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Anita Kuroiwa-Schiff has been a vital force in the development of Seattle’s burgeoning dance scene since she began performing, choreographing, and teaching in 1976. With her earliest credits at Black Arts West, and later at such institutions as Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Contemporary Ballet, and Langston Hughes Theatre among others, Kuroiwa-Schiff has made an enormous impact on students and artists of all backgrounds as a choreographer and educator. SeattleDances is humbled to honor her with a 2019 DanceCrush Award for Foundational Contributions to Seattle Dance.

Photo courtesy of the artist.

Born on the south side of Chicago at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Anita Kuroiwa-Schiff describes herself as a “little black girl [who wanted to be a ballerina]” at a time when black children were excluded from ballet. “My mother,” she remembers, “made the mistake of taking me to see The Nutcracker – the ultimate children’s ballet. I saw the Waltz of the Snowflakes and was determined, at four years old, that I was going to grow up and be a snowflake.” She went on to train with the likes of Hubbard Street, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Mikhael Baryshnikov, Arthur Mitchell, and Bob Fosse, but limited opportunities for black women in classical performance continued to be a challenge.

So, Kuroiwa-Schiff pursued performance work primarily as a musical theater artist, touring nationally before settling in Seattle in 1976 as General Manager of Black Arts West – one of two major black theaters in the country at the time. Soon after, she was running their dance program while performing, choreographing, and studying under some of Seattle’s dance greats including Ruthanna Boris and Virginia Ryan Corkle. But it was in 1992 that Kuroiwa-Schiff found her lasting home at Seattle Children’s Theater where she has worked ever since as an educator, choreographing over ten productions for SCT since 2001 and writing four original shows – all of which have gone national. She began her role at Seattle Central College around the same time, choreographing musicals in the drama department and then teaching the only accredited dance class within the Seattle Community College system.

Kuroiwa-Schiff also cites her work at Seattle Academy as a standout accomplishment. Her tenure there began in 1994 when she was hired part-time to teach “the class from hell,” as she teasingly puts it. “It was a class of twelve seventh-grade boys who knew nothing about dance, cared nothing about dance, and had every distorted stereotype [about dance] you can imagine… That, I call ‘baptism by fire…’” she remarks. “Things went uphill from there.” Within one year Kuroiwa-Schiff had established a school dance company and put on a show rehearsed entirely in the linoleum-tiled hallways of Temple De Hirsch Sinai. Now, Seattle Academy has three dance teachers to accomodate for a massive program. “I could sit back and take the credit,” she says, “but the credit goes to the kids. If they [hadn’t danced] their little hearts out, it wouldn’t be.”

When asked what she is most proud of as a foundational contributor to Seattle’s arts scene, Kuroiwa-Schiff cites her contributions as an educator and the honor she feels at having impacted so many youth. “I’ve had students in my career from every walk of life you can imagine…. The fact that I’ve had the honor of touching so many people’s lives – I have been blessed in that way.” But it was when she saw her first black ballerina perform live – less than ten years ago in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s The Nutcracker – that her life’s work came full circle: “It was kind of like: black people have arrived in dance. I’ve seen my first black snowflake… and she’s gorgeous.” Dance may still have a long way to go as far as equity is concerned, but it is without question that Kuroiwa-Schiff’s role in Seattle has been vital in paving the way for other artists of color to make their mark too; she has shaped the face of children’s theater, community college dance, and K-12 arts education in Seattle with her vast experience as an educator, performer, and choreographer, not to mention many a story to boot.

Learn more about DanceCrush and read Anita’s bio here.