Dancing Through Life

KSU dean’s life story plays like a dance in a musical as he keeps up with the tempo

John Crawford was on vacation last week. He was out of the office, but he spent his vacation dancing in Kent State’s Music and Speech Center.

Or rather, teaching the ensemble of Hello, Dolly! the dances he choreographed for the upcoming production at Kent State’s Porthouse Theatre, the professional summer theater at Blossom Music Center. Choreography is one creative outlet for Crawford, dean for the College of the Arts, because it gets him out of board meetings and back in the studio.

At a recent rehearsal, he takes his place onstage at the folding table next to the director. He nods his head, taps his foot, claps his hands, sways with the tempo and jots the occasional note on a white legal pad.

The creative process

A few months before in his office in Taylor Hall, Crawford smiles and his arms flail as he talks about dance. He leans forward in the cherry wood chair as he talks, yet his back stays perfectly straight, ever the dancer.

His 55 years show in his gray hair, but time hasn’t subdued his passion or energy for dance.

Crawford began choreographing Hello, Dolly! by hunting down the original score, listening to the music in the car, reading the script and buying a couple binders. Then he asks himself “What’s the purpose of the dance? Why is it here?”

“I figure out the broad strokes first: what’s the beginning, middle and end, kind of sketched out like a drawing of someone and then I start filling in the details,” he says, his brown eyes sparkling with excitement.

Once Crawford has a vision, he heads to his basement in Fairlawn Heights, a makeshift studio with a wall of mirrors and exercise equipment, and starts dancing. For the large numbers, he studies the miniature stage model and grabs a handful of coins — men are pennies, women are dimes, Dolly is the quarter — and starts arranging the actors.

Then Crawford fetches his score binder and begins making notes in the margins, he says, gesturing toward his binders for the script and music amid a stack other thick, white binders on a table in his office.

The large extent of Crawford’s performing career was in modern dance, a contemporary dance form that draws upon other dance forms, emotions and milieu. But whatever the dance form, he focuses on the power of dance as a vehicle for narrative.

“This is something that I’ve just recently come to understand about myself,” Crawford gushes. “Many people would immediately say art isn’t just about storytelling. That’s right, it isn’t. But the part I’m most interested in understanding, developing and learning more about is the storytelling part.”

When asked how Crawford would tell his life story, he says he would do it through dance, obviously.

Basement dancer

He has always loved to dance. Growing up in rural Virginia, Crawford didn’t know of any dance studios in the area. Even if he did, he probably wouldn’t have taken classes. So when he wanted to dance, he would head downstairs, drop the needle on the black vinyl and just dance.

“I would put on music, and I would spend hours in the basement just dancing around, playing music, and singing and performing and having my own little show,” Crawford says with a hearty laugh.

Time passed, and Crawford went to Virginia Commonwealth University to study theater, which required him to take dance classes. As soon as he took his first class, he said to himself, “This is what I want to do.”

Dance and theater artist

Before he graduated in 1978, Crawford created his first resume. On it, he referred to himself as a dance and theater artist.

“In certain ways, I still think of that in terms of my creative work — that it’s really both dance and theater together,” he says. “Because of what I learned as a theater major, I think that’s why I’m so drawn to storytelling as a dancer.”

From the time he was 20 to about 35 years old, he was a professional dancer performing with professional companies. He was part of the Richmond Ballet for a few years before receiving his master’s degree in dance from James Madison University in 1981.

While a graduate student, spent his summers working at Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens theme parks. It was a wonderful experience, Crawford says, because professionals choreographed the shows themselves — five shows a day, six days a week — taught him about discipline and how to build stamina. Because the shows were in the summer, they fit his class schedule and even helped pay some of his graduate school.

It was at the theme parks that he learned the original choreography Gene Kelly performed in Singin’ in the Rain, a routine he would later teach as a professor.

Crawford received his doctorate in dance and dance education from Temple University in 1989. He stayed in Philadelphia for several years where he performed in a modern dance company called Ann Vachon/Dance Conduit.

Dancer turned teacher turned administrator

Crawford taught for a few years at Temple before coming to Kent State in 1988. He was named the director of the School of Theatre and Dance in 1996. He served as director of the School of Theatre and Dance and producing director of Porthouse Theatre for a decade while teaching one or two classes a semester (and dancing when he could).

He moved over to the dean’s office in Taylor Hall in 2006 when he became the associate dean for graduate affairs in the College of the Arts. In 2009, he was named the dean.

“Between that time and now, I only taught one class in musical theater history,” he says wistfully. “I haven’t taught in my two years as dean.”

These days, most of his dance work is in the form of choreography. He usually choreographs the December faculty dance concert biennially and one production each summer for Porthouse Theatre along with occasional freelance work. That's in addition to his other responsibilities, including attending Faculty Senate and Board of Trustee meetings, watching student performances, dedicating the School of Theatre and Dances's new Roe Green Center School, hosting the college's annual Spring into the Arts week and accompanying the senior showcase, a trip for theater students to New York to audition for agents, managers and casting directors to help students find work after graduation.

One Thursday in April, Crawford sneaks out of the office to read excerpts from Martha Graham’s Blood Memory at the University Library’s “Kent Reads, Kent Writes” program. His voice booms as he reads about the dancer and at one point breaks out into dance to the delight of the dozen or so audience members.

Working vacation

The way the Porthouse season is scheduled, there are three weeks of rehearsal. Most of the choreography is learned in a week.

“That week before we do the rehearsals and during that week while I’m teaching them, all I do during that time pretty much is live, eat and breathe the choreography,” he says.

There’s a big dance number called The Waiter’s Gallop where waiters are serving food and Dolly comes down the stairs in a red dress. All these things need to happen and be choreographed, he says, but the movements need to look natural.

“People expect to see that and they expect certain things with that, so you give that to them, but you have to find your own spin,” he says.

Back at practice, he leans forward in his chair during The Waiter's Gallop. Waiters flap napkins, fold tablecloths, pass serving plates and joust with utensils. The ensemble performs the routine effortlessly and without a hitch.

Rehearsal ends early and after giving notes, Crawford heads home to do some work. Vacation’s over.


Hello, Dolly! runs from July 29 to Aug. 14 at the Porthouse Theatre at Blossom Music Center.

Curtain times are 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Picnic grounds open 90 minutes before curtain time. Tickets prices vary based on the day of the week, and discounts are available for seniors, WKSU member discounts and KSU students, faculty and staff. Tickets can be purchased at the KSU box office by calling 330-929-4416 or 90 minutes before curtain time at the theater. The theater is wheelchair accessible, and free parking is available adjacent to the theater.


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