Professor Iris Rosa is an accomplished dancer, choreographer, artist and community worker. For more than four decades, she has led Indiana University’s African American Dance Company.
Her Bloomington story, however, began well before that. Rosa, whose family immigrated to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1953, settled in the steel mill community of East Chicago, where she spent her formative years. As a teenager, she was approached by Lucy Corona, an Indiana University student who was on a mission to recruit more Latino students to the school. After a conversation between Corona and Rosa’s parents, she joined the university’s first cohort of Groups, a program started in 1968 to increase enrollment among first-generation college students.
It was on the campus of IU that Rosa found her passion — dance. In 1974, she became the director of the African American Dance Company, an organization that was the vision of Dr. Herman Hudson, then-chairperson of what was known as the Afro American Studies department.
Since that time, Rosa has propelled the company to new heights, expanding its reach beyond Bloomington to places as far as China and Jamaica.
On April 8, Rosa will guide her students onto the stage one last time for their spring concert as she prepares for retirement next month.
When asked about her thoughts heading into the show, Rosa remarked that her main priority is to present a great concert.
“That’s first and foremost … I have to think about putting my students in a space that’s professional. Even though it’s my last concert, it’s not their last concert. I just have to make sure they know they can carry forward the positive experiences, the disciplined experiences, everything they’ve learned, that they can carry it on to their next phase as I go to another phase.”
Rosa shared that her vision since the company’s inception has been to create a space with her students — regardless of their experience level, ethnicity or anything else — that was rich, fulfilling and dynamic. The company has worked to present art that is politically, socially and culturally relevant to each passing era.
“This has been one thing that I’ve developed over the years, as the discipline has changed and morphed, students have changed and morphed,” she said. “Because of the name African American Dance Company, (people) already have a preconceived idea of what we do. We are not a hip-hop company; we are not an African dance company. We’re not any one type. … We are a company that takes all the different forms of dance that are brought in through students’ experiences to create relevant pieces of choreography that provoke thought.”
Rosa and company have created various collaborative pieces with many IU faculty members and other presentations inspired by the Black diaspora and, more specifically, her travels to Africa, Cuba and other international locales. One performance, she recalled, was inspired by a colleague’s studies of the rural South. It incorporated themes of agricultural labor, spirituality and the dances people did at juke joints.
Rosa also made certain that community service was a consistent part of her students’ experiences. For several years, the company has performed for clients of Stone Belt, the city of Bloomington’s oldest service provider for individuals with mental and physical disabilities. At this performance, as one attendee shared, Rosa encouraged the clients, even those with extremely limited mobility, to join in on the fun.
For her, dance is about the sharing of energy and the opportunity to transform lives and thoughts. Though she will be leaving her current post, Rosa hopes to further her impact in other ways.
Colleagues, friends and former students say her absence will leave a void that won’t easily be filled.
“Iris and I have been colleagues and friends for 27 years, as long as I’ve been at IU,” said Valerie Grim, a fellow professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies. “She has been important to me and has been a senior mentor and a friend. She’s a good sista and good woman.
“Her impact has been phenomenal. She is a very gifted choreographer who is very clear in the ways she wants to use Black dance and the bodies of the students performing those dances to communicate a message about Black people and Black life. I think that no one does it any better. She has taken Black dance and the message of Black culture and expression to the international arena. For that she deserves to be commended.”
Charles Sykes, executive director of the African American Arts Institute, met Rosa in the early ’80s when he was a graduate student of the university. He remarked that one thing that amazed him most about her commitment to her work was her seemingly unstoppable energy. One instance he recalled was during preparations for a performance at the IU auditorium. A very pregnant Rosa was moving about, checking lighting, sound and costumes. “Here we were on the sidelines wondering if we’d have to stop and rush her to the hospital,” laughed Sykes.
“I was amazed that she was able to accomplish the things that she did. She was like a spark plug,” he said. “And the way she got the students to respond to her … she was tough, but she gained their love and respect. Sometimes you can be tough and they don’t like you, but they love her. She’s taught them lessons that have stayed with them. … It’s not just about what you do on the stage but how you negotiate life off stage. She has really worked on building in those students the idea of being productive members of society.”
One such student, Amelia Smith, said her relationship with Rosa has influenced her in many ways artistically, academically and personally.
“I remember when I had known her for a year or so, and it was my first year as her assistant instructor. One night we needed to work on costumes for a show, and I went to her home and she cooked dinner and we worked on costumes. That was impactful to me. A lot of times we talk about professors, mentors and the relationship is really formal,” Smith said.
“I’ve been dancing since I was a toddler, and she was the first instructor I had that made the technique about more than just dance. She really intellectualized dance for me … it revolutionized the way that I think about movement.”
Smith, who grew up in what she described as a “colorblind” white, middleclass home, believes her connection to Rosa helped her to confront issues of race and privilege. “Through dance she opened my eyes to my own ignorance in a way that was so real to me, because she was giving us these stories and then she makes you think about what this person’s life was really like. It flipped a switch on for me in regards to my privilege and the need for change.”
As they head into their last performance together at IU, Smith hasn’t paid too much thought to the sentiment of finality. Rather, she’s focused on legacy, and she wants to do her part to ensure Rosa’s is protected and an appropriate replacement is chosen for the position.
“What will IU be like next year without her? For a lot of us, there will be a huge gap.”
Sykes said the department plans to conduct a thorough search for Rosa’s replacement, though a formal call has not yet been announced.