellow Playback Memphis members act out their stories. The experience was so effective in generating dialogue and providing new perspectives during its first run that the Memphis police department now requires officers to participate. “What happens is they really hear each other," says Lau. “It creates this community conversation that's really powerful."

Creative work and arts advocacy are essential for Lau. “It keeps me grounded. It's who I am," she says. “I've been able to reinvigorate this dance program that has had many wonderful years, but just had a little bit of a pause. That's been exciting to me."

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.