This article is published through our Regional Reporter Program. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Now initiative.
Vicki Adams Willis received the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award in June for her multi-decade career in jazz dance.
Willis co-created Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (DJD), a company that has created a legacy in its almost 40-year history and continuously strives to acknowledge, honour and recognize jazz’s roots in Black experience and culture.
The Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist Award is Alberta’s most prestigious recognition of outstanding achievement in the arts. Willis, who is a distinguished Calgary-based teacher and choreographer, helped change the face of jazz in Calgary and in Canada more broadly.
“[Willis] is recognized as a true leader in the world of jazz,” reads the statement on the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Arts Awards website. “An acclaimed ground-breaking choreographer who created one of the most unique jazz dance companies in the world, and the key person to ensure Calgary, Alberta as a viable dance centre for serious jazz artists. She has helped to change the very course of the jazz dance art form by influencing students, dancers, musicians and audiences with her deeply researched and brilliantly creative work.”
Before co-creating DJD, Willis learned about the history of appropriation in jazz dance. The company’s mission wasn’t to save the art form; it was more of a humble effort to shift the focus back to its roots, broadcasting where this form of art comes from.
“More awareness, more acceptance and expressions of gratitude, just acknowledgement because it’s this extraordinary cultural expression that was ignored or appropriated,” Willis said of the change she wants to see within jazz.
Willis was inspired by her mother, Alice Murdoch Adams, who founded one of the first dance schools in Calgary, the Alice Murdoch School of Dancing. Following her trailblazer path, Willis started in ballet, but it was jazz that really captured her heart. When Willis was 15 years old, she took her first jazz class with Margot (Gooder) McDermott, a prominent teacher and choreographer, and her life shifted.
“I got completely hooked on the rhythms, on the music. So that became my passion. I love to dance, but jazz became my number 1 focus,” said Willis.
McDermott saw the potential in Willis and took her under her wing. At the age of 19, Willis was teaching ballet, spending her summers in New York and beginning to create her own choreography.
When Willis graduated from high school, she wanted to continue pursuing dance and thought she might study it at university. At that time, there wasn’t a post-secondary dance program in Canada, so she settled for getting her bachelor of fine arts in drama at the University of Calgary.
Upon graduation, London was calling and Willis went to study with American dancer Matt Mattox, but she was running out of money between her studies and small jobs.
“So when I was offered some teaching and choreography jobs back in Calgary, I came back here thinking I was going to head right back to England and continue on with that mission. And then I was offered a job by Keith Burgess, who was the head of the program of dance, which was in the drama department [at University of Calgary] at that point,” Willis said.
Willis was hired to teach movement to actors and thought she would stay in that position for a year or so before heading back to England. She wound up staying for several years and then concluded that she needed to follow her passion for jazz.
Burgess offered to create a jazz program at the university. In the fall of 1978, the University of Calgary offered its first jazz program. Just four years later, it was a full jazz program with spring and summer courses.
“It was just a happening little program. It was the only jazz program in a university in Canada, one of the few in North America, and it was fabulous,” Willis said.
It was when Willis went on sabbatical that she began to slowly realize that something was amiss within her beloved art form.
She began to dig into the history of jazz and started to understand its roots in the African American experience and how that history was being denied, erased and forgotten. By the 1980s, many jazz techniques being taught were those created by white teachers.
“What had been very grounded became very upright; what had been very sophisticated and rhythmically, musically, had become very square. There was no soul, there was no groove, there was no improvisation and no self-expression,” Willis said.
Willis was disheartened by the state of jazz.
It was then that the stars aligned. Michèle Moss and Hannah Stilwell, University of Calgary dance graduates, approached Willis about starting a jazz company, and DJD was born.
DJD became a leader in acknowledging the sources of jazz dance and giving credit to creators. It brought the experts to Calgary whenever they could. The company’s mandate to honour Black history in dance was rare in the world of jazz dance at the time.
Willis continues to be a force behind the legacy of the company. She leads the Dancing Parkinson’s YYC project, a dance class for people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and she continues to teach.
She’s hoping the new year will bring back the possibility of community. A strong community is created when all forms of dance are celebrated together, and Willis is looking forward to being able to celebrate.
“My hope is that that intense feeling of community can be revisited sooner [rather] than later, that it can be fired up again.”