Reed College is home to the only baccalaureate-granting dance program in Portland. Recent turnover in Reed’s dance faculty — the retirement of half-time Visiting Associate Professor Minh Tran and hiring of full-time Assistant Professor Oluyinka Akinjiola in 2022 — has stirred up curiosities about this small, but resilient, department’s future. Akinjiola and Tran both spoke with me about this transitional period in the Dance Department, chronicling some of their joys and concerns as dance educators in the process. I also spoke with Associate Professor Victoria Fortuna and Department Chair Carla Mann about the implications of Akinjiola’s hiring, both for Reed and the field of higher dance education.
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In tracing their stories here, certain parallels began to emerge between Akinjiola and Tran. Both assumed vital culture-bearing roles in the regional arts ecosystem prior to work at Reed — Akinjiola with specialization in African Diasporic Dance traditions and Tran with training in classical Vietnamese opera and a focus on dance traditions of Southeast Asia. Both entered Reed after founding non-profit dance companies on their own. Tran founded Minh Tran & Company in 1997, and Akinjiola founded Rejoice! Diaspora Dance in 2014. Once hired, both were given free rehearsal space for their companies to incubate their artistic work at Reed. Taken together, their trajectories illustrate how Reed’s Dance Department has historically filled an essential culture-bearing role on campus.
When I asked Tran why he decided to make Oregon his long-term homebase, he responded with stories of his dance education in Portland and the greater Pacific Northwest. These experiences laid a firm foundation for his own dance career to flourish in the region.
Tran’s interest in the performing arts took root during his childhood in Vietnam, where he studied at the National School of Fine and Performing Arts in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). He fled his home country as a teenager during the Vietnam War and was sponsored to come to Portland as a political refugee in 1980. Tran began taking elective dance classes as a student at Portland State University, where his prowess garnered attention, and was eventually hired by The Company We Keep, a professional dance company, now defunct, that was in residence at the University. He continued dancing and became the first of his family’s generation to go to graduate school, receiving an MFA in Dance from University of Washington. He returned to Portland for a commission with White Bird that debuted in 2003. Tran blossomed in a time when resources for dancers were more abundant regionally and nationally. At the height of his career, he was offered what he described as a “killer job” at Reed: a funded half-time position with full benefits, which he began in 2008.
Tran’s job at Reed came with its share of difficulties, triumphs, and transformations. He described his early time at Reed teaching on a court, bombarded by the sounds of basketballs thundering into a nearby wall partition. He laughingly mentioned feeling like “the token person of color” when promoting the Dance program as the college fundraised for its Performing Arts Building, completed in 2013. However, he also spoke fondly of former College President, Colin S. Diver, who pushed the dream of this building, with its beautiful dance studios, into fruition despite the impacts of the economic recession.
Tran’s legacy included assisting in the addition of a Dance Major to the department and overseeing a grant that funded residencies for six acclaimed choreographers of color and their companies: Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar/Urban Bush Women, Ronald K Brown / EVIDENCE, Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, and Rosie Herrara/Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre. His contributions to the college over 14 years on faculty cannot be overstated.
Reed’s Dance Department is run by two full-time and one half-time faculty members, notably fewer than other regional dance programs such as Western Oregon University in Monmouth and University of Oregon in Eugene. The advent of 2022 ushered a series of changes to Reed’s dance faculty structure, and, though the machinations of these changes are difficult to describe eloquently, their import is monumental.
To cut a long story short, at the end of the 2022 spring semester, Tran retired to spend more time with his partner, and Professor Mann, a veteran faculty member since 1995, opted to move into his half-time position. These personnel shifts opened up a full-time tenure-track position in the Dance Department. At the time, Akinjiola was no stranger to Reed, having worked there from 2017-18 in a temporary position as a Visiting Professor of Dance. She ventured to apply for the job, and the rest is history.
Upon asking Akinjiola how the first semester in her new role at Reed has been going, she replied, “It’s wonderful. I feel like I can breathe.”
Our conversation traced the joyful aspects of her present situation — such as ample administrative support and deeper dives into pedagogy with her students, whom she described as “thoughtful and driven and determined” — while also holding space for the nuance of her dreams.
The choice to move into long-term work at Reed was more difficult than it might seem for Akinjiola. As we spoke, I learned of her heartfelt work with students in Portland Public Schools (PPS) during the years prior, which blossomed with the reopening of Harriet Tubman Middle School in 2018.
“Black Portlanders opened up that school in the 80s, and I wanted to be part of that reopening, that transition, that welcome home.” she recalled. She was brought on and developed a performance-driven West African and African Diasporic program for both Tubman and Faubion K-8 schools, which fit the demographics of Black and Brown students, alongside Dance/Drum teacher Derrell Sekou Soumah Walker. This allowed Akinjiola, a transplant from New York, to build deeper connections with the long-standing Black families in Portland.
“Portland has this really rich, often unseen population of Black community that is just so full of talent and artistry,” Akinjiola underscored, adding, “It just felt like the right place at the right time.” But the onset of COVID and the birth of her second child prompted a move away from rigorous work between Tubman and Faubion, where she had been teaching six classes a day. She transitioned into a position at Jefferson High School, home to the Jefferson Dancers, a multi-ethnic company of advanced dance students, ages 14-18.
Akinjiola explained that her work in PPS was some of the most rewarding, but also hardest, work of her life. “The disparity of experiences of Black students in this city is profound,” she said with gravity. “It’s absolutely profound, and I don’t know what is being done to level the playing field, and I don’t know how it’s truly going to be addressed.
“It’s hard not to be absorbed by it,” she added.
The tenure-track opening at Reed surprised Akinjiola as she was in the midst of her efforts at Jefferson. After going in for the job and receiving an offer, she weighed the decision to change course with much gravity and ultimately decided to accept the role.
“Being at Reed allows me to step out of PPS, the heaviness of the situation and then figure out where I can support from outside of the system,” she affirmed. She also expressed dreams of connecting the local communities she has already worked with to the institution where she finds herself now, noting that “not everyone wants to leave Portland.” Perhaps more young folks would be apt to consider Reed as an option for college, leading to more representation of local Black and Brown dancers there.
“When I talked with the President of the college and other administrators, my desires and work in the Portland community really piqued their interest,” remembered Akinjiola, “because they recognize that Reed serves a population of wealthy white students, and it impacts how they’re perceived in the community. And there needs to be some repair in the relationship and addressing of, what is Reed’s relationship to the Black community?” As of 2022, Reed’s first year student demographics reflected only 5% Black students.
“Dance serves a really important role in the Portland community, especially in these Black schools,” Akinjiola pointed out. She emphasized that dance can also function as a conduit to higher education — a truth exemplified by Minh’s trajectory toward graduate study in dance.
When I caught up with Professor Fortuna, who is on sabbatical, she drove home the significance of Akinjiola’s new role at Reed. She pointed out that Akinjiola had stepped into a full-time role in a tiny department. Here, her expertise in African Diasporic Dance traditions would inevitably expand the scope of the department’s curriculum in that direction.
“When you have so few tenure-track positions, the focus that someone brings in one of those positions is just so critical. So having someone that can represent and share and train students in African Diasporic traditions is just so huge and helps move our department forward and helps us participate in a broader field-wide questioning of higher education’s focus on the Western Euro-American Dance tradition.”
Fortuna also pointed out that Reed’s Dance Department is not based on the conservatory model, where training is geared specifically toward professional dancing. “The conservatory model is great and works really well for certain dancers. But I think it can often come with a limited conception of dance,” Fortuna said. She hopes that Reed’s Dance Department will offer students a variety of pathways for students hoping to “blend critical inquiry with creation.”
Akinjiola brings this multifaceted approach to her influential position at Reed — modeling a praxis that necessitates both rigorous embodied research and training as well as community engagement.
For instance, early this month, I received an email newsletter from Rejoice! Diaspora Dance with a note from Akinjiola about her recent visit to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, also known as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. “These shores were the first sights and experiences of Africans after the Middle Passage,” Akinjiola wrote. “I learned many definitions for ‘Gullah Geechee’ along the corridor, but what is most potent is the survival of language, connection to ancestors, and connection to land.”
By following Rejoice! Dance Diaspora on social media over the past month, I learned about some of the sites Akinjiola visited on this trip and caught wind of her company’s recent film premiere, which hooks into themes of loss and connection. All this reminded me that African Diasporic Dance traditions undergird so much of whitewashed Euro-America concert dance.
When I spoke with Mann, I learned more about the students in Reed’s Dance Department, their interests and passions. “My students are very interested in social justice. They’re interested in equity.” said Mann. “They’re interested in the intersections of dance and politics.”
“When I think about the future of the department, I always think about the students…not just the students I have now, but the students of the future,” she shared, “I feel like they are the people who will both inherit and shape the world. And, somehow, I need to do my best to prepare them to do that, without knowing what that future is.”
This preparation for an uncertain future merits a multifaceted approach such as Akinjiola’s — one that deepens the college’s historic conception of the life of the mind to include lineages of intelligence contained in bodies. “The body is part of your mind,” mused Mann during our conversation. “It is not only reading and writing and speaking through which knowledge is discovered, conveyed, learned.” With Akinjiola’s appointment, Reed’s Dance Department is poised to shape social movements of the future by tapping into lineages of embodied intelligence — a kind of knowledge that written and spoken word alone cannot fully encompass. She carries forward Tran’s legacy of vital culture-bearing work at the college toward an exciting, albeit mysterious, time to come.
I was a student at Reed in the 1970s and remember the floor of that basketball court — I had some wonderful experiences on it, but was glad to see the school make a commitment to the art form with their new studio facility. One of the virtues of a small program is the chance it gives students to practice a wide variety of skills — we took class and learned dances, yes, but we also made that basketball court into a theater on a regular basis to present our own work. Those production skills helped me earn a living in the arts all these years, and I’m grateful for the expertise.