Art as advocacy: ASU grad builds bridges of connection through dance

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Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

Julia Chacón is graduating from Arizona State University in May with an MFA in dance and an MA in creative enterprise and cultural leadership, and beginning her requirements as a doctoral candidate in the Theatre and Performance of the Americas program. 

It’s a lot to balance, but Chacón said she always tries to take advantage of all the opportunities that come her way. 

As an undergraduate student at University of New Mexico, she didn’t intend to study dance in college. She took classes to stay in shape and to keep dancing, then received a dance scholarship on top of an academic scholarship. 

“The doors kept opening for me,” said Chacón. “Then it was just very natural, the progression into working with companies.”

After touring for 12 years as a flamenco artist, living in Spain and performing with companies based in Madrid, Seville, New York and Tampa, Chacón decided it was time to pursue her other goals. 

“Dance has been my career, but I’ve always had a goal to teach at a university,” she said. “My undergraduate professors had a long-lasting impact on my career, and that's something that I would really like to do for younger dancers and for young adults.”

In order to do that, she needed to further her education. 

“I had always intended to come back to grad school, but my touring ended up lasting longer than I thought,’” she said. “It just was the right time.”

Born in New Mexico – where her dad's from – and raised in Phoenix, Chacón often traveled back and forth between the two states with her family. Having grown up in Arizona, she said she knew lots of people who had attended ASU and was always really curious about the program. She said the deciding factor was when she came to tour the facilities and met Becky Dyer, associate professor of dance and somatics. 

“[Dyer] was so supportive and warm,” said Chacón, “and she really made me feel like there could be a place for me to pursue my master's degree here.”

Chacón followed that instinct and continues to accept opportunities that come her way. 

“The creative enterprise and cultural leadership program was something I discovered in the course of my MFA,” she said. “It sounded like such a wonderful and interesting program. It really examines the intersection of the arts and entrepreneurship and civic practice, and that intersection is a place where I love to work. I’ve worked with city and municipal governments as a volunteer, so that was super interesting to me. And then as a company director and someone who's danced for so long and had my own classes, I am also an entrepreneur. The topics covered were really relevant for me. Since I could do the two concurrent degrees, I just decided to go for it.”

And then she chose to tackle her PhD. 

When Tamara Underiner told her that the Theatre for Performance of the Americas program only accepts students every other year, Chacón decided to apply and was accepted. Underiner is the associate dean for professional development and engagement in ASU’s Graduate College and associate professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, where she serves as the founding director of the PhD program in Theatre and Performance of the Americas. Chacón said all of the ASU faculty members have been so supportive throughout her journey.

“Julia has been a force both within the community and the university,” said Naomi Jackson, professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “She is an artist/scholar who is passionately committed to making the arts accessible to the broader public and bringing recognition to Latinx experiences.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My “aha” moment in dance happened when I was very young. I loved dance, and I studied ballet but also had to take other classes, so I decided to take Spanish dance. One day my mom was late to pick me up, and I went back inside to wait. And there was a private lesson happening after my class, and it was this gorgeous dancer, just this beautiful woman — so expressive and so powerful. She said so much with her body. I was transfixed.

After she was done dancing, my teacher started giving her corrections, but she didn't talk directly to the dancer; she was talking to someone who was sitting behind me in the lobby. When I turned around and looked behind me, it was this young woman's mother and grandmother. They were signing the corrections to her, because she was deaf. ... She spoke so much with her body. I just felt this shift in the universe, and Spanish dance kind of stole my heart. It was a very powerful moment in my life. It was like after that moment, everything just aligned.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: One thing that I have learned at ASU is to use my art as advocacy. Dance in higher education has really focused around modern dance and ballet derivatives. So practicing a progressive art form, I didn't have much access to studio space, because percussive dance couldn't be performed on the stages. I was really fortunate that I'm on the season programming of Scottsdale Center for the Arts, but I realized that for other percussive dancers that might come in or be accepted to the program, that might really be inhibiting for them. So for me, it raised issues of access. I worked to advocate for other dancers who might come in, who might need that space, and not have the voice or the self-confidence to try to advocate for themselves. Students should have equal access and be able to share their art. Having the opportunity to use what I do to advocate for future students was a huge lesson for me.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: One of the greatest things that has happened during my time here was last semester. I was in class with just four other students. The class was “Purpose, Collaboration and Accountability” with Michael Rohd and Maria Rosario Jackson. While we were in class with her, (President Joe) Biden selected her as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. So being in class with her as that was unfolding and getting to hear from her, and being adjacent to her as she was going through that experience was incredible. It was really wonderful. The fact that things like that happen at ASU is fantastic. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Branch out! See what else is out there. Don’t only stay in your program, because ASU is such an incredible place. It is so vast, and there are so many opportunities. My biggest piece of advice would be to take electives outside of your department. Reach far and and reach high and find what inspires you, because you don't know where that's going to take you. ASU is such an incredible resource, and the network that's here is phenomenal.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After I finish my doctorate, I plan on applying to teaching positions at universities. I do want to stay in Arizona because my family's here. I feel like these degrees are really preparing me to work in civic practice as well as to work at a university. I will also continue to have my company and my classes. 

Q: Did you receive any scholarships while at ASU, and if so, which ones? What did it mean to you to be able to receive this funding?

A: I had so much help, and it meant the world to me as a dancer. I am very wealthy in joy and in experience and in my life's work, but it is not the most lucrative career financially. Having the support from ASU and the fellowships and the scholarships really helped. I had all of these little scholarships that were $200 here, and $600 there, and I also received the Graduate Dance Fellowship, which was tremendously helpful. I was also granted the TA support every semester, so that made it possible for me to pursue these degrees. All that support means a better future and a better, more prepared career path.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would solve health care, particularly for the mentally ill. This is something that I feel is a problem that plagues our society in so many ways, because it can often lead to self-medication, which leads to a lot of the substance abuse, which leads to a great deal of homelessness and petty crimes. I feel like a more robust mental health program would benefit society in innumerable ways.

Lacy Chaffee
lhalm@asu.edu

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