The Patron Saints of Dancers

March 15, 2010

Laura Aden Packer, Program Director, Arts

Saint Vitus Randy James headshot

Saint Vitus may be the acknowledged patron saint of dancers, but New Jersey dance companies and artists know that the true patron saint of dancers is Randy James.

Saint Randy, currently an assistant professor of dance at Rutgers University and the President of Dance/New Jersey (the statewide service organization for dance companies and dancers), is the founder and artistic director of Randy James Dance Works, an acclaimed company that he started in 1993. Through the years, his company grew to have a national and international touring schedule, while also maintaining a focus on educational and community-based residencies, master classes, lecture demonstrations and workshops here in New Jersey.

Randy put his company on hiatus after an impressive fourteen year run. The demands of running the company day to day coupled with the death of his best friend were exacting a toll and so he decided to devote his time – full-time – to Mason Gross School of the Arts, his alma mater, where he had been teaching for many years. During all this time, and still today, Randy also played an integral role in the development and growth of Dance/New Jersey.

So Randy knows firsthand the inherent challenges of running and sustaining a professional dance company in New Jersey. And he has, single-handedly, changed the fortunes and increased the exposure of a number of New Jersey dance companies while instilling a true appreciation of dance in a new generation of audiences.

Since Randy started teaching his Dance Appreciation class at Rutgers three years ago, it has grown from one section with 53 students to three sections with 1,100 students this spring. In the fall of 2010, Randy anticipates four sections with over 2,000 students enrolled. Amazing. He had to turn away hundreds of students this semester because of space issues, which Rutgers promises to solve for the fall semester. Macada Brandl, Dance/New Jersey’s Executive Director, told me, “Randy’s class is remarkable. I wish I could take it every semester.”

As part of Randy’s class, students are introduced to a range of professional dance companies, many from New Jersey, who perform and lead master classes and lecture/demonstrations. This year, Randy has engaged a number of Dodge grantees: Nimbus Dance Works, Nai-Ni Chen, Carolyn Dorfman Dance Company, American Repertory Ballet, Freespace Dance, Terra Firma, Cleo Mack and The Shua Group. This is an incredible win-win for everyone involved, and needless to say, dance companies in New Jersey are tremendously grateful to Randy for his loyalty to them and his determination to showcase the best of the best work being done by New Jersey dancers and choreographers. The dance companies are receiving excellent compensation from Rutgers. These engagements allow the companies to have more rehearsals, performances, and exposure.

The students at Rutgers are learning about dance in a meaningful way which can only lead to them being dance audience members in the future. (Randy told me, “I see many former students at dance performances all around the state, and they say they love dance now and will continue to seek out dance events in New Jersey.”) In fact, another component of Randy’s Dance Appreciation class involves students going to see performances in other venues. Because he can guarantee the sale of 1,000 seats (his students are required to attend these performances), he has had great success in negotiating with two major presenters, Raritan Valley College (in Branchburg) and The State Theatre (in New Brunswick). He is in conversation with other presenters now, and knowing Randy, it won’t be long before New Jersey dance companies are being featured in venues across the state.

In a creative and sustainable New Jersey, you would hope that the state’s leading university would be making this kind of a difference for an entire genre. Thanks to Saint Randy, it’s happening.

For more information on New Jersey’s dance community, including upcoming performances, check out the Dance/NJ website.

Photo of Randy James courtesy Randy James Dance Works

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