For guest artist and professional dancer Juan Enrique Irizarry, dance has not always been his natural strong suit, but ambition has.
After his seventh grade literaure teacher was impressed by a class skit he performed, the alumnus of ‘15 first found dance through musical theater.
“I can’t sing. And at the time I could not dance. I really had two left feet, I was gangly and I did not know what to do with my body. And that’s not me being humble, that’s literally how I was,” Irizarry said.
The Chicago resident did musical theatre at programs “After School Matters” and “Gallery 37” where he was able to get school credit for his work as well as advance his dance skills through a wide diversity of styles.
“I did cultural dances like Chinese lion dancing or Filipino tinikling which is the bamboo sticks or Korean K-pop. I did so much I don’t even know how I did it,” Irizarry said.
After getting bored of theatre, Irizarry wanted to become a more versatile artist and decided to work on dancing. He auditioned for the Joffery Ballet, one of the premier dance companies in the United States. Irizarry believed that he had a poor audition, but was accepted into the intensive summer program because male dancers are rarer and thus harder to find.
“I was god-awful. I seriously was god-awful. And then my ambition starts working. I started taking more of the Joffrey classes, I did the honors credit for Gallery 37 before I did the honors credit for theatre and then I got into their community engagement step up program company,” he said.
It was not until Irizarry left the program and started dancing at Knox that he realized how intense the Joffrey Ballet really was. He would spend every day in the dance studio from 9:00 until 4:00 with only a half-hour break when at Joffrey.
“Dancing out of college, it’s different because there’s a different mentality. When you are dancing at Joffrey, it’s kind of like, ‘I don’t care how you get it, but your leg has to be all the way up here,’” Irizarry said.
Irizarry originally came to Knox as a theater major, but enjoyed focusing on dance more. Instead of going to a school specializing in dance he stayed because he enjoyed the community and the dance program’s philosophy which focused on somatics, a technique of dance that focuses less so on formal techniques, but rather the dancer’s internal sensations.
“They are just different intensities, for Knox they rely on modern movements and and somatic practices (…) That’s what Jennifer (Smith) and Kathleen (Ridlon) focus on. It’s just a way to move more naturally versul not natural if you go to Joffrey or a ballet company,” he said.
While at Knox, Irizarry fulfilled the dance minor while becoming an anthropology and sociology major as well as taking the dance ensemble course, choreographers workshop, technique classes, was a Teacher’s Assistant for a contemporary class, performed and choreographed for Terpsichore. He also started a hip-hop crew on campus called “Pandora’s Box”, took classes as the the American College Dance Festival, learned how to prevent and take care of injuries through being a student athletic trainer, was part of Smith’s college company “Back and to the Left Production” and was a member of Tau Kappa Epsilon.
“I was a TKE and my first year when I was pledging I had them dance for Greek Week. I taught them how to booty roll and booty pop. It was funny. They were so bad, but so good,” Irizarry said.
Irizarry combined his interests in dance and anthropology for his senior capstone project which consisted of interviewing male dancers about what makes them masculine as well as choreographing a male duet in a mixture of modern and contemporary style.
“A good chunk of them told me that masculinity has everything to do with the body and what makes it different from a female identified body and it was just interesting to see that dynamic. When I created “Don’t Love Me”— the duet I created — it was about two people not realizing they’re in love with each other. And then it’s a struggle to fall in love with somebody that you can’t have or shouldn’t have. And then at the end they end up being together,” he said.
After graduating in 2015, Irizarry joined a Chicago hip-hop group called “Movement Revolution”, got a work study with “Visceral Dance Chicago” and worked with the modern company in “Innovation Dance Cooperatives” which he performed in both the child-friendly day company and the adult version night company.
“I got offered three solos within the company which is amazing and it rarely happens to be a soloist for three pieces let alone being a soloist for even one. Usually the new person is all the way in the back not really dancing,” he said.
Now Irizarry is working on a project with the Sildance/AcroDanza group out of Chicago. The dance is based off of Mexican mythology and tells the story of Malinche, a Chicano femanist icon who was the mediator between Aztec Emperor Montezuma II (who Irizarry plays) and Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés who she had a child with.
“We performed that in Chicago at the Links Hall, then at Malcolm X College, and then actually next week after my residency we’re actually touring it to Mexico. Then at the end of June we’re planning to tour it in Cuba,” Irizarra said.
Irizarra started his jam packed week-long residency on Sunday, Feb. 23, where he taught dance classes and choreographed a piece for the Dance Ensemble class to perform in May. The dance he choreographed is very high in intensity, which most students haven’t experienced before.
“I’m so happy doing this. I realized I can do this forever. I love traveling and choreographing (…) (The Dance Ensemble students) are all super sweet, super amazing, and very talented. They’re very dedicated and my work’s not easy. It’s actually very difficult and for a Knox dancer I know for a fact that their bodies are not used to it,” he said.
The piece is called “Swarm Part One”, which focuses on being consumed by something like a mental illness. The music that corresponds with the dance has lyrics in non-language gibberish, giving it a very creepy and interesting vibe.
“At the beginning and at the end there’s a dancer that gets grabbed by people all over their body and then is moved all the way forward. I love the motif and that imagery of being manipulated and being held back by something,” Irizarry said.
Irizarra has enjoyed coming back to Knox and the nostalgia that surrounds it. He does not, however, understand why with all of the talented dancers Knox has, there is only a dance minor and not a major.
“The students I work with in the Dance Ensemble have really raw and amazing talent. I can see a lot of them go professionally. And if they have that stepping stone of other professors or a major, that might help them. It’s kind of sad that as liberal as Knox is, they haven’t looked at making dance a major, which they should really consider 100%,” he said.