Dancing for Derek – Derek Gordon, remembered

One of the most unforgettable moments from performances of the past five years’ of the Debbie Allen Dance Residency actually happened as the curtain closed on each opening night. It was then that the program’s founder, Derek Gordon, took the stage to dance with Allen and the children.

Sadly, that spotlight will be empty this year, following the death of Gordon in September at age 57. But the spirit of the arts advocate will live on in and beyond this year’s show, which will be dedicated to his memory.

Planning the upcoming production as a tribute to Gordon was Allen’s idea, says Kathy Scherer, the Arts Council’s acting director. The show will include some of his favorite works from past residencies and new pieces choreographed to his favorite songs. “It will be very special,” says Scherer.

It’s a meaningful tribute for a man whom community leaders, fellow arts activists and even parents of budding performers all remember as a visionary.

“Derek was the kind of guy for whom a ceiling was not a boundary line,” says Mayor Kip Holden, who gives Gordon credit for the success of initiatives ranging from the Sunday in the Park concert series to Baton Rouge’s first official flash mob. “He believed in the old expression of ‘pushing the envelope.’ He helped people to understand that the arts are a vital part of any great city.”

Scherer calls Gordon’s impact on the Arts Council and the community “immense,” noting that during his six years as president and CEO, he worked diligently to expand local arts offerings, believing that “the arts have the power to transform lives.” In addition to the Debbie Allen Dance Residency, he founded the River City Jazz Masters series and the Listening Room series, both of which bring world-class jazz musicians to the city. “He would also coordinate master classes at universities and high schools while these musicians were in town,” Scherer says. “This tradition and these programs will continue.”

Another of Gordon’s greatest legacies is his ability to reach across cultural and socioeconomic lines to unite the community, Scherer says. He led the council in its successful efforts to gain funding to explore how the arts can help revitalize Old South Baton Rouge, the neighborhood in which he grew up. “He was very excited when these awards were announced in 2012,” she says. “Derek’s impact will be felt for years to come. Even after his death, Derek is a pioneer in seeing how the arts can positively impact entire communities.”

Nita Mitchell, whose son Taylor performed in the residency for three years, says Gordon’s legacy will live on through the dance residency program that he “loved so much.” “We miss him dearly and truly appreciate his vision and love for our young people and our community,” Mitchell says.

Under Gordon’s leadership, arts programs not only gained popularity among Baton Rouge audiences but also caught the attention of a greater range of performers and patrons, who continue to share their time and resources in order to improve the city’s cultural atmosphere.

“Derek was a community treasure who brought a spirit of the arts that touched the entire community,” says philanthropist Paula Pennington de la Bretonne, a longtime supporter of a variety of arts endeavors. “Whether he brought in big names or small, they were spirited, like him. He will be sorely missed but joyfully remembered, and the Debbie Allen residency is just one example of his legacy that will live on.”