Life Remembered: Dancer put best foot forward with positivity, energy

Life Remembered: Dancer put best foot forward with positivity, energy

CHAMPAIGN — Kate Kuper grew up with parents who nurtured her and her two siblings' interests in the arts, telling them often to follow their bliss.

For Ms. Kuper, that was dance.

She studied dance and be- came a professional dancer and then a well-regarded teacher of dance and creative movement, affecting the lives of hundreds young and old in Champaign, Urbana and the region.

"For me, dance had all the other art forms in it," Ms. Kuper told The News-Gazette in 2001. "The expression of theater. The communication of writing. The flow and melody of music. The shape and line of visual art. And it matched my temperament because I'm a very high-energy person."

Friends, family and former students are recalling that positive energy — and Ms. Kuper's smile and upbeat spirit — as they mourn her Nov. 18 death at Presence Covenant Medical Center. She had been diagnosed several months earlier with lung cancer and also struggled with depression.

The Sinai Temple, 3104 W. Windsor Road, C, will have a memorial service for Ms. Kuper at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Another memorial will take place in March.

"Kate was a passionate singer and song leader, an extremely talented dancer, and a valued member of the C-U Jewish Federation and Sinai Temple community who approached every activity with persistence and with grace," reads a message written on behalf of the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) of the C-U Jewish Federation.

"She touched the lives of so many with her artistic talents and her passion for teaching, whether it be music, dance or Torah and Haftarah trope."

Alina Loewenstein, one of Ms. Kuper's final bat mitzvah students, said her tutor was like no other person she'd met.

"Selfless, to an extent I didn't think possible," Alina wrote. "Kind, so very much that I feel welcome and happy as soon as I step into her house. Patient, she knows learning takes time and understands the process inside and out."

At the UI

Ms. Kuper touched many lives via other venues, among them the University of Illinois.

There in 2003 she became a lecturer in dance and restarted the UI dance department's Creative Dance for Children program, in which UI students assisted her.

UI dance alumna Becca Dankovich called Ms. Kuper one of her most influential teachers.

"I would not be where I am today without this woman," Dankovich wrote on Facebook. "She was contagious with her vibrancy, enthusiasm and passion for teaching children the art and joy of dance."

Ms. Kuper also taught Dance 100 in the UI Access and Achievement Program; she described it in 2012 as a "bridge program for students who need a little bit of scaffolding into their college experience.

"I get athletes in that class. I teach them how to look at dance. I feel like I am in essence serving as an interface between the non-dance and dance community at all these different levels and age groups. I'm really fortunate."

Ms. Kuper also was the lead teacher for the Dance for People with Parkinson's at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. And for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, she taught the lecture series, "Viewing Dance," talking to her students before each UI dance department concert and then continuing the conversation with them and dancers after the concerts.

"She had a far reach into the community between all those things," said Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, acting head of the UI dance department and a friend of Ms. Kuper's for four decades.

"She was a bright light, energetic and positive and so influential on so many. The people that studied with her who now teach children wouldn't be doing it without her."

Focus on teaching

Ms. Kuper, 62, grew up in Cleveland, received an undergraduate degree in dance from Oberlin College and then came to the UI to work on a master's of fine arts degree in dance. She didn't finish the UI degree but later obtained an MFA in dance and Dance Education Licensure from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

After leaving the UI MFA dance program, Ms. Kuper became involved artistically with a number of performers here, among them percussionist Rocky Maffit. They married in 1981 and have two children, Jacob and Walker, and two grandchildren.

Ms. Kuper's more recent performances were with her husband; she described them as family-friendly and interactive.

Earlier in her career she performed with others, and from 1981-86 with Maffit lived in Chicago, where she founded Kate Kuper Inc., a modern dance company. She also created choreography for other companies, receiving in 1987 a choreography grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

After she and her husband returned to Champaign in 1986, Ms. Kuper and dancer Patricia Hruby Powell started the Dance Collective. It lasted two years. During that time, Ms. Kuper also taught dance and creative movement at the White Street Art Center and for the Champaign and Urbana park districts.

It was in 1982 that she began to teach dance and creative movement in elementary and middle schools and even early childhood centers; seven years later she made that the focus of her career.

Rather than teach children specific dance techniques, Ms. Kuper taught creative and physical expression and emphasized social skills, teamwork, problem-solving and divergent thinking. Eventually she became one of the most sought-after Illinois Arts Council artists-in-residence, at one time having six school residencies a year — the maximum for any artist in the Arts Council program.

For her work, she received recognition from the Illinois Alliance for Arts Education and the Illinois Arts Council. She was also a workshop leader for the Kennedy Center's Partners in Education Program.

Ms. Kuper also developed teacher training and classroom instructional materials, among them CDs, DVDs and books that integrate music, physical education and art.

Her last book, published this past summer, was "Fantastic Forces: Music, Movement and Science" (Heritage Music Press), designed for teachers and co-written with UI Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering lecturer Troy Vogel.

Asked in 2012 why she advocated dance and creative-movement education for children, Ms. Kuper replied:

"More and more, what I see is children needing to learn how to work together and how to access their imagination and how to train themselves to make choices and, of course, just how to move their bodies. Nobody has to tell anybody about juvenile obesity. So dance accesses social skills, creative expression, emotional development and just pure physicality. Rather than emphasize one technique and style, we work under a general appreciation of dance and dance making."

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