Read a Book, Find a Career
A chance encounter led Chris Walker to study dance and, now, head UW’s Division of the Arts.
Dance professor Chris Walker’s path to becoming director of the UW’s Division of the Arts was not traditional. As a young man, he hadn’t really thought of college but was a performer at the Jamaica Grande Hotel in Ocho Rios. There, a chance encounter with the book Dance: A Creative Art Experience inspired his life’s calling: he soon enrolled at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, then earned a BFA and MFA from the State University of New York at Brockport. In New York, another chance encounter aimed him toward Madison.
In 15 years at the UW, Walker has taught dance, dance history, and somatics; helped to found the First Wave hip-hop arts program; served as artistic director for the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives; and now takes the lead in a division charged with promoting arts engagement across campus and beyond.
What first inspired you to study dance?
I picked up a book that was written by Margaret H’Doubler [1910, MA1924], who, remarkably, is the founder of the dance program at the University of Wisconsin. I was waiting on some friends for a performance, and there was this cream-colored book on a coffee table. I picked it up, opened the book to the middle, which I always do, then just read the first paragraph my eyes landed on, and it was about dance as art practice. And I remember feeling immediately, “This is what I do. There’s a whole piece of literature on this.” So I started to leaf through. When our director arrived that evening, I asked him about these possibilities and he was just so matter of fact. “Yeah, go to the school of dance.”
It’s a long way from Ocho Rios to Madison. What brought you here?
Claudia Melrose [’65] and the Wisconsin Idea. The Wisconsin Idea demands that research must extend beyond this space. It must reach out to the people in the state that it’s meant for, or across the globe. I was at [SUNY] Brockport and this older, white woman walks into the theater — big hair, tall, strong — and she outdances everybody on the floor, not because she’s performing harder, but because she understood the interiority of the movement. In the moment, I felt like I was looking at an elder. [Later, she] calls, offering a job at UW–Madison for a year. This is the place where that book was published. When she invited me, my mind exploded. I had to come.
Before you became director of the Division of the Arts, what did you teach?
I taught a technique course that is rooted in understanding the process through which you learn to do movement safely and efficiently. It’s an application of a wide range of discoveries in techniques over the last, maybe, 200 years.
You helped develop First Wave. Do you keep up with those students?
I collaborate with alumni and spend a lot of time reading works of the alumni of our program: Danez Smith [’12], Erika Dickerson-Despenza [’15], Deshawn McKinney [’17]. When I have free time, I try to get caught up with what they’re publishing.
What are your goals for the division?
I want to reinforce the value that is the Wisconsin Idea. Because of what the Wisconsin Idea demands, your work may travel around the world and impact communities you would not even look at twice. When systems and organizations believe in that, then you have a Chris Walker in Jamaica picking up his book. That’s what the division is able to do.
Published in the Winter 2021 issue