The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) is Ohio’s oldest modern dance company. It’s mesmerized audiences both local and worldwide, and developed countless dance stars since 1968, and it wouldn’t have happened without the talent and passion of Jeraldyne Blunden.
Blunden devoted her life to dance education and performance and provided inspiration for generations of talent.
In the late 1940s, Blunden’s mother recognized her young daughter’s talent for dance but found it difficult to find training for African American children.
“Miss Josephine and Miss Hermene Schwarz (founders of the Dayton Ballet) recognized that this would be a very valuable and needed experience for African American children but incorporating them into their school at that time was not doable.,” said her daughter, Debbie Blunden-Diggs, the artistic director for the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, in a 2016 interview. “At that time we were really in a segregated state of mind around the nation.”
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The sisters agreed that if another location in the community could be found they would teach dance to Blunden and other children. “As a child she loved the creativity and the freedom of moving and being able to be in control of how you moved your body,” said Blunden-Diggs. “Within the discipline of training your body there is a freedom and she really loved that.”
The sisters recognized her talent and in the following years supported her career by assisting with access to study with the Dayton Ballet, the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the American Dance Theatre. She studied with dance greats Martha Graham, José Limón, George Balanchine and James Truitte.
At 19, she became director of the Linden Community Center founded by Josephine Schwarz. That role evolved into Jeraldyne’s School of Dance where she dedicated her talent to young children in the community. “She watched them experience something they might not have a chance to experience,” said Blunden-Diggs.
“She wanted to give dancers the opportunity to study good quality dance and she wanted to give this area the opportunity to see what good quality dance looked like, particularly African American dance,” said Blunden-Diggs.
She was known to be dedicated and devoted yet demanding of her dance company. A sign posted in the dance studio in her handwriting and signed ‘J.B.’ read, “This is not Burger King. You cannot have it your way.”
Sheri “Sparkle” Williams, a dancer with DCDC for more than 40 years, began taking dance classes at Jeraldyne’s School of Dance at age 9. As a child she recognized Blunden’s commitment to excellence. “She was always a real stickler for what she wanted. She was discipline oriented and nurturing at the same time,” she said. “Jeraldyne was always trying to pull the best from you.”
DCDC is among the best in American modern dance troupes. Blunden and her company have received international acclaim and performed around the world.
Blunden received numerous awards during her life including the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship Award in 1994.
She died of renal failure Nov. 22, 2000 at the age of 59.
“She was special because she was so human,” said Williams. “She was humble and gracious, real and talented and she wanted to share that with others and create an environment where artistry flourished and she did that.”
Blunden-Diggs said her mother’s vision exposed the community to a level of modern contemporary dance that most would not get a chance to experience. “Being able to contribute to the arts community and this art form, DCDC has their own place in history because of her.”
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HISTORY EXTRA is a weekly pictorial history feature showcasing the Miami Valley’s rich heritage. If you have a unique set of historic photos found in your parents’ or grandparents’ attic that depicts the past in the Miami Valley, contact Lisa Powell at 937-225-2229 or at Lisa.Powell@coxinc.com.