Hannah Thomas Steps Up to Lead New Dance Degree

Wandering the halls of the University of Oregon’s Gerlinger Annex, absorbing the kinetic energy produced by a building full of dancers, is a visceral experience—enough to make one dream of a life in the performing arts. 

Among the School of Music and Dance faculty members guiding these dancers to their dreams is Hannah Thomas, a new assistant professor of dance. Her dynamic personality and unique performance experience made her the right person to join the faculty and launch a bachelor of fine arts in dance degree program last fall. It’s the first dance BFA in Oregon and the first in the nation with equal emphasis on dance rooted in Eurocentric forms and those of the African diaspora, the worldwide collection of communities descended from native Africans. 

Thomas specializes in hip-hop and choreography, incorporating still moments, theatrical expressions of the body, large ensembles, solos, and music that directs the movement. 

“I have two goals for inspiration when creating work,” Thomas says. “The first is that the dancers are inspired to build trust and community with each other and themselves. The second is that the audience is moved. Every person may not feel the same thing, but my hope is they are engaged and along for the ride.” 

A Moving Invitation

Thomas created Duck Jam, a showcase of student hip-hop dancers open to the public (7 p.m., June 1, Gerlinger Annex, 1484 University Street). “I curated the event for students to be seen by each other, the UO community, and Eugene at-large, and to experience a more authentic reflection of hip-hop culture,” Thomas says. She invites everyone to engage in the creative process, no matter what side of the curtain they’re on: “Be present, converse on the topic, and support the work.” 

Big Moment with Big Boi

Growing up in Atlanta, Thomas began in the performing arts as a kindergartner and by age 12, she was teaching and choreographing at the church where her mother, Charlotte Dudley, ran the dance ministry. 

A pivotal moment arrived when Thomas was 15: she performed with the Atlanta Ballet and Big Boi, of the progressive hip-hop duo OutKast, in the production big

“I remember very vividly being given a compliment from choreographer Lauri Stallings on the height of my jumps and commitment to the movement,” Thomas says. “Dancing onstage with that vibrant and whimsical set as a young dancer catalyzed my desire to be a professional dance artist.” 

Dancing for Joy

Thomas was featured in this winter’s faculty dance concert, which offered a hip-hop fusion work and explored human resilience, endurance, and finding strength in community. 

Thanks to a research grant for new faculty, Thomas is developing a film project about Black joy, a cultural movement based on the premise of choosing pleasure to combat the traumas of racism. She’s had award-winning success as the creative director of two dance films: Strange Realities and This Must Be the Place

“I am very inspired by putting movement on film,” Thomas says, “and allowing the camera to be one of the dancers.” 

—By Josh Gren, Communications, School of Music and Dance 

—Photo by Dustin Whitaker, University Communications