Ohio State University
Little brings John Giffin, professor in the department of dance at the Ohio State University, more joy than sitting in a dark theater watching his senior students perform. “Over four years, I’ve watched them grow from teenagers into young men and women, and it’s so rewarding to see,” he says. “It’s not just their artistry, but their personalities and values that develop.”
Giffin has been an integral part of OSU’s dance department since the early 1980s. This will be his last year attending the end-of-year concert as a full-time professor, since he’s soon to retire. But he has agreed to continue sharing his expertise with students on a part-time basis.
When Giffin first joined the OSU faculty in 1982, he taught ballet and Labanotation, a written system used to record choreography. Over the years his course load has expanded to include Performance Techniques, a class he co-teaches with faculty from the department of theater. And through his own interests and research, he has developed a course in dance theater and another on American social dance, which attract students from outside and within the department.
The diversity of Giffin’s course offerings reflects the wide range of dance styles on his resumé. He began taking tap classes as a child in Akron, Ohio—but once he saw Nureyev perform, he found the best ballet teacher in town and immediately enrolled in her classes. After high school, he attended Juilliard, where he studied with Antony Tudor, José Limón and Anna Sokolow. “I don’t know how I got into Juilliard,” he says, “because I really didn’t know left from right. But while I was there, my eyes and ears got bigger and my mouth got smaller. So I learned a lot!”
After college, Giffin danced with several companies, including the Pittsburgh Ballet and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. Eventually he moved to Europe, becoming a founding member of Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal and working with other European opera ballets. He returned to the US in 1979 and was dance captain for the 1980 Broadway revival of Brigadoon. He also toured with Agnes de Mille’s Heritage Dance Theatre.
But it was his longstanding interest in Labanotation that eventually pulled Giffin to OSU, where he earned an MA in dance in the early 1980s. OSU houses the only outpost of the New York–based Dance Notation Bureau, an organization devoted to facilitating the restaging of works using Labanotation. As his retirement approaches, Giffin is taking special pleasure in setting Tudor’s Dark Elegies on a graduate student using the Labanotation score.
“I’m so thankful for all the people who have taught me over the years,” he says, “and grateful that I’ve been able to share what I’ve learned. Though dance is a profession that takes everything, it gives back just as much.” Giffin believes that statement rings as true for his students as it does for him. “No matter what they do after college, whether they dance or not, they emerge as glorious people. Being a part of that process is very rewarding.”
Photo by Will Shively