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Monday, March 26, 2012 - Gregory Patterson: A Life in Dance

by Gillian Ellis

Associate Professor of Dance and head of the dance program Greg Patterson always knew he loved dance. Growing up, he would watch Michael Jackson on the television and copy all the moves with an ease that came naturally to him. Within the extended family, Greg’s father would encourage him to entertain aunts and cousins. “Show them that move, Greg,” his father would say. But in public, Mr. Patterson senior was reluctant to have his son behave in a way that might be perceived as confirming white people’s stereotypes of African-American men. “Just recently," Greg said, “my mother told me about an incident I had no memory of.” His father had been very angry with him for dancing while waiting in line for ice cream. “I think I must just have been in my own head,” said Greg.

So there were no dance lessons for the young Greg. He did dance in his high school production of West Side Story, but throughout his youth in Toledo, Ohio, Greg competed as an athlete. He was a diver and he was very good. He had an Olympic coach approach him, but influenced in part by the death of his father, instead of focusing so intently on just diving, Greg decided to attend Bowling Green University where he was a psychology major on a diving scholarship. In his junior year he “wandered into” a modern dance class with no real intention other than to fulfill an arts requirement, but once enrolled and engaged in the class, Greg rediscovered his love of dance. “And I could just do it,” he said.

His talent was instantly recognized. He credits Deborah Tell, who is now the chair of the Dance Department at Bowling Green, with discovering and nurturing him. Without her, he admits, he would not be where he is today. The dance department tried to lure him into working with them as a major, but Greg says, he could not afford to finish out school without his diving scholarship, so he carried on as an athlete and psych major, while the dance department accommodated him as best they could.

At Bowling Green he danced in Hello Dolly and Fiddler on the Roof, despite the fact he had to miss many rehearsals, something he admits would not be tolerated in the OU dance department.

But, of course, his dance teachers must have seen something extraordinary in him. Immediately after graduation he auditioned for the M.F.A. program at the University of Michigan and was given a fellowship. And says Greg, “I have never looked back.” His diving background had taught him discipline and coordination, and he was in peak condition. “Technically, I just got stronger and stronger.”

Greg says there were some tough times, but for a professional dancer he seems to have enjoyed a fairly smooth path to his current position, and he has certainly had some fun and much professional fulfillment on the way. Many dancers whose first love was jazz might have thought of heading to New York, but Greg believes he made the right choice when he decided to stay in this area. “I’ve had many more opportunities here in the Midwest, plus, I have performed in New York a dozen or more times as part of a tour or as a guest.”

Almost straight after graduation from U of M he began to dance full time with Harbinger Dance Company and it was there that he met Laurie Eisenhower, who was already teaching at OU. When Laurie decided to set up her own dance company, Eisenhower Dance Ensemble (EDE), Greg became an integral part of the company and remained so for many years. He also taught in the Detroit area, as well as at Interlochen for seven years. By 1989 he was teaching part-time at OU, and by 1991 he was a full-time faculty member.

Dance is a difficult profession in which to make a living, as Greg readily acknowledges. He says it takes more than ability, more even than dedication and hard work. There is also an element of luck involved, and he says he feels like he was “the right person in the right place at the right time.” He says he tells his students who want to make it in the dance world to get out there and take classes everywhere they can, so their faces are familiar to the people who make the decisions about hiring.

Greg has had a prestigious modern dance career with EDE and other Midwest ensembles. He has danced with the Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, toured Mexico, choreographed and danced for the Michigan Opera Theatre, set choreography at academic institutions, and gone on to found his own dance company, Patterson Rhythm Pace, a modern jazz company. But he also had some more commercial experiences that he remembers as great fun.

He was dance captain for a Disney production called The Pocahontas Spectacular at the Fox Theatre, where he danced in such numbers as “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King and “Chim Chimney” from Mary Poppins. And he recalls his recreation of everyone’s favorite dance number from Dirty Dancing with great relish. K-Mart was launching a collection of clothing inspired by the movie and for promotional purposes they invited buyers to their headquarters in Troy and “set the stage” with dancers. “I was the only one who could do the final lift,” says Greg, “so I was featured.” And we are sure many hearts fluttered as Greg raised “Baby” aloft over his head in imitation of Patrick Swayze at this iconic moment of pop culture.

A life in the performing arts is made up of hours of very hard work and fleeting moments which make the audience catch their breath at the beauty of the results of that work. Asked if he has any regrets about his life, Professor Patterson at first says that he doesn’t, but on reflection decides that perhaps he does – just one. He wishes that his father, the man who wanted to stop him dancing in public, could see just where dance has taken him.

Photo by Rick Smith