On Thursday, November 28, Dunham Technique master and famed instructor Theodore Jamison joined his beloved mentor and teacher Katherine Dunham as an ancestor of dance after a battle with colon cancer. He was 66.
“If you knew him, it made perfect sense,” said fellow Dunham dancer, philanthropist and St. Louis Visionary Awards co-chair Sara Burke in a touching tribute via Facebook. “Theo would not just dance into the heavens on a random Wednesday or a Monday. No. He would make sure he was still with us in spirit as we gave thanks for our blessings which, for me, was Theo.”
There was a common exchange that was almost as entertaining to watch as the performance that took place at countless concerts and celebrations in honor of African and African-American dance.
Jamison would enter the venue. He was usually dressed in head-to-toe African garb with a matching crochet cap that fit as if it was knitted specifically for him to serve as the crown of his attire. He didn’t seem to try to make his entrances grand, but they were anyway. He moved through the space with poise, grace and the perfect posture of a dancer – which made him seem even taller than his 6 feet and 3 inches.
The moment he was recognized, a pandemonium of praise-filled greetings would commence. “Baba Theo! Baba Theo!” The endearing term for Jamison would echo from every direction the time he entered until he took his seat.
“He had this way of making everyone feel as if they were his best friend,” said renowned choreographer and fellow certified Dunham Technique instructor Vivian Anderson Watt.
He is known the world over as a master teacher of the technique that revolutionized black dance developed by his mentor and teacher. When Dunham’s body could no longer perform, he was a devoted vessel, demonstrating the technique she was committed to teaching until the very end of her life.
When she transitioned in 2006, he was one of the faithful disciples of Dunham that ensured her legacy was passed to a new generation of dancers.
“I said it this summer, and I meant it from the bottom of my heart – we didn’t deserve him. His light was too bright for us,” said Heather Himes, student of Dunham, choreographer and instructor in dance at University of Southern Indiana. Himes said that she could never give him exactly what she wanted, but she always tried.
‘This was literally our relationship since I was 7,” Himes said.
He was famously meticulous about every aspect of the Dunham technique, because for him it was more than mastering a series of movements.
“He didn’t just dance the dance,” Watt said. “He was a historian also.”
For Jamison, Dunham technique was a way for learners to uplift themselves and the culture through the movement and the people that inspired it.
“The first time that Theodore Jamison and I walked into that studio in 1975 and started training together, I had the greatest honor and respect for him,” Watt said. “You wanted to be his partner because he was a perfectionist. He was very passionate about his art.”
Jamison was a student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Theater and Fine Arts/Dance in 1977. He was trained by original members of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, Lucille Ellis, Tommy Gomez, Archie Savage, Lenwood Morris, Pearl Reynolds, Vanoye Aikens, Wilburt Bradley, Norman Davis and Lavinia Williams. He also served as Dunham’s demonstrator for more than 15 years.
“He was truly like a brother to me,” said dancer, choreographer and dance teacher Keith Tyrone Williams. “he’s a pillar of the Dunham legacy – an incredible choreographer with incredible archives of work that I think should continue to be shown to the world. He was a generous spirit, an incredible cook, and someone who really loved his community – and art in all expressions, not just dance,” “
He eventually held the position of program director for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville East St. Louis Center for the Performing Arts, formerly known as the Katherine Dunham Center for the Performing Arts.
Watt was a demonstrator for Jamison and laughed about how he would push their bodies to the limit. A combination they called “fall recover” was his favorite.
“It’s a demanding movement. You can only do it for 15 to 20 minutes, not an hour,” Watt said. “You would have to tell him, ‘Okay, Theo, enough. No more flat backs.’”
Jamison’s awards for contributions to the field of dance – black dance, in particular – were too many to list. Last year he was honored at the Lula Washington Dance Theatre’s 30th annual International Conference and Festival of Blacks in Dance. It was an honor he shared with fellow dance legend Debbie Allen.
“People focus on his dancing a whole lot as a master Dunham instructor and choreographer – and they should. But he also had one of the biggest hearts,” Watt said.
“He was a master teacher and a master human being. He would open his house, his resources and his technique to anyone who asked. Having known him for 46 years, I never saw him say no. He would feed someone when they were hungry and give the clothes of his back.”
Jamison is survived by a son, Shaunte Jamison, and a daughter, LaChonda Jamison.
Final services for Theodore Jamison will take place on Saturday, December 7 at Macedonia Baptist Church, 1400 East Broadway in East St. Louis. A viewing will take place at 10 a.m. with funeral services immediately following at 11 a.m.