And giving Calgary her all has been critical for Willis. Sure, there was a sabbatical year and countless reconnaissance trips to world-class dance centres that included New York and London, but Willis has never strayed from Calgary, where she co-founded Canada’s only full-time jazz dance company and school, with Michèle Moss, BEd'84, MA’07, and Hannah Stilwell, BA'85, in 1984.
From studying dance as a child under her aunt, Jean Simpson, Willis went on to major in drama at UCalgary, and worked as a teacher and choreographer with countless arts and educational organizations within the province, including the Calgary Stampede’s Young Canadians program, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Alberta Theatre Projects and so forth.
“Vicki has inspired thousands and thousands of school kids, teachers and adults to dance,” writes Moss, an associate professor in UCalgary’s Faculty of Arts. “She did that as well as helped place Calgary within an international community of dance.”
Moss recalls how Willis urged her two DJD co-founders to visit countries in West Africa and the Caribbean, “to explore the magical ancestors of jazz.” These global influences were key in shaping DJD, which is now synonymous with diaspora research.
“Vicki’s work has not just created a home for jazz dance in Calgary, but her work has helped change the very course of the art form, bringing jazz back to its rhythmic and historic roots,” adds Moss.
In the early 1970s, Willis assisted Prof. Keith Burgess in nurturing the Programme of Dance within UCalgary’s Drama department and out of that grew a new dance department in 1978 that included a comprehensive jazz dance program which Willis led until 1989.
Meanwhile, other opportunities were percolating within Willis’s orbit.
In 1987, DJD landed a massive grant, allowing it to hire 10 dancers for 10 months, plus an administrator, teachers and money enough to produce its first live show. This allowed DJD to move out of its basement studios at UCalgary to a space in Hillhurst that, over the years, led to its Mission-area studio and finally to its permanent home in the Beltline.
After a 54-year career, a powerhouse like Willis might be considering retirement. Not a chance. Her current title might be founder-in-residence, but her primary role these days is that of a teacher, mentor and advisor.
“Really,” Willis quips, “it’s whatever might come up that could benefit from the old gal’s input.”