Birthday bliss: Juneau Dance Unlimited celebrates 35th anniversary

Nonprofit dance school succeeds despite location change, lacking board members

Posted: Sunday, April 04, 2010

"Over the years, we brought to Juneau a wide variety of high-caliber guest artists and artistic directors. For those who simply enjoy dance for the pleasure to move with the music, JDU has been a wonderful resource. JDU has also contributed generously to the culture of Juneau, through their dance performances."

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David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire File
David J. Sheakley / Juneau Empire File

- Lupita Alvarez, former Juneau Dance Unlimited president and Fine Arts Camp director

Juneau's only nonprofit dance school turns 35 this month.

And as Juneau Dance Unlimited celebrates - with a birthday party Thursday at its studio at 8420 Airport Blvd., Suite 202 - students, teachers and board members look back at the school's 35 years of dance instruction in the capital city ...


After returning to Juneau in the 1970s after college, Juneau resident Sybil Davis formed JDU as a nonprofit corporation with two other women.

"Juneau was the first and only place in the United States that I ever lived, and there was no dance to speak of," Davis said. "I had taken some ballet and tap, and I loved to dance. I really saw the lack of any varied dance instruction available to a young person at that time."

Davis formed JDU originally as a presenter organization, as she thought residents "didn't see much dance." Soon after, Davis applied for grants from ASCA, which allowed them to host their first two dance companies, the Atlanta Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theatre.

"The concerts were very well received but what locals really wanted were workshops, so we started offering workshops in conjunction with guest artists," Davis said.

Then JDU concentrated on residencies and concerts by local dancers and choreographers.

"We brought company members from the Twyla Tharp Dance Company and had residencies and workshops with many professional dancers and companies," Davis said. "JDU presented more and more childrens' and adult dance concerts and evolved to the full dance institution it is today. I never imagined that it would last this long and develop so fully. It is wonderful!"


Professional dancer Kathryn Alter, going on seven years in a modern dance company in New York City, attributes her now open creativity and perseverance to her JDU beginnings. Her first class at JDU was with Davis in the early 1980s.

"It was magical hours of blossoming imagination, exploration and improvisation," Alter said. "I remember excitedly awaiting Sybil to put on Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' and creating dances to match the narrative of the music."

Alter feels lucky to have experienced an organization so open to a variety of people from the community.

"Adults and children, serious dancers or just curious people, had exposure to many great guest artists - especially at the summer fine arts camp," she said. "These artists graciously guided anyone who showed up through daily movement classes and a choreographic creation. They were our windows to dance outside of Juneau."

Current student Kiana Ford, 14, wore a bumble bee costume for her first JDU performance - when she was 3 years old. Today she is pursuing a professional dance career. She was selected last year for Joffrey Ballet's Summer Dance Lab and will attend both Joffrey's International Summer Dance Intensive and American Ballet Theatre's Summer Dance Intensive this year.

"Kiana's love for dance and the exceptional training she has received from various JDU instructors over the years has made a huge difference in her life," said her mother, Gail Ford.


Former president and Fine Arts Camp director Lupita Alvarez, who started participating in workshops in 1988, was instrumental in expanding the school's summer fine arts program to include a variety of performing and visual arts - music, dance, theater, choir, paining, drawing, mask making, pottery, carving, felting, etc.

"It was very exciting to give children ages 5 to 15 the opportunity to work with masters in their own specialty for a whole month, day in and day out," she said. "Having a full immersion in the arts was, to me, a wonderful way to motivate kids to explore a wide variety of art forms."

In her years with JDU, Alvarez has seen a number of dancers go through JDU's program.

"I enjoyed working with so many children, youth and adults that shared my passion for dance," she said. "I believe that dance in whatever form - ballet, modern, jazz, tap, folk dance, social dance, etc. - are creative ways to express yourself and to connect with others in a very pleasant, uplifting environment."


In her 12 years with JDU, parent and Executive Director Gail Ford has seen the organization grow tremendously and overcome many obstacles. She can still remember her daughter's first dance class in 1998 at the Scottish Rite Temple.

"Even though it was a funky old building, it provided a wonderful space for JDU's students," she said. "And I knew from that first class that JDU was a very professional nonprofit dance school with experienced, highly qualified teachers."

Three years ago, when JDU lost its home at the Scottish Rite Temple, it was housed temporarily in several locations, and the organization's survival was in question. At that time, only two board members remained.

"Several parents stepped up to the plate to ensure that JDU would indeed celebrate its 35th anniversary and agreed to serve as board members," Ford said. "After looking at 26 possible locations, they found our present home which is a bright, spacious and professional dance studio."

Since its move to Airport Boulevard, JDU board members, staff and parents have taken the organization from near extinction to one that today plays an important role in the Juneau performing arts community.

"JDU students, staff, parents and volunteers are proud of their involvement with an organization that means so much to them and this community," Ford said. "Their hope is that JDU will continue to serve them and future generations."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at

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