Chris Walker dances with the orishas in the university's hallowed Lathrop Hall. The UW Dance Program assistant prof is a long way from his native Jamaica, but the walls of his cozy fourth-floor office sport big pictures of Ochun, Oyá, Obatalá, Changó and Yemayá. Even in the dead of winter the Afro-Caribbean saints seem content in their new surroundings.
That's because the university got it right when it hired Walker, who spent two years here as a visiting lecturer before landing on the tenure track last fall. Walker's interest in the orishas is secular, but like Changó, he's a master of Afro-Caribbean dance. Like Changó, he wields a wicked ax - a robust background in Caribbean dance theater and American modern dance. Walker puts his powers at the service of students' self-discovery, and he's working with the most diverse batch of undergraduates this campus has ever seen.
Walker, who's 33, holds a joint appointment in dance and the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives, where he serves as artistic director of the UW's groundbreaking, hip-hop-oriented, First Wave urban arts learning community. A formidable storyteller, he challenges students to perform their own stories on stage, with remarkable results. Don't take my word for it. You can see for yourself on Feb. 20, at 3:30 p.m. in Lathrop's H'Doubler Performance Space, when Walker's students - from First Wave, the theater department and his African dance performance class - put on Moonshine, a celebration in honor of Black History Month.
"In rural Jamaica there's this wonderful glow when the moon is full," says Walker. "You can sit under the tree and have an impromptu concert. There's no electricity, no radio or television, so people make their own entertainment. On moonshine night everybody gets together to play music, tell stories, dance, laugh and tell jokes."
That's the idea behind Moonshine, the performance, and it comes straight from Walker's own life. He grew up on Jamaica's north coast, in St. Ann's Bay near Ocho Rios, and went to high school in Kingston. But he grabbed every chance he got to visit relatives deep in the rural interior. He loved the folk rituals that survived there, their West African roots intertwined with island transculturations.
"At Christmastime I'd go from one Jonkonnu ceremony to the next," he says, naming the traditional masked parade. "I also went to wake ceremonies - on the ninth night, when the dancing and rituals take place, I'm in the yard whether I'm invited or not. I was one of the few young persons trying to learn these songs that older folks were singing."
A string of serendipitous circumstances led Walker to build an academic infrastructure for that rich cultural background. A teacher at his basic Salvation Army-run primary school, taken with his talent, convinced his mother to send him away to a top-tier high school. He ended up at Kingston College, an all-male secondary academy in the country's capital.
"KC was steeped in tradition and old-boys legacy," Walker says. "I learned to be part of the fold, to have mutual respect and to value education. To be a KC college man was a big responsibility. The graduates always came back and contributed to their alma mater. There were generations of men actively mentoring the next cohort. Every day you'd hear about a KC grad becoming the president of this or achieving that. There was a constant infusion of 'I can achieve, I can.'"
Walker wasn't a great student, he admits. When faced with tests, he'd get asthma attacks. Instead of picking a high-power career path after graduation, he went home to the north coast, enrolled in community college computer science classes in Montego Bay and got a job in a hotel. The owner, who happened to be developing some coastal real estate, noticed Walker's storytelling talent and hired him in sales. Walker pushed properties like hotcakes during the day, but by night he sang and danced in hotel shows with a theater troupe called Afro-Caribbean Exposure.
Making dances for those shows, he discovered a passion for choreography. Thirsty for technique, he returned to Kingston and signed up at the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts. Education wasn't in his plans, he says, but it was part of the core curriculum. And that's how he fell in love with the teachings of 20th-century dance education pioneer Margaret H'Doubler.
Just in case you don't know, and if you live in Madison you should, H'Doubler, for whom Lathrop Hall's performance space is named, founded the UW-Madison's famous dance program - the nation's first - and created the college dance major. "H'Doubler's book [Dance: A Creative Art Experience] was one of the first texts I bought in college, so see how it comes full circle?" Walker asks, smiling.
Discovering H'Doubler was the start of a dance with academic destiny. Taking advantage of a longstanding student exchange program between Edna Manley College and the State University of New York at Brockport, Walker came to the States for his MFA. At Brockport he picked up the classic modern dance techniques of José Limón and Merce Cunningham - and met Clyde Morgan, professor of African dance.
You probably remember Morgan, who was on the dance faculty here between '79 and '85, and was half of the dance performance duo Melrose and Morgan. Surely you know homegirl and UW emerita dance prof Claudia Melrose, who began her career as a UW dance student and later performed internationally with Alwin Nikolais' multimedia dance theater. She just retired, in 2007.
Walker was taking Morgan's Brockport class when Melrose, who hadn't seen Morgan for a while, came to visit. "I remember this curly hair, this energetic tall white woman who jumped into the class and could move like nobody's business," Walker says. "I thought, 'Wow, this white woman is just killing the movement.' So I went up and talked to her. She took my contact info, and a couple years later I got an email from her about a position. That's how I ended up here [in the fall of academic year 2006-07] as a visiting lecturer. Claudia sees a big picture for the future of education, and I know I'm a small part of it."
For the Dance Program, Walker teaches African performance and what he calls Caribbean modern technique, based on the methods of the 20th century's modern masters - Martha Graham, Cunningham, Limón. He'll take what he needs from these distinct ways of moving to match the concept he's working on, and then choreograph combinations that fit different body types. "It's an inclusive fusion for diverse dancers," he says, "and it's designed to access the whole body, which you need for Caribbean dance."
The Dance Program's done better with diversity than most UW-Madison departments, so inclusive fusion's important. But First Wave is an even bigger rainbow. "We're talking about diverse," Walker says. "White, black, Hispanic, Asian, and they're the new generation, mixed with everything, Jewish on one side and Catholic on the other."
The stories these students tell put faces and family on what you read in the newspapers, Walker says. They've got friends or relatives who've been incarcerated. They've stared street gangs in the face and struggled with poverty in an ubercapitalist world. They're the sons of absent fathers and the U.S.-born children of Mexican migrants who've abandoned their first families south of the border.
Teaching them, Walker says, is a humbling experience. "I'm charged with validating their voices. But they teach me as much as I teach them. Education has to come from the bottom up. Rather than trying to impart knowledge, I see myself as a facilitator in the process of discovery. I tell my students that research is about looking at an area of knowledge and seeing what you can contribute, based on your own passions. I try to help them find lenses through which to turn their experiences into art. Their stories have become the center of what I'm now calling education."
To prepare for Moonshine, Walker asked his students what Africa means to them. They've been pouring out stories ever since, in the hip-hop theater arts of song, spoken word, drumming and dance. "Through their eyes I get a unique perspective on this thing called Africa," Walker says. "For our celebration of Black History Month we're not looking at what black folks achieved or what they contributed to the cultural development of this country. The question is, 'What impact does the concept of Africa have on contemporary 18- to 20-year-old youth.' The answers are blowing my mind."