The Big Red Dance Project artistic director and former ADF dean has spent more than four decades traveling the globe as a dance ambassador and made lasting impact through teaching
By Ellison Beaver | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Gerri Houlihan “is a force in our educational programs,” says Jodee Nimerichter, executive director at American Dance Festival, where Gerri has shared the joy of movement with dancers and educators alike for the past 40 years. Jodee describes Gerri as a most esteemed teacher who has made a lasting impact on her students in the Durham community and beyond.
Born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Gerri attended The Juilliard School and danced with The Metropolitan Opera, among other companies. “I have found that a career in dance has continued to provide new and surprising rewards,” Gerri says. “I believe the body has the ability to reveal things that often can’t be said in words.” She moved back to Florida from New York City to teach at the New World School of the Arts and run her own dance company for eight years. She also taught at Florida State University where she was named the Pearl S. Tyner Distinguished Professor in Teaching and is now professor emerita.
After traveling to and from Durham to teach at ADF since the early ’80s, Gerri made a permanent move in 2015 after witnessing the city’s growth over the past few decades. “When it was time to retire, I had made a number of really important friendships here and [had] the connection with ADF, so it seemed like the logical place to be,” she says. Today she is part of a book club and studies tai chi in her home in Colony Hill, and spends her free time attending screenings and shows at the Chelsea Theatre and Durham Performing Arts Center. The opportunities Durham provides “have made it a place where I feel like I can really stay connected,” she says.
Gerri – who was an instructor, co-dean and then dean at ADF’s school – found her happy place in teaching a modern dance class for beginners and an intermediate-to-advanced modern dance class to adults two days a week at Samuel H. Scripps Studios. These dance groups “evolved because I saw older dancers in the studio moving so beautifully and with such grace and such elegance and such love for dancing,” Gerri says. “I thought, ‘Oh, somebody needs to do something with this.'” She is also the artistic director of the multi-generational company Big Red Dance Project, which recently shared excerpts from two pieces in progress at Scripps Studio and will lead a professional workshop for dance educators this summer from June 25 through July 1.
“Gerri is incredibly charismatic and ready to offer a palette of delicious movement and is encouraging beyond words,” Jodee says. “She goes beyond just the teaching of dance and learns everyone’s name in the studio.”
Gerri’s commitment to sharing her knowledge and fostering community extends far beyond Durham – she’s completed 17 international residencies as an ADF ambassador in countries including Mongolia, Paraguay and China, and is immediately loved wherever she dances. She relishes working with international choreographers, as many often come to study at ADF for a few weeks as well. “They take classes and are invited to share a piece of their own choreography,” she says. “It’s wonderful just to see all the different influences and to introduce them to what’s happening here,” she says.
The best piece of advice she ever received was to “be open to all opportunities that present themselves,” she says. “You never know when something will be available, even if it’s not on your radar.” She fondly reflects on that mantra paying off in 2005 when she received ADF’s Balasaraswati/Joy Anne Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching award. “The people who have received this teaching award are people who I studied in history books, you know?” Gerri says. “I was completely floored.”
American Dance Festival celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, with a presentation of 23 renowned local and international choreographers and companies such as Paul Taylor Dance Company and Pilobolus. The performances run from June to August and “will showcase the breadth and diversity of modern dance,” Jodee says.
In fact, this milestone season will be dedicated to Gerri for the extraordinary impact she’s had on the festival. “She has traveled the globe for ADF, and now we are so fortunate that Durham is her home and that she can provide dance opportunities for our community yearround,” Jodee says. ADF will establish the Gerri Houlihan Scholarship Fund in her honor, to carry on Gerri’s legacy of joyous devotion to dance for years to come.