GREENSBORO - She still looks like a professional dancer, with her tall, slender frame curled up in a cozy chair.
But Jan Van Dyke rests more these days, weary from her 21/2-year battle with incurable primary peritoneal cancer and the debilitating effects of chemotherapy.
“I have been in chemotherapy for what seems like a long time, just changing from one drug to the next drug to next drug, when their strength and influence in my body have worn out,” Van Dyke says.
When doctors suggested trying another drug to fight the cancer in the lining of her abdominal cavity, Van Dyke decided that she’d had enough.
She has discontinued chemotherapy and receives hospice care at home.
“I wanted to have my hair again, such as it is,” she adds with a slight laugh, running her hand through her cropped hair. “And I wanted to be more like my old self.”
Van Dyke is as passionate as ever when she talks about modern dance, an American form of theatrical and concert dance that uses the entire body in movements that express abstract ideas.
She has made it her profession for 52 of her 74 years, as a performer, teacher, choreographer and artistic director.
Van Dyke taught dance at UNC-Greensboro for 23 years — five as department chair — influencing generations of up-and-coming dancers.
She leads the nonprofit Dance Project, based in the downtown Greensboro Cultural Center.
It runs the annual N.C. Dance Festival, the professional Van Dyke Dance Group and the Dance Project at City Arts, the latter offering classes in several styles for ages ranging from children to adult professional dancers.
Van Dyke remains a fervent advocate of creating opportunities for professional modern dancers to teach and perform in North Carolina, so they don’t have to leave for major cities to earn a living.
Through her efforts, four choreographers from the N.C. Dance Festival will stage their work for the fourth summer at the American Dance Festival in Durham.
“She has been an ambassador for modern dance in Greensboro and across the state,” said Anne Morris, Dance Project’s program director and a former Van Dyke student at UNCG.
Van Dyke’s accomplishments have earned her a list of honors:
A Fulbright fellowship in Lisbon, Portugal.
The Dance Teacher Award for Higher Education from Dance Teacher magazine.
The Betty Cone Medal of Arts from ArtsGreensboro.
UNCG’s Gladys Strawn Bullard Award for service and leadership.
The N.C. Dance Alliance honored her for contributions to the development of dance.
“Without her vision and initiative, Greensboro’s dance scene would be far less vibrant,” said Susan Stinson, a retired UNCG dance professor.
As Van Dyke contemplates her career, “I feel like I have tried to do things that not many other people have tried to do,” she said. “It has been hard to gauge whether I feel successful or not.
“In terms of my own pleasure and enjoyment, I have had a really good life,” she added. “I love to teach, and I love making dances.”
Although she retired from UNCG after her cancer diagnosis in 2012 and no longer dances, Van Dyke continues to bring dance to the stage.
She guided the Van Dyke Dance Group last week at rehearsals for the N.C. Dance Festival, an annual showcase of choreographers and dancers from across the state. This fall, it will bring performances to Greensboro, Raleigh and Boone.
Van Dyke founded the festival in 1991 with another UNCG dance professor, John Gamble. Her group will perform two pieces she has choreographed.
She spends much time at the Westerwood home that she shares with Jerry Varner, a retired research engineer and her husband of nine years.
She recently wrote a chapter for a book on gender in dance.
Modern dance is traditionally a female profession, founded primarily by women. Yet men now choreograph most performances in New York City, Van Dyke noted.
Although jobs are still difficult to find for both female and male dancers, Van Dyke said she believes that men with equal skills, education and talent have an easier time finding work than women.
She attributes that to a culture that views men more authoritatively.
“I grew up wanting to be a dancer, and realizing that men are given special treatment and encouragement because you want them in the field,” she said.
But she has also seen gains for women — and for modern dance — over the past few decades, thanks in part to the women’s movement and social consciousness.
She has noticed more college dance programs and dance studios.
“Just drive down Battleground Avenue and you can see two or three studios that have opened their doors,” she said.
She also credits increasing audience interest in part to “So You Think You Can Dance,” the competition show on the Fox television network.
“It has made people much more aware of dance, that dance is an aspiration that is respectable and something that both men and women go for,” Van Dyke said.
Van Dyke grew up wanting to be a dancer.
“It seemed fun and beautiful and fulfilling and creative artistically,” she said. “It seemed like everything I would want to be.”
Born in Washington, Van Dyke spent her young years with her parents and two younger brothers in Germany, when her father’s job with the State Department took them there.
She returned to northern Virginia for high school, and took lessons at a local dance studio and the Washington School of Ballet.
She left for college at the University of Wisconsin, one of few schools that offered a degree in dance at that time. She followed that with a master’s in dance education from George Washington University.
She trained with luminaries in modern dance, including Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham.
While in Washington, she founded a dance company and performance space with Gamble, to whom she was briefly married at the time.
She started the Dance Project there.
She came to UNCG as a doctoral student in 1986.
“When I graduated from college, I decided that I really didn’t want to live in New York,” she said. “That was the only option in those days, to live in New York or not dance in a professional way. I tried at first in Washington, and now in Greensboro to set up a professional infrastructure.
“You have to have opportunity to show your work, in order to have your work gain a reputation,” she added. “And dancers need an opportunity to perform to have their skills develop.”
Her dancers remain grateful.
“I’ve had many of her former students tell me what a great model Jan was as a teacher, that her teaching style and the feeling of her class has really stuck with them,” Morris said. “Some even say that her choreography class has been a huge influence on how they teach choreography or make dances themselves.”
Kelly Swindell was a UNCG student in 1986 when she first saw Van Dyke dance.
“It changed my perspective on what a dancer is,” Swindell said. “I was ballet-trained, and it opened an opportunity to see that there is more to dance than ballet.”
Swindell minored in dance at UNCG. She now works full time as assistant brand manager at Biscuitville, while still performing with the Van Dyke Dance Group.
Although Van Dyke’s choreography is technical and challenging, it also shows simplicity and beauty, Swindell said.
“She has given me a career,” she said.
Van Dyke will ensure that opportunities for dancers continue.
The Dance Project will go on. Its board plans for a transition in leadership, Morris said.
Van Dyke has long sought an appropriate local venue in which to present dance to smaller audiences — a space now missing from the local arts scene.
She has given $1 million to create a new performance space in the Greensboro Cultural Center, home to visual and performing arts groups.
The money will expand an existing rehearsal room in the city-owned cultural center, creating a 7,500-square-foot space with movable seating for 200 to 400 patrons, and an adaptable stage to accommodate dance, theater, music and other events. It is expected to be ready in spring 2016.
Van Dyke inherited the money a few years ago when her father died.
“I suddenly had this money and I had this diagnosis and I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” she said.
She gave the money to ArtsGreensboro, the arts marketing and fundraising organization located in the cultural center. ArtsGreensboro will coordinate the project with the city.
ArtsGreensboro President Tom Philion called the new performance space “a game changer.”
“It will add another huge dimension to what this building can do,” Philion said.
They will name it the Van Dyke Performance Space.