Jo Ann Graham

Finding the Silver Lining

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by Diane McMahon
Photography by Christian Lee

Jo Ann Graham walked through the door with the athletic grace and fluidity of a dancer. Not surprising. She spent her first career as a dance educator and choreographer and consulted with the South Carolina State Department to develop the public school dance curriculum for grades K -12. The surprise was Jo Ann never saw a dance performance until she was 21; she was 28 before she started dancing.  

Jo Ann grew up as an introverted child in a non-communicative family.  When she decided to study dance, she unlocked a language that enabled her to express her creativity and find her voice. “I discovered I was a natural choreographer; I just understood how to put things together. It felt completely natural to use my body and movement to articulate emotions and experiences,” she said.  Jo Ann experienced that dance, in all its forms, opened her to unlimited means of expression and connection, with herself and other people.  It was powerful and empowering; she felt a calling to share it with others.  She continued studying dance and received her MFA degree from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She became a professional dance educator and choreographer.

Besides being a proponent for dance education in the public schools, Jo Ann believes dance can play a major role in the physical, mental and emotional health of people at any age. Getting people of all ages to move in an energetic, concentrated way is healthy. Dancing can be a particularly effective and fun way to enhance different aspects of well-being throughout all stages of life.

According to the National Dance Association, these are some of the special benefits dance provides:

Physical: Physiological benefits such as increased flexibility, improved circulation, general improvement of body composition and  muscle development, better posture, balance and coordination.

Intellectual: Enhancement of neurological functions, enrichment of the environment, and access to a variety of human intelligences and learning styles. 

Emotional: Development of self-confidence and self-esteem in a supportive and enjoyable environment, resulting in better management and resolution of stress, anxiety and depression.

Social: Improved sensitivity, understanding, appreciation and consideration of others both for their similarities and their differences.

In a brochure Jo Ann used to advocate for dance education it states, “Every human being has the right to move in ways that are primal, expressive, imaginative and transformational.” Jo Ann brought this belief into her classrooms. From personal experience, she understood how hard it could be for teenagers to express themselves. She encouraged students to develop a personal language and vocabulary through dance. She encouraged students to explore their personal histories and cultures through dance. She taught “that dance can serve as both a lens for perceiving and a language for communicating.” 

Jo Ann described her holistic approach as “coming in through the back door.” While exposing students to new things, she promoted exploration. “I gave them enough direction to figure things out for themselves. It was very empowering,” she said.  One tangible result was the students who attended her classes had a significantly higher percentage of college attendance than their peers. The positive impact of dance on these students’ self-esteem and self-confidence was irrefutable. 

As she sat at the table, Jo Ann expressed herself with balletic arm gestures. There was no indication she had suffered debilitating hip, back, shoulder and knee surgeries, but in 2005 she felt her proficiency as a dance educator was compromised. She retired on disability. She credited her dance training with giving her the core strength that enabled her to recuperate and become strong and active again. Although she makes regular visits to the pain clinic to manage her discomfort, she isn’t about to let it stop her. 

As a woman who never stops moving, Jo Ann hit upon her second career quickly. Something about a welding torch fired her imagination. She decided to bring her familiarity with movement and space to a new medium. She immersed herself in the visual arts, studying at the New Hampshire Institute of Art (Hanover), the Penland School of Crafts (Penland, N.C.) and the Sawtooth School for the Visual Arts  (Winston-Salem, N. C.)  

Jo Ann became a silversmith. She creates hand fabricated, form folded, forged and texturized pieces of unique silver jewelry. Her pieces are sculptural and fluid.  “Everything is connected. Conceiving the different pieces of jewelry is really the same process as choreographing. I just seem to know how the different elements fit together,” she said. 

After Jo Ann retired as a dance educator, she resolved to be creative, engaged and active. She has had life setbacks, but chooses to put one foot ahead of the next until she’s moved through the darkness.  She calls her flourishing jewelry business Silver Lining Dezign.  Jo Ann Graham has learned to dance with life.  They make great partners.

Up Close:

Awards: Jo Ann’s jewelry is in the “South Carolina Palmetto Hands Traveling Exhibition.”

Juried shows: She has been selected to participate in over 15-juried shows in the southeast since 2011.

Best model: Jo Ann is a walking showcase of her own earrings, necklace, bracelets and rings; a kinetic sculpture of fluid elegance.

Buy locally: Jo Ann’s jewelry is available at La Petite Gallerie in Old Town Bluffton and Sunday Artisan Market at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton.

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