Students from North Portland’s Jefferson High School made history earlier this month when two of them won choreography awards at the National High School Dance Festival. It was the first time any school won top honors for two different pieces.
“We were all just screaming and happy and just thrilled,” said Steve Gonzales, who is in his 24th year as artistic director for the Jefferson Dancers. “We were all so incredibly happy and proud … it was pretty fantastic”
John Kearney, a dancer and choreographer for the Jefferson Dancers and a senior at Jefferson High School, won the top choreography prize. His piece, “You’ll Be Happy,” took inspiration from the dark time he and his family went through during the pandemic.
“It was probably I’d say the hardest time of my life,” said Kearney. “For a while it seemed like that’s how things would stay forever. And eventually we all got to a point where we were finally ready and able to heal and start being happy again. And my piece, ‘You’ll Be Happy,’ has sort of been a vehicle for all of that accumulated frustration and sadness.”
Kearney started dancing with the Jefferson Dancers during his freshman year, but lost his connection to dance during the COVID lockdown.
“The biggest thing for me about dancing was connecting with people in a room face to face and having a great time with them. And that just wasn’t what I got from the online Google Meetups,” said Kearney. “It was something I didn’t realize was taking a huge toll on my mental health and my physical well-being until I started dancing again my junior year.”
Kearney and the other members of the Jefferson Dancers rehearse as much as three hours every day, in addition to taking classes in different aspects of dance. But Kearney says it’s been worth every moment.
“It is all so valuable, and it’s stuff you get to take with you wherever you go, whether you are going to commit to being a dancer for the rest of your life … but also, even if you don’t want to be a dancer, you take the discipline and the commitment with you,” he said. “We’ve had so many different people come out of this program that are so refined and so professional because of the strengths they’ve gained from this program.”
The Jefferson Dancers will perform April 20-22 at Portland’s Newmark Theater.