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Changing the World Through Dance

Charles O. Anderson, award-winning choreographer and head of the UT dance program, leads a community of student dancers to bravely speak their truth through movement.

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Charles O. Anderson has turned The University of Texas dance program into a tight-knit family. So much so that Anderson’s students affectionately call him “Dance Dad.” Because of this supportive environment, students are empowered to share their stories through movement, which Anderson says is a powerful way to make the world a better place.

“We are always saying something through our movement,” he says. “I teach students that our bodies are remarkable tools for expression and for humanity and love.”

Anderson’s inviting and inclusive learning environment is one of the many reasons he has been awarded the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award this year.

While at UT, Anderson has held appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies and the Department of Theatre and Dance, teaching courses on African American dance history, choreography, Afro-contemporary dance technique, “kinetic storytelling” (movement-driven storytelling) and more, while also maintaining an active dance career.

Dancing Together

Anderson was introduced to kinetic storytelling while growing up in Richmond, Virginia. Regularly attending Baptist Church with his family, he was exposed to spiritual dancing and testifying, from which he pulls inspiration for his courses.

“Eclectic,” “rigorous” and “lively” are the adjectives Anderson uses to describe the Afro-contemporary dance technique he teaches. Blending contemporary dance and African-derived physical practices, students use floor work, improvisation and unpredictable changes in rhythm and direction to grab the audience.

Anderson strongly emphasizes the importance of connecting in-class and on-stage experiences with lived experiences. Doing so, he says, is a way dancers can enact positive change in their community. “So much of dance training is about separating oneself from the world in which you’re living in,” he says. “But instead, I want students to realize you can’t separate from it — you embody culture and have a responsibility to engage with the world of which you are apart.”

One example of this is Anderson’s most recent dance production, “(Re)current Unrest,” an immersive experience addressing systemic racism and the oppression Black Americans face. He encouraged students to use their movements as a practice of social justice. By adhering to UT’s COVID-19 safety protocols, Anderson and former and current student volunteers reenacted past and present American unrest to a global livestream audience of over 950 viewers this past October. Throughout the sensory experience, the performers’ movements were fueled with intention as they danced in synchronicity and desynchronization to the sound of composer Steven Reich’s work and the narration of Anderson’s voice.

Being able to share this experience with his students has been a highlight of his career, he says. “To have done a professional project with my students that is being seen globally and have it recognized as professional-caliber work and giving them that opportunity — that’s what it’s all about for me. It’s felt like all of my worlds coming together to do something that I’ve always been called to do.”

A Platform for Compassion

Although dance has always been in Anderson’s life in some way, many are surprised to learn he didn’t take his first formal dance class until his freshman year at Cornell University. Upon realizing that dance and choreography could be used as forms of expression and activism, he switched his major from mechanical engineering to dance and never looked back.

Anderson earned an MFA in choreography from Temple University while simultaneously teaching there and starting his company, dance theater X. Next, he taught at a private liberal arts college for seven years, where he thrived yet yearned for a greater sense of community and ultimately landed a position as an associate professor of African diasporic dance at UT in 2011.

A fierce advocate for his students, he has always prioritized their well-being. This was especially apparent in April of 2016 after the tragic loss of UT dance freshman Haruka Weiser, who was murdered while walking home from rehearsal. As the entire dance program grappled with this immense loss, Anderson reassured his students that they would move through this dark time as a community.

“I was profoundly devastated by her death — during my first year of heading the dance area — I instinctively gathered the entire dance program together daily for the remainder of the semester to dance ‘as one,’” he wrote in a statement to the Board of Regents about his career. “It was a turning point for our program and for me as an educator and administrator on many levels.”

In the following days, weeks and months, Anderson worked closely with the university, campus police and other organizations to promote a safe campus environment, including expanding the UT SURE Walk program. He left his office door open to hold space for students and organized dance performances where they could move through and process their pain while honoring their classmate and friend.

“I have had many moments of darkness in my life,” he told Arts Next magazine. “Dance puts you in your body, and sometimes that’s all you need to come out of your head.” Leading with compassion and empathy is a special quality many students say they admire about Anderson and aspire to emulate.

“He has encouraged me to give more to the world bountifully and graciously, especially in low times of anguish and heartache,” wrote former student Kaitlyn B. Jones in her Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award recommendation letter of Anderson.

Anderson’s warm demeanor, confidence, quirkiness and artistic talent have made him an outstanding mentor to his students. He takes seriously his position as a role model and strives to illuminate the importance behind each student’s reason to dance.

“Charles rekindles not only the ‘how’ or ‘what’ but the ‘why’ in people,” says Jones. “He has a gift to break through people, facilitating the right conversation for them to realize their purpose, whether it be in dance, work or in life.”

Setting the Stage for Change

He breaks through to people by meeting them where they are. Early in his career, he taught physics, chemistry and dance at a junior high school in East Harlem, where he eventually became vice principal at the age of 27. This experience, he says, built the foundation for his appreciation of the power of teaching and the importance of educational equity.

“East Harlem taught me to center the experiences of first-generation students, students of color, queer students — the marginalized communities that we often don’t consider when we talk about access to education — and to create an environment where they know that they are being seen and cared for and are receiving the quality of education that they absolutely deserve.”

This early lesson in his career is part of the inspiration for the transformation of UT’s dance program to be more inclusive and diverse. Because of his recruiting efforts, the program is composed of the most diverse group of students, in terms of gender and race, since its inception.

As part of this vision, Anderson also relaunched the MFA in Dance program in 2018 with a redesigned curriculum. “I shifted the focus to social justice because I was seeing so many young dancers who had graduated from college but did not have the place to continue to hone their skills around these themes,” he says. Training and inspiring the next generation of dancers and choreographers committed to social justice is part of the legacy Anderson hopes to leave at UT.

In response to winning the Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award, he says: “I’m so grateful for the support I’ve received here to be able to do this because I didn’t do it alone. Part of why I came here is because what starts here changes the world, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that in my own way with my students and colleagues.”

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The University of Texas at Austin

Outstanding in His Field

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