Juel D. Lane’s innovative choreography scores him roles among dance's best

For dancer and choreographer Juel D. Lane ('02), life is all about breaking through boundaries — and giving back to the school that gave him the confidence to do it.

He’s done plenty of both since graduating with a BFA from the UNCSA School of Dance with a concentration in Contemporary Dance. He’s taking command of the national stage with his boundless, captivating style.

For the 2015-16 year, Lane was back on campus as an artist in residence, teaching the next generation of UNCSA dancers how to make their way in the professional world.

“I don’t only enjoy the dancing — I like to challenge people’s minds and feed people’s souls,” says Lane, whose original piece “When the Beat Drops” brought audiences to their feet during 2015's Fall Dance. The piece has since put Lane in the role of filmmaker, as he pooled the talents of dancers and students in the School of Filmmaking for an original music video that premeried in April 2016.

“It is so important for the students to find their own identity. Once you can own your personality, you attach that personality to the moving body, and you have this beautiful artist who is confident and not afraid.”

Fear is not a word in Lane’s vocabulary these days. The Atlanta-based artist’s fearless fusion of various dance styles attracted national attention in 2013, when he was named one of Dance Magazines “25 to Watch.” More recently, he was one of four emerging choreographers chosen for the exclusive Alvin Ailey Foundation New Directions Choreographic Lab fellowship in New York City, where he helped create his next original dance on film with students at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Lane began making his mark early in his career when he toured the U.S. and abroad for six years with Ronald K. Brown/Evidence Dance Company. Another career highlight: In 2012, he created “Moments of Dis” for the Atlanta Ballet, the troupe’s first-ever main-stage commission from a locally based, independent choreographer. He also dances with fellow UNCSA alum Camille A. Brown and Dancers in New York City. 

When The Beat Drops

Suffice it to say that Lane has come a long way since his first foray into dance. A child of the ‘80s, growing up in Atlanta, he fashioned leg warmers out of a pair of old socks and got his groove on in front of the family TV, dancing along with the cast of the popular series “Fame.”

“Every time it came on I would pretend to be in the show. I felt like they were speaking to me, even though I didn’t understand the storyline. I just saw that a black guy could do this — that this was a possibility.”

Sure enough, like the kids in his favorite TV show, Lane went on to study at Atlanta’s version of the performing arts magnet. At Tri-Cities Visual & Performing Arts High School, under the direction of Dawn Axam and Freddie Hendricks, Lane was named Student of the Year in 1998. From there he landed at UNCSA after, ahem, a memorable audition during which the cassette tape he brought to accompany his dance solo malfunctioned not once, but twice. (“I just kept moving in silence,” he recalls.)

It was here, at UNCSA, where Lane found his identity as a dancer. Like a sponge, he soaked in all the school had to offer —  listening, observing, experimenting and dedicating every spare moment to his passion.

That’s why he feels it vitally important to give back.

“This is a school that shaped my mind. If it wasn’t for UNCSA, I would not be anywhere in this world.”

“I feel that I have a duty and purpose to be here. I have a gift to challenge minds and to move dancers and to help them become more confident. For me, this is about giving back and showing the next generation that it’s possible that you can fulfill this dream. It shows the African-American male or female that there is somebody who looks just like me who is working out in the field. It feels good when people can see themselves.”

Lane credits the well-rounded training he received at UNCSA in both classical and modern dance for his versatility on the stage. “Wherever I go in the world,” he adds, “they say UNCSA students can do it all. UNCSA really prepared us to be individuals and to be able to grasp any style. That speaks highly to the nurturing you get at the school.”

Associate Dean of Dance Brenda Daniels, who taught Lane during his UNCSA days, remembers well his raw, rough-around-the-edges talent. She watched with awe as he repeatedly put himself on the line, performing in many different kinds of work.

“He was the kind of dancer that everyone wanted to work with. He developed a greater ability technically, and his confidence grew, but he never developed an ego,” Daniels recalls.

“When someone is that talented, that gifted, that able, coupled with his extreme modesty, pleasantness, respectfulness and ability to be generous and giving — it’s not often those two things go together — it makes for a wonderful dancer that everyone wants to use. When Juel comes into the studio, there is no ego, no baggage. He is just there to do the job.”

Daniels is delighted that Lane returns to North Carolina often to work with current students. His piece, “How to Kill a Ghost,” in the school’s 2014 Winter Dance concert was another audience dazzler.

“The pieces that Juel has made with our students are really extraordinary — the energy, the focus that he gets out of the dancers — they are so well constructed as choreographies and so exciting to the audience. People just jump to their feet at the end of his pieces,” Daniels says.

“I would have him here all the time if I could.”

The training he received at UNCSA, and the work ethic he developed here, helped Lane reach his goals and dreams. Now he’s returning the favor.

“Somebody did it with me,” he reasons, “so why would I not do it with these kids here at the school now? I never came from that way of thinking that once you make it, you’re good. I came from that way of thinking that you have to give back.

“You have to share your gifts.”