Think Out Loud

Jefferson High School dancers win national award

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
March 15, 2023 8:01 p.m. Updated: March 29, 2023 10:58 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Mar. 22

Students from North Portland’s Jefferson High School made history earlier this month. Two members of the Jefferson Dancers won awards for choreography at the National High School Dance Festival.

Students from North Portland’s Jefferson High School made history earlier this month. Two members of the Jefferson Dancers won awards for choreography at the National High School Dance Festival.

Courtesy of Jefferson High School


Students from North Portland’s Jefferson High School made history earlier this month. Two members of the Jefferson Dancers won awards for choreography at the National High School Dance Festival. It was the first time any school won top honors for two different pieces. We’ll talk with one of the young choreographers, John Kearney, and the group’s artistic director, Steve Gonzales.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Students from North Portland’s Jefferson High School made history earlier this month when two members of the group won choreography awards at the National High School Dance Festival. It was the first time any school won top honors for two different pieces. John Kearney is a dancer and choreographer for the Jefferson Dancers, he’s a senior at Jefferson. He won the top choreography prize and joins us now along with Steve Gonzales who is in his 24th year as the artistic director of this prestigious group. Congratulations to both of you and welcome to our show.

Steve Gonzales: Thank you.

John Kearney: Thank you so much for having us.

Miller: John first, you’ve been a member of the Jefferson Dancers for all four years of high school. When did you become interested in choreography?

Kearney: When I was in my first year in the company, ninth grade, there were a few seniors, three of them, who I looked up to a whole lot. They were all choreographing pieces for the National High School Dance Festival, and when I saw how happy they were watching their pieces, and how grateful they were for their casts and for the opportunity, it was something that I really wanted to take part in and do myself.

Miller: What was your next step? It’s one thing to look up to these seniors, and when you’re a freshman, seniors seem like they’re more than three years older than you. But how did you go about actually learning how to create your own dances?

Kearney: There is a composition and improv class at Jefferson where, the first semester, we work on improv and composition in a huge group, and the second semester we work in smaller groups and focus on making multiple pieces. And I had the opportunity in my ninth grade year before it was cut short by the pandemic to work on a piece with a fellow freshman and a junior at the time. And it was so different and inspiring for me to have that opportunity, and work on choreography before I had to create a huge piece as a senior.

Miller: But as you noted, then came the pandemic, which so affected your high school years. It hit near the end of your freshman year. How much were you able to dance during the stay at home part of the pandemic?

Kearney: I would say little to no dancing for me. We had several classes, ballet and jazz, and then rehearsal that was all taking place over Google Meets, I believe. And every time I would join, there was just nothing driving me to stay in the call or continue dancing at that time. The biggest thing for me about dancing was connecting with people in a room, face to face, and having a great time with them. And that just wasn’t what I got from the online Google Meets dances.

Miller: It doesn’t seem like it would provide any of that. What was it like for you then, to not dance?

Kearney: It was something I didn’t realize was taking a huge toll on my mental health and my physical well-being, until I started dancing again my junior year. It was 1.5 years of pretty much sitting in my room, not dancing, not connecting with all of my close friends, and not seeing them every day. And I just completely lost my passion for dance and my passion for expressing myself through dance.

Miller: Steve Gonzales, what do you see as your role when students are creating new dances for the group?

Gonzales: Well as the artistic director, I have the privilege of working with so many talented young dancers. It’s been an honor, honestly, working with them, because they are very inspirational. They’re very creative, dedicated, focused. And it makes my job a lot easier as a teacher.


Miller: John, what was your inspiration for the piece that ultimately won the whole thing? It’s called “You’ll Be Happy.”

Kearney: During the COVID lockdown, my family went through an extremely dark time, I’d say the hardest time of my life. It went on like that for a year and a half to two years, and it really for a while seemed like that’s how things would stay forever. And eventually we all got to a point where we were finally ready and able to heal and start being happy again. And my piece, “You’ll Be Happy,” has sort of been a vehicle for all of that accumulated frustration and sadness that experience gave to me.

Miller: Was it scary creating a work for the public that was based on such private moments?

Kearney: It was. Part of what I wanted to do was tell my story, tell my family’s story, without sharing anything too personal or being unfair to my family’s privacy. I was super open about my experience during this time, but I knew it would be unfair to say too much or show too much of my family’s experience, and I wanted to honor that as much as I could.

Miller: Steve Gonzales, can you describe the moment when you heard about these two wins? I should note that we’re talking with you and John Kearney, but another student, Eli Bryan, won honorable mention. What was it like when these two students made history for the Jefferson Dancers?

Gonzales: Yeah, it was a very amazing experience for all of us. I think we were all sitting in the audience during the gala concerts at the festival. And I had my camera out filming just in case. You know, we had hopes. And I’m surrounded by the rest of my students and the other dance moms who were there. And the first honorable mention was Eli Bryan’s “Altitude Sickness.” And we were all just screaming and happy and just thrilled.

And then they mentioned second place from another school. And then we’re like “oh my God, they haven’t mentioned John’s piece yet.” So we’re all just at the edge of our seats right now. And then they mentioned John Kearney’s “You’ll Be Happy,” first prize. We were just screaming, everybody was just screaming at that point, my ears were ringing. We were all so incredibly happy and proud. There were moms sitting behind me just crying, just joy. It was pretty fantastic.

Miller: John, what do you remember from those moments?

Kearney: We were all gathered backstage, holding hands, super optimistic. We were about to perform, this announcement was made over intermission, and we were going to perform right after intermission at the gala concert. And we were again all holding hands, our eyes were closed, we were silent backstage. There were a few other groups back there with us. And Eli’s name was called, we all were so so excited to win third place. It was wonderful, we got third place three years ago at the National High School Dance Festival. And we stayed out there for second and first. And when my name was then called for first, we all were again screaming, jumping up and down, hugging, crying, laughing, in awe. And we had to go back to our dressing room because it got a little too loud.

Miller: You only have a few more months left in the Jefferson Dancers after doing it for four years, although two plus of those were obviously pandemic shortened or warped. But what has being a member of this group meant to you?

Kearney: It is such a big commitment to make, from day one. It’s always something you have to push yourself to do, because it is extremely, extremely taxing on your body, on your mind.

Miller: Two or three hours every single day, right?

Kearney: I’d say 4.5 hours every single day, three hours of rehearsal, and then a 90 minute class prior to rehearsal. So yeah, it’s a huge commitment. You have very little free time, and you don’t get to hang out with all your friends as much. But the relationships you form in that room, in the dungeon with those 16-18 people is unlike any other. It’s blood sweat, tears. It’s love, it’s commitment that you all share, and that is completely unique. The training we’ve received, I am so incredibly grateful for. And the variety of styles and techniques that we study in, it is all so valuable. It’s stuff you get to take with you wherever you go, whether you are going to commit to being a dancer for the rest of your life and pursue a BFA, or try out for a company, you have all that dance training. But also, even if you don’t want to be a dancer, you take the discipline and the commitment with you. We’ve had doctors, we’ve had lawyers, we’ve had so many different people come out of this program that are so refined and so professional because of the strengths they’ve gained from this program.

Miller: John Kearney and Steve Gonzales, thanks very much and congratulations.

Kearney: Thank you so much for having us.

Gonzales: Thanks for having us.

Miller: John Kearney is a senior at Jefferson. He won the top choreography prize at the National Dance Festival. Eli Bryan, also a senior, won honorable mention. And Steve Gonzales was with us as well. He is the artistic director of the Jefferson Dancers. I should note you can see their award winning choreography on Thursday, April 20 through Saturday, April 22 at Portland’s Newmark Theatre as part of the Jefferson Dancers’ annual spring performance.

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