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Rising to the Occasion
A Faculty Member and Alumna Takes Her Dance Career to New Heights
By Kate Beard Miller
Kiesha Lalama-White (COPA 1995) is fast-becoming a familiar name in the dance world. She is living her dream and all the while balancing the needs of her family. Rather early in her career as a choreographer and dance educator, she has been recognized in Dance Magazine's "25 to watch in 2009," commissioned to choreograph works for the Houston Met and Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and even choreographed a dance scene in Paramount's remake of Sorority Row which is due in theaters this October. Lalama-White has accomplished all of this from her Pittsburgh roots with family as her number one priority.
"It's taken me years to realize that I'm only truly going to be happy as a mother and as a wife if I'm happy in my life and my life is choreography and dance. So that's how I find the balance," said Lalama-White, who is also working on a master's degree in interdisciplinary arts at Goddard College.
At seven years old, Lalama-White had a good sense for putting movement to music. She simply could not accept a section of mismatched movements in a gymnastics floor routine and promptly let her instructor know that the choreography didn't feel right. Perhaps this was the first moment that defined her as an artist.
Though Lalama-White didn't begin studying dance until the age of 16, her athleticism as a gymnast was a natural advantage considering most dance students at that age can have as many as 10 years in training. Lalama-White's ability caught the attention of her instructors and it wasn't long before she was competing in dance competitions across the nation.
She was awarded a scholarship to attend Slippery Rock University where she majored in dance and also participated on the track team. After a halting injury to her knee as a result of throwing discus, Lalama-White returned home to recuperate from surgery. She took some time off from her education to continue in competitions and met dance coach Kim Leheny (COPA 1990) who encouraged her to continue her studies at Point Park University. Lalama-White enrolled shortly thereafter and knew she had found her home within the first week of classes.
After graduation, Lalama-White opened Shout School of Performing Arts in Monaca, Pa and managed a successful business there for 10 years. When an opportunity became available to return to Point Park as a faculty member in the Conservatory of Performing Arts, Lalama-White was faced with the difficult choice of closing her flourishing studio for the opportunity to work with dance students, who much like herself, had aspirations for a career in dance.
Lalama-White attributes many of her successes and opportunities in dance to her education and contacts at Point Park. Marlana Walsh (COPA '01), managing director for the Houston Met, commissioned Lalama-White to choreograph Jolt in 2005. Lalama-White will be returning to choreograph a new work for the Houston Met this year. Katie Shenot (COPA '03), director of casting at Nancy Mosser Casting, contacted Lalama-White about the choreography opportunity with Sorority Row.
"It was kind of surreal, because I've always wanted to do that," Lalama-White said. As choreographer for the film, Lalama-White was able to select six Point Park dance majors to be extras in the dance scene.
Another Point Park connection for Lalama-White is her husband, Roy White (BUS 1993), whom she met as a student at the University. They have two sons Jake, age 10, and Jax, age 8, and Lalama-White often includes her family in the creative process.
"They know that my energy is different when I'm creating and they can feel that energy. They're a huge part of it," said Lalama-White. She includes a theme step from her children in every piece she choreographs and asks for their input in music selection.
Lalama-White is modest about her success, expressing gratitude while avoiding any air of superiority. It almost seems as if she chooses to not dwell on this success and instead continues to be inspired to create and motivate
"What's rewarding for me is to see the students go on to get professional jobs and to find their own happiness. My reward is having a full-time job at this University. I love it. I think I'm bleeding green and gold at this point. There is no other reward quite like that."
She recently choreographed a full-length show, The Bench, to be performed at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in December. The show follows a man and woman as they journey through life, celebrating the love and support of family. The show is a collaboration with cousins David Lalama, a New York City-based composer, and Ralph Lalama, a Grammy Award-winning saxophonist.
Lalama-White's latest accomplishment is a work titled Rise, which she performed with fellow alums and one student for a gala at the Grier School, in Trenton, Pa. The performance was organized by Jocelyn Labriola Hrzic (COPA 1994), artistic director for the Grier Summer Program.
"It's all about how it's time to move on, to stand up. A lot of dancers are stuck right now, trying to find jobs and I want them to know that they will. Never give up. Rise up to the occasion. Stand up for yourself and move on."