DU Alumni

Alumna’s poem inspires spirituals-focused stage show

“I put my baby out there,” says Dee Galloway, “and she grew legs and she’s walking. It’s the coolest thing that has happened to me in my life.” Photo: Wayne Armstrong

“I put my baby out there,” says Dee Galloway, “and she grew legs and she’s walking. It’s the coolest thing that has happened to me in my life.” Photo: Wayne Armstrong

“You’re still famous in New Jersey.”

That unexpected news popped up in her email inbox one day last summer. So naturally, University of Denver alumna Dee Galloway clicked on the message.

A professional poet, an enthusiastic songstress and the program administrator at the DU-based Spirituals Project, Galloway (BA ’04) was greeted with an invitation from Paule Turner of the Department of Theatre and Dance at New Jersey’s Rowan University. Turner, an aficionado of the spiritual, had, some years before, discovered Galloway’s website, Dances with Words, and her epic poem “They Slice the Air,” which honors the songs that emerged from the cotton fields and sugar plantations of the antebellum South.

In early 2012, Turner, a director and choreographer, had drawn upon the poem to create, along with baritone Lourin Plant, also of the Rowan faculty, a stage production blending Galloway’s powerful text with slave narratives, music and dance. Plans called for the show to be reprised in December 2014, featuring about 40 student performers from different majors and backgrounds. They would take to the stage to pay tribute to the spiritual tradition and demonstrate, through collaboration and art, a vision of diversity and understanding.

Would Galloway like to be part of Rowan’s rendition of “They Slice the Air,” slated for performances over three days? Would she be up for a trip to New Jersey, an intense rehearsal schedule and a stint on stage?

Would she ever. Within no time, Galloway had asked for time off work and was plotting her journey. Once in New Jersey, she was not only treated as an honored guest, she was swept up in a creative process that complemented her preoccupation with an art form that, for her, symbolizes resilience, human dignity and irrepressible spirit.

“What I respond to most is the ability of the songs to hold grief and hope in a single container,” she explains.

As it happened, “They Slice the Air” had therapeutic work to do in New Jersey, managing some raw grief and stoking a small flame of hope for understanding. Just as rehearsals were gaining steam, news broke in New York that a Staten Island grand jury had failed to indict the police officer responsible for the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American man.

Sorrow-stricken, the cast and crew needed solace, the kind the spirituals have always offered.

And so “They Slice the Air” proved a balm for distressed souls, whether they were performing on stage or watching from the audience. For Galloway, that was the best kind of validation for her brainchild.

“I put my baby out there,” she says, “and she grew legs and she’s walking. It’s the coolest thing that has happened to me in my life.”

 

A life-changing epiphany

On Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Center, Galloway was pursuing a two-year accounting degree at Arapahoe Community College (ACC). The tragedy prompted her to reassess her flight plan.

“I wondered, if I died tomorrow, if I would be happy with how I’d lived,” Galloway recalls. “A little voice in my head said, ‘pursue your passion.’”

And just what was that passion?

“The last thing that little voice said was, ‘look at your transcripts,’” Galloway explains. When she did, she realized she’d taken two English classes for every accounting class. That ratio spoke volumes.

With the encouragement of the ACC English faculty, she began casting about for a bachelor’s program that would allow her to cultivate her longstanding gift for rhyme, cadence and composition. She didn’t have to look far. Across town, Galloway discovered that DU’s English department offered a concentration in creative writing and the opportunity to focus on poetry.

As an English major, she began working with Bin Ramke, a world-renowned poet who holds the prestigious Phipps Chair. “He helped explode my mind about poetry,” she says.

She found further mind-altering sustenance in The Black Spiritual and an Evolving American Consciousness, a course created and taught by Spirituals Project founder Arthur Jones, currently associate dean of inclusive excellence at Colorado Women’s College. The course immersed Galloway in African-American history and heritage.

“By the end of the second week,” she says, “I knew I had stumbled into something that was vitally important to me. It filled me up, and I didn’t know I needed filling.”

As Jones remembers it, Galloway embraced the course’s exploration of “how these songs serviced the concepts of freedom and democracy.

“I think for Dee it was kind of a renewal of her identity as an African-American woman,” Jones says. “Having been bathed in all the images about what African-American culture is — all the negative stuff that is in the air — I think for her it was a breath of fresh air.”

Galloway’s passion for the spirituals eventually led to an Honors thesis on the topic and her job at the Spirituals Project. In between, in January 2006, the Spirituals Project awarded her a commission to produce “They Slice the Air.”

For the first time, Galloway recalls, “I got paid to be a poet. I was so excited.”

The commission came with plenty of freedom and a tight deadline, with the completed manuscript needed for a May event. “I wondered what the heck I was going to write about. They just asked that it would be about the spirituals in some way,” she recalls.

By April, her notebook distressingly blank, Galloway was getting nervous. With the calendar advancing relentlessly, she took enough vacation time to assemble a four-day weekend and settled herself at a desk in her backyard. “And I just sat there and waited for inspiration. That is NOT my usual process,” she says, noting that most of her poems are preceded by subject-matter immersion. “I find some subject that I am curious about and then study, study, study.”

The break in the norm turned out to be beneficial. “Apparently it was cooking,” she says of the final product, which traces the ongoing role of the spirituals in American consciousness. “It just came to me, and I was off. … I never considered myself a metaphysical person, but I felt like I was given that poem to give to the world.”

Since then, the poem has proved the gift that keeps giving. With its powerful image of an art form cutting through oppressive air, it has been set to music and performed, by Galloway, at many Spirituals Project events. At its debut, Jones notes, Galloway was greeted with a standing ovation. “No one knew what to expect. We knew it would be good, but we didn’t know it would be that good,” he says.

Just as important, the poem has confirmed her personal philosophy, which suggests that good things are always one email away.

“My motto in life is, I can’t wait to see what happens next,” she says. Meanwhile, she’s still famous in New Jersey.

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Frederique Chevillot says:

    Dear Sweet Dee,

    Congratulations on this most magnificent achievement and honor! You are a beautiful person and a phenomenal poet, and DU is lucky to have you among its community.

    You rock and you roll and you spiritual, Dee!
    Lots of gratitude and love to you…

    –Your Sister Fred

  2. What a great piece! Thank you for writing and publishing this, and letting the DU community know about our richness, diversity, and far reaching impact. And thank you Dee for sharing your beautiful and rich talent and spirit with us!! YOU are a blessing and a gift!

  3. Jeffery Moser says:

    A very inspiring personal story and good article. Tremendous.

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