Vicki Adams Willis receives Distinguished Alumni Award for Lifetime Achievement

Aug 27 2020

This year’s Distinguished Alumni Award, goes to Vicki Adams Willis, BFA’72, co-founder of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (DJD) for her extraordinary contribution to Calgary’s arts scene

DJD is filled with pride and congratulations for its Founder in Residence Vicki Adams Willis, who is receiving the UCalgary Alumni Association’s highest honour–the Distinguished Alumni Award for Lifetime Achievement. This award recognizes a graduate who, over the course of their life, has made a notable contribution that’s improved their professional and personal success, and enriched the lives of others through their leadership, shared knowledge, creativity and innovation.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with this announcement,” says Kimberley Cooper, Artistic Director of DJD. “Vicki has had an impact on thousands of people, from emerging to established dancers, choreographers, musicians, directors, and technicians, to dance teachers and students, and tens of thousands of fans. Her deep knowledge of and respect for the authentic roots of jazz combined with her curiosity and creative spirit in exploring the boundless future of jazz have made her a leading force in the art form in Canada and beyond.”

Vicki was born and raised in Calgary. Her mother Alice (Murdoch) Adams opened one of the first dance schools in the city of Calgary in the 1920s. Vicki began her formal studies with her aunt Jean (Murdoch) Simpson (Alice’s sister) when she was a very young girl.

Vicki’s initial studies focused primarily on ballet, but as a teenager, when she met her mentor Margot McDermott (nee Gooder) she became interested in jazz. Soon that interest grew into a passion and Vicki realized that her calling in life would have something to do with jazz. But little did Vicki know back in the days of her early teens that she would become a true leader in the world of jazz, an acclaimed ground-breaking choreographer who would found and nurture one of the most unique jazz dance companies in the world, and the key person to ensure that Calgary would be a viable centre for serious jazz artists.

Vicki graduated from the University of Calgary with a BFA in 1972 and, almost immediately, was offered a teaching post at the U of C within the Drama Program. In 1978 Vicki taught the first Jazz course at the U of C, an elective class that became so popular that she ended up developing four levels of jazz plus special summer programming. The U of C made an historic and bold step when it created the first and only Division of Jazz Dance in a Canadian University or College with Vicki as its founder and head. Vicki remained as the head of the Division until her resignation in 1989.

Vicki’s deep knowledge of jazz has come out of her intense curiosity about the roots of the art form. After studying and researching historic jazz dance forms and African-American vernacular dance styles, Vicki began her quest to find dance companies dedicated to the essence – the roots – of jazz. These companies were not to be found. So it happened that Vicki, together with former students Hannah Stilwell and Michèle Moss, co-founded Decidedly Jazz Danceworks’ professional company and dance school in 1984 on a part-time basis.  In 1989 Vicki gave up her tenured position at the U of C to dedicate 100% of her time to DJD.

DJD has developed a style that is culturally unique, critically acclaimed, and immensely popular with audiences. The “DJD style” captures the essence of jazz – the true form – not the commercial. DJD performs two mainstage shows a year, one always with live music, in Calgary, and has also performed across Canada, at Jazz Festivals, and has toured internationally. Vicki has created more than 35 original productions for DJD over the years.

DJD dancers are continuously seeking new information about the roots of jazz and always bring what they have learned back home to share with others. The DJD Dance School enrolls thousands of participants per year, between the ages of 2 and 82. The school is recreational (non-competitive) and one of the things Vicki enjoys more than anything is seeing a beginner dancer’s rapid growth and discovery as they start to discover the joy of dance.

Vicki believes that dance is a form of natural communication – within ourselves, with the gods, with nature, and with others. This belief is apparent in every class she teaches and every dance she choreographs. It is her mission to keep the roots of jazz dance alive and well and to share her love of dance with as many people as possible. Her legacy will be felt for generations to come through the hundreds of dancers and emerging choreographers she has nurtured and inspired over the years, many of whom have also gone on to become leaders in the dance sector in Calgary and beyond. Dancers and choreographers from around the world come to work and learn at DJD.

In 2016 DJD opened the spectacular $28.5M DJD Dance Centre and has become an even stronger force for jazz and dance in our city. Vicki currently holds the position of Founder in Residence with the company, focusing on teaching, mentoring, advising, and leading the Dancing Parkinson’s YYC program.

Vicki will receive the Distinguished Alumni Award at a virtual ceremony hosted by U of C on September 10.