St. Louis Dancer And Teacher Vivian Watt On The Power Of Performing Arts

St. Louis’ history of African-American dance is a fascinating one, boasting legends like the late Katharine Dunham and the seminal performing arts and theatre company, The Black Rep. Vivian Watt, professional dancer and teacher, has continued that legacy through her own instruction, consistently demonstrating excellence, artistry and a commitment to serving to the St. Louis community for more than 40 years. A firm believer in the transformative power of dance, this year’s Visionary Awards Outstanding Teaching Artist recipient uses the studio and the stage to inspire confidence, discipline and teamwork in her students.

At 60 years old, Watt is known lovingly among her peers, colleagues and students as “Mama Vivian,” complete with her flawless turnout, effortless high kicks and vibrant energy. Currently the artistic coordinator at Better Family Life and dance instructor for the Kuumba Youth Performance Ensemble (K.Y.P.E.), Watt’s teaching style invokes her entire body, often offering her own percussion-like sounds in lieu of music to keep her students on beat during rehearsals. Even observing one of her classes is its own energizing experience. Having taught, choreographed, danced and worked for multiple companies, organizations and schools in St. Louis and influencing tens of thousands of lives, “Mama Vivian” has become a legend in her own right.

What was your first reaction to finding out that you were a 2017 Visionary Awards recipient?
“Who, me?”—that was my reaction! That, and “Do I really have to remember everything that I’ve ever done?” That really was the major question on my mind. And then I sat down and thought about it, you know, I really have done a lot over the years, haven’t I? It really was amazing.

What is it like to be a dance teacher and a professional dancer at the same time?
It’s very challenging. But in order to teach, you have to have danced. If you haven’t danced, you don’t know about that energy and that flow. No matter if you’re a good or bad dancer, or whatever—you have to have felt what you’re asking other people to do. I had a teacher who used to say, “Those that can’t dance, teach. And those that do both, reach.” So I reach out to adults, youth—everyone. But yes, I do both, and I enjoy both.

What’s your biggest hope for your students? What do you want to communicate to them through your teaching?
I’m an idealistic person. I want them to take their happiness and share it with other people, because that’s what inspires you to be your best. When I walk in the room and the children see me, they’re happy, which makes me happy. And that happiness inspires them and makes them work harder. I want them to share that happiness to inspire others, because that happiness also leads to dedication and perseverance. Take that happiness and be successful. Be a constructive, contributing individual in society.

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Photo taken by Jacqui Germain

What’s been your proudest moment as a dance instructor and teaching artist?
We have proud moments every day. I’m always proud when students create other opportunities for themselves. Whether they’re on television or in their own community, just down the street doing something positive, I’m always proud of them.

I’m also proud that I’ve influenced so many lives. In the last couple of days alone, I’ve gotten several messages from people that I’ve taught in the past saying, “Are you still doing classes? I want to bring my children.” So, my proudest moment is just a generalized understanding of how much of a positive influence I’ve had on so many people—that these people would remember me and seek me back out and use the things that I’ve taught them.

What’s your vision for the future of the dance community at large in St. Louis?
That it becomes even more united. I think that it’s headed on that path, but being in the generation that I’m in, I also remember the artistic community during the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, the 2000s, and so on. Each decade has brought a different energy. And if I were to choose an energy to go back to, I would go back to the energy of the ’70s and the 2000s. In the ’70s, everybody was open to creativity, to diversity. Everybody was willing to go in and learn techniques. Everyone worked with everyone else, whether you were with the Black Rep or the Katherine Dunham Company, or you danced with Charlie’s Body Shop or the MUNY.

But I get the feeling now that everything is more clique-ish. So, my vision is for more unity and for more diversity in what our children are taught professionally. Discipline—the discipline, I think, has somewhat changed. The discipline, the ambition and also the holistic approach of what you need to learn. Not just how to dance, but the character, the etiquette. So, my vision is also to have the holistic approach to dance return.

You’ve choreographed 30 productions for The Black Rep. What was it like to be a part of such an iconic company for so long?
When I was choreographing for The Black Rep, everyone thought that was the only place where I was working—but I also worked with the Unity Theater Ensemble and many others. Working with The Black Rep was amazing because you work with so many people from around the country. And at the time, I was dancing, I was acting, I was an intern manager—we each had 20 hats on, so it wasn’t just choreography. But I do consider myself the founder of The Black Rep Dance Department, and what we call “the resident choreographer” there. It was a lot of fun. It was hard work, and it was challenging, but it was a lot of fun. We would get snowed in and we would still be dancing. There’s just so much I could say about working at The Black Rep.

The Visionary Awards celebrate contributions to the arts, specifically of women in St. Louis. Who are the women that inspire your work?
Pelagie Green Wren was my first teacher. She actually said to me, “If you dance for me, I will buy you lunch.” And she picked me up and brought me to every rehearsal—didn’t charge me for any dance classes. And Katherine Dunham. Ms. Dunham understood that in order to grow, you’ll have high points and low points. She critiqued you, so you’d know you weren’t there yet, and that you needed to keep working. Cecilia Nadal is amazing. She inspires me because she just keeps persevering with these projects to unite the community. And she does it not just for one community, but for all communities. And of course, my mama, Dolores Anderson. Her parents wouldn’t let her dance, so when I started dancing she supported me in every way that she could.

What’s next for you? What are you working on right now?
I’m directing a show coming up called “Between Worlds.” I have a show coming up with the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, running April 7-8. The company that I work with—that I’m training right now—called K.Y.P.E. (Kuumba Youth Performance Ensemble) has been invited to perform at the African Arts Festival, the Festival of Nations, the International Salsa Congress, the MUNY and tours in Chicago.

I want to keep dancing for as long as I can. I’m so blessed. I think the reason I have so much energy is because I work with all these kids all the time. If I was in a class right now, I’d probably be sitting in a split! Ms. Dunham had to stop dancing because she got arthritis, and she was 55 years old. I am going to be 61 years old next month. I hope I will turn, leap, jump, split, prance, trot, slide and gallop until I can no longer do it. And I hope that’ll be when I’m 110.

Don’t miss our interviews with other 2017 Visionary Award honorees Sally S. Levy, Nancy Bell, Kat Simone Reynolds, Shirley LeFlore and Regina Martinez.

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