Jerel Hilding, a former principal dancer for New York's Joffrey Ballet, teaches dance at Kansas University.
Jerel Hilding has worked with some of the world's foremost dance choreographers, but he stumbled upon the art by accident.
Hilding, an associate professor of dance at Kansas University, did not discover dance until college. As a student at the University of New Orleans during the late 1960s, Hilding waited for his girlfriend after her dance rehearsals.
He quickly became interested in dance as he peered into the studio from the doorway every night.
"I got hooked," Hilding said.
Hilding's introduction to dance is matched by a rapid career rise in a fiercely competitive industry.
He initially enrolled in dance classes at age 19 at a private studio in New Orleans. Although old by traditional beginning dance standards, he was invited to join a small nonprofessional regional dance company, the Delta Festival Ballet in New Orleans, after graduation.
In the spring of 1973, Hilding attended the Southwest Regional Ballet Festival in Lake Charles, La. Robert Joffrey, the director of the Joffrey Ballet, taught a workshop there and saw Hilding perform with the Delta Festival Ballet. Several weeks later, a Joffrey representative phoned Hilding and invited him to join the Joffrey II Ballet, a small professional company that feeds into the main company.
Hilding left for New York in the summer of 1973 to join the cast. In 1975, he graduated into the main company, where he later met his wife, Krystyna, a fellow Joffrey Ballet dancer.
During his Joffrey tenure from 1975 to 1989, he performed many works choreographed by notable figures, such as George Balanchine, Agnes DeMille, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins and Gerald Arpino, current director of the Joffrey Ballet in its new Chicago location.
Two New York-based performance seasons, a six-month touring schedule and four months of rehearsals completed the year.
When Hilding left the company in 1989, his 14-year tenure was the longest of any male Joffrey dancer up to that point. However, the KU teaching position came at a time when he decided to make a career change.
"I was on the road close to six months a year, and I was getting up in years because physically I felt like it was becoming more difficult to perform," Hilding said. "I also didn't want to be away from my family six months out of the year."
Propelled by these reasons, the Hildings moved to Lawrence. Their family now includes two sons, D.J., 17, and Kristopher, 6.
Since taking the KU teaching post, Hilding has joined his colleagues in witnessing the dance department grow from a handful of majors to more than 60 majors this fall.
The KU dance department is in Robinson Gymnasium, a remnant of the pre-1970s when dance was often part of a university's physical education program. However, the status of dance began changing when universities shifted dance to their theater and fine arts departments, Hilding said.
Joan Stone, KU's director of dance and a dance historian, said the department offers a bachelor's degree in dance, with emphasis in choreography, performance, dance history or dance science. The major's liberal arts nature requires courses in dance history, theory, choreography, physical training and other university-wide courses.
Stone hopes that the department soon will offer a bachelor's of fine arts in dance. The professional fine arts degree, she said, would possess a conservatory approach to dance.
With a growing interest and two current studios, the dance faculty would like to see KU build additional studios that would allow more time for individual practice and choreography.
Because most young dancers are seeking a successful career, Hilding wants his students to be aware of dance's ups and downs.
He describes the continual challenge of finding work.
"I remember in the early 1980s, when Ron Reagan was a dancer on lay-off," Hilding said. "I saw pictures of him standing in the unemployment line like everyone else.
" " When they are unemployed, dancers have to find guest artist appearances, go to the unemployment lines and take dance classes to stay in shape," he said.
Even though Hilding has taught dance at KU since 1990, he still seeks ways to supplement his income. He wakes up at dawn every day to deliver the newspaper, and also guest teaches and choreographs both locally and around the country.
The extra work, Hilding said, provides additional summer income.
"My teaching position is a nine-month appointment, so that means there are three months when I don't get paid," Hilding said.
Hilding hopes that by sharing all aspects of his experience with students, they will have a well-rounded view of what a dance career entails.
"Our focus is not on training professional dancers," he said, "but on educating people in dance."
-- Teresa Heinz is a part-time writer for the Journal-World. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.
Here are the dance-related events scheduled this school year on the Kansas University campus:
This calendar doesn't include master classes or residencies by visiting artists.
For more information, call the Dance Office, 864-4264. For ticket information, call the Lied Center Box Office, 864-ARTS, or the Murphy Hall Box Office, 864-3982.