Caught in Amber
To watch Amber Jackson dance is to watch breath in motion. Each movement seems to emerge from deep inside: her port de bras comes from her gut, and her extension starts with a ripple of her spine. One move is a sharp gasp and the next a soft sigh.
At 21, Amber has already had her share of job offers—among them apprenticeships with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Ailey II and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, plus a spot in The Lion King in Las Vegas. But she chose to pursue her education instead. Now a senior at the LINES/Dominican University BFA Program in San Francisco, CA, she doesn’t regret her choice to postpone professional life. “LINES has transformed me,” she says. “I knew after high school that I needed more training. Before, I just danced. Now, I’m dancing for a reason and I’m learning to dance to my fullest, inside and out.”
With graduation on the horizon, Amber has auditions on the brain. From concert companies to commercial work and musical theater (yes, she sings, too!), she wants to try it all. “I’m willing to go wherever life leads me,” she says. “But first I have to get through senior year!”
Track Star to Ballet Barre
Amber came to dance late—and reluctantly. A runner on the track team, she didn’t set foot in a dance studio until age 13, when her parents decided to send her to DeKalb School of the Arts instead of the public high school in her hometown, a suburb of Atlanta, GA. At DSA, each student studies two artforms; Amber chose dance and singing. Although at first she was disappointed not to be on a track team, Amber put her heart into her work. In addition to DSA, she enrolled at Ballethnic Academy of Dance, also near Atlanta. And, slowly but surely, her interest in dance grew. The first spark came after being on the lighting crew at school. “I enjoyed watching the dancers,” she says. “Their joy brought me joy and made me want to be a part of it.” Then, she saw her first professional dance company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “I was inspired,” she says. “I left without a doubt that dance was what I wanted to pursue.”
Once she fell for dance, there was no going back. “Those first two and a half years were intense because I was focused on training, training, training,” Amber says. Her background as an athlete gave her the drive to keep going: “I’m competitive. I’m driven to do the things I love, and do them well.”
The Next Step
Midway through high school, Amber transferred from Ballethnic to DanceMakers of Atlanta, both to study other dance forms and to compete. “Amber came to us a well-trained ballet dancer who didn’t know how to move yet,” says Denise Heard-Latimer, co-owner of DanceMakers. “We wanted to loosen her up.” Before long, Amber hit her stride. “She had a style that made her stand out,” Heard-Latimer says. “She could take steps that were given to everyone and make them look unique.”
That technique and movement quality served her well at competitions, including New York City Dance Alliance, where she won National Senior Outstanding Dancer in 2008. “Amber has a regality and elegance about her,” says NYCDA executive director Joe Lanteri. “You see it when you watch someone like Judith Jamison or Desmond Richardson—a particular presence. It’s effortless, it’s beautiful and it’s completely natural.”
Amber says Lanteri, who watched her develop over several years of competitions and intensives, “saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. NYCDA was a life-changing experience. These teachers—Joe Lanteri, Suzi Taylor—were on my case, and I realized, if they saw something in me, I shouldn’t waste it.”
Finding Her Voice
Amber started college at Point Park University in fall 2008, majoring in ballet. However, she was most interested in contemporary ballet and soon realized Point Park wasn’t the right place for her. In 2009, she did the summer intensive at LINES, and something clicked. “I became more aware of my body and I got in touch with my inner self,” she says. “The instructors pushed me to a new level.” At the end of the intensive, she was asked to join the BFA program as a sophomore.
LINES BFA program director Marina Hotchkiss saw in Amber, “a tremendously talented dancer who knows how to make an â€¨impact and create a lot of energy onstage.” One of the faculty’s goals for Amber has been for her to learn more nuance and subtlety—which Hotchkiss sees happening more all the time. “Amber’s a sponge,” she says. “It’s been beautiful to see her evolution.”
Even after finding the right training environment, Amber had ups and downs as a college student. The Lion King offer was a tempting chance at professional life. “That was really hard to turn down,” she says. And her junior year brought a long and demoralizing battle with plantar fasciitis, inflammation of the tissue on the bottom of the foot. “I got so down on myself because I couldn’t dance,” she says.
But with classmates by her side and faculty supporting her, Amber has worked through the rough patches, emerging with her love for dance intact. This past summer, she returned to the studio and the stage, even performing in a duet choreographed by Ailey II Associate Artistic Director Troy Powell at a showcase in New York in June.
Looking ahead, Amber is eager for the challenges that this year will bring—among them, the chance to work more with Alonzo King, who conducts a weeklong intensive for seniors. She has goals for herself, especially regarding her artistry. “My artistry is still not where it should be,” she says. “I’m trying to stay in tune with myself physically, emotionally and spiritually. I used to focus on one element at a time and play catch-up with the others. Now I want to grow everything as one; I know it will affect my dancing in a big way. I’ll be connected to my movement, to my art. I know there’s more I can give.”
Full Name: Amber Tiara Jackson
Birthdate: July 24, 1990
Favorite Color: Black. “Everyone thinks I’m emo, but I just like the color!”
Favorite Food: “My grandmother’s stuffing.”
Non-Dance Talent: Singing. Though Amber gave it up for a while to focus on dance, she’s recently gotten back into the groove—even working with a producer in a recording studio while at LINES.
Most Memorable Dance Moment: “Being named Senior Outstanding Dancer at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals. I didn’t expect it at all—I couldn’t even smile when they called my name because I was so shocked.”
Dream Choreographer: Desmond Richardson. “I got to work with him a little at the audition for Complexions. He helped me with some partnering—I was starstruck.”
“So You Think You Can Dance” Spotting: Amber made it to the “Green Mile” on “SYTYCD” Season 6. Her dancing was consistently praised, but judge Nigel Lythgoe strongly criticized her performance quality. “That experience taught me that technique can only take me so far,” she says. “I realized I dance inward; I thought my emotion was reaching the audience, but it wasn’t. It was â€¨a valuable lesson.”
Advice for DS Readers: “Don’t limit yourself. Life is amazing, and you never know what it will bring.”
The LINES/Dominican University BFA helps dancers hone their classical technique while pursuing a comprehensive liberal arts education.
Starting in their junior year (freshmen and sophomores follow a different schedule), students spend the first half of each day in dance class and rehearsal and the second half on academics. The dance curriculum is ballet-based, complemented by training in modern and ethnic dance forms, composition and improvisation. Students also study dance history, anatomy and kinesiology, music and choreography. They perform work by guest artists, faculty and fellow students, as well as LINES repertory. King himself also teaches various classes throughout the semester.
Part of what sets the program apart is its philosophy. “Our emphasis on individual creativity comes from Alonzo, from the way he works with the company,” says BFA program director and former LINES principal dancer Marina Hotchkiss. “He believes art is within the artist; it just has to be nurtured and given space to emerge, and tools to flourish.”
For more: linesballet.org/bfa