Jillians Roberts '11

Fall-Winter_202122_Hero.jpg
Danny Stock

Sparking a Love of Learning—
and Teaching

Jillian Roberts ’11 on inspiration, audacity, and the importance of dance. 

“Know what sparks the light in you.
Then use that light to illuminate the world.”

— Oprah Winfrey 

Before Jillian Amadi Roberts ’11 became a dance teacher, choreographer, and elementary school educator, she remembers being a new-to-GDS 6th grader who didn’t quite know what to do with all her curly hair. That’s middle school in a nutshell: all those beautiful strands of hope, ambition, talent, and daring springing out every which way, willing a person messily through adolescence. But Jillian found her way rather quickly—and not only through the haircare wisdom of her Middle School advisor and Spanish teacher, Mayra Diaz. From Mayra and more than a dozen GDS teachers that followed, she found her calling and a life of purpose as an educator.

Photo credit: Andrey Lyle Patino. Above photo credit: Jewel Sales.

Right from the start of her GDS journey, Jillian felt seen by—and saw herself reflected in—Mayra. Others remarked on the resemblance, too, but what Jillian remembers most is the connectedness she felt under Mayra’s care. 

“Relationships are the most important part of teaching,” Jillian said. “When I think back about the teachers that I loved the most, do I remember what they taught? . . .Maybe a little bit?” she laughed. “I do remember the relationships they built with me. Mayra understood that as a member of the school community, what I did or needed inside the classroom, in the hallways, in someone else’s classroom, and even at home was something to take an interest in. I’ve tried to do that for my students now because I know what it’s like to be that student that needs the teacher to talk to them to show them they’ve got their back, to show them that they don’t need to feel alone because they have a teacher on their team.”

“Jillian Roberts,” Mayra mused. “The name alone brings a flood of wonderful memories from my very early years as a 6th-grade teacher and advisor at GDS. Of Jillian, I remember joy—yes, the fried plantains lesson was real, as was the Spanish class video we recorded to the tune of Lou Bega’s song, ‘Mambo No. 5.’ I’m fairly certain there was dancing involved, though I cannot take credit for Jillian’s afán for dance or the beginnings of her talent. I remember seeing her in the Blackbox as an 8th grader dancing stylishly and I wondered, from where had these skills risen? I did not know, but I was certain they were not from our Spanish class.”

Jillian is now in her fourth year as a PK-5th grade dance teacher at New Bridges Elementary in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, where she brings a special focus to dances that exist as a result of the African diaspora. Her students, the majority of whom are Black and Brown, learn to use movement and dance as tools of self-expression and self-empowerment. Her youngest dancers develop an awareness of the ways they impact their surroundings and are, in turn, influenced by them. In Jillian’s classes, students learn the joy of dancing to uplift a diverse community and recognize the bright light they shine through the arts. Even as they study dance in the context of history and cultural heritage, they also develop a sense of the power they have to change the world around them. 

“GDS truly paved the way for me to even think that way,” Jillian said. That she has found a school that, at its core, treasures social justice work, prioritizes joyful self-expression, and values a diverse community, is no accident, Jillian explained. “Every teacher at GDS, whether they’d been at the School for 25 years or five years or two years, understood the mission of the School and did their best to embody that mission in whatever space they [occupied]. The point was to bring together people with so many different experiences, not navigate around that. To have them learning about each other and celebrating each other was something I always loved and appreciated about GDS.” 

The love and appreciation was mutual, especially if you explore Jillian’s GDS performing arts lineage. 

“In addition to being adept at different styles of dance, Jillian had patience, good humor, and initiative, three qualities that made her an ideal dance captain [for GDS musicals] and innovative choreographer for Fata Morgana,” said dance teacher Maria Watson. “She always came ready to work, whether teaching, choreographing, or polishing dances.” 

Jillian was a Fata Morgana director during her sophomore through senior years and a dance captain through each of the musical theater shows during that time: Odyssey, Pippin, and Urinetown, in which she played Mrs. Millennium. 

Clockwise from top: Jillian (front) in Urinetown as Mrs. Millennium in 2011. Fata Morgana Directors Sasha McNair ’10 (left) and Jillian. Jillian (left) singing with Notified group mates Ebony Chuukwu ’12 (center) and Hannah Untereiner ’11 (right).


Like Mayra before them, Maria, theater director Laura Rosberg, and former acting teacher Jim Mahady all made Jilian feel looked after, seen, and valued. “They took me under their wing,” she said, as she explained the ways Laura saw her, from the start, as far more than just “[Class of 2009] Jordan Roberts’s younger sister” and how Jim inspired her with the confidence to perform multiple roles within a single show. 

As an alumna in 2016, Jillian joined her GDS theater castmate Jared Sprowls ’12 to put on his off-Broadway play Bridget Bishop Presents: The Salem B*tch Trials, which featured four drag queens, all of whom went on after the production to feature in RuPaul’s Drag Race. “I thank Maria, Laura, and Jim for [imparting] the courage, the audacity, and the skills to do that," Jillian said.

Jillian remembers the late GDS music teacher Lonel Woods, whose impact as a Black teacher on her older brother reverberated for her once she arrived in Middle School. She loved Keith Hudspeth’s “good energy” and the way he inspired students to give it back in kind, with “oomph,” good stories, and attentiveness to technique. In the High School, former vocal director Katie Evans and former vocal teacher Ben Hutchens took her first a cappella group, Notified, on a trip to Chicago, where they sang at the House of Blues. All these teaching models, and the many roles they played beyond the classroom as mentors, trip leaders, and advisors, informed the kind of educator Jillian saw herself becoming.

In 2008, Jillian joined her Black girlfriends from the class of 2010—Kelly Wilkinson, Jes Christian, Sasha McNair (who was also her co-director in Fata Morgana), and others—when they founded New Soul, the co-ed GDS acapella group focused on R&B rather than traditional acapella music. In addition to her engagement in Fata Morgana, New Soul was a place where her work in the arts was self- and peer-directed. It allowed her to develop the directorial skills she uses regularly now, both in the classroom and professionally.

Outside the performing arts, she also found community through basketball—though she acknowledges it was never with quite the level of talent she had in the performing arts. She recalls being “attached at the hip” with Bri Brown and a student of pedagogy under “awesome basketball mentor” Bobby Asher, who gave her the skills to be a coach and counselor.

Photo credit: Andrey Lyle Patino

Even before coaching adults and children in dance, Jillian was a beloved camp counselor for years at GDS summer camps. Director of Strategic Programs Vinita Ahuja, who as auxiliary program lead used to direct GDS camps, tapped into Jillian’s performing arts expertise to help develop dance and drama camps. Jillian fondly remembers the full-circle experience of teaching Mayra’s daughter, Gabrielle, in camp.

With Jillian, Mayra, too, felt the warp of time. “I fondly considered Jillian a proverbial mirror of myself; in 6th grade, I loved school just as much as she did,” she said. “She showed up ready each and every day and exhibited a serious commitment to her job as a student. Again, I wish I could take credit, but the gift of Jillian as my student emerged from her own devotion to being the best she possibly could. To be able to witness her trajectory today is a gratifying assertion that from our Middle School, students can truly rise as leaders. Jillian always held her eyes high and her focus poised upward. GDS was fortunate to have her as a student.”

Now at New Bridges, Jillian and performing arts colleague Alice Tsui strive to honor individual creativity and culture. “Jillian is a loving, caring, hardworking teaching colleague and friend,” Alice said. “She always wants the best for our students and advocates for them to use their voices and bodies through dance.” 

Alice also noted the way Jillian nurtures empathy and boosts students’ ability to communicate across difference. She said, “Jillian creates that space not only for dance but to discuss, debate, and question the world we live in.”

If that sounds an awful lot like GDS, it’s just the spark of a lifelong love of learning—carried forth by an alum educator—igniting the flame in the next generation.

Jillian Roberts ’11 with brother Jordan at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Jordan lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he serves as a senior brand manager on Secret Deodorant at Procter & Gamble. He received an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. As a GDS senior, Jordan was honored with the Dorothy Jackson History Award, which is given “to a student who shows a keen dedication to learning, an innate intellectual curiosity and an abiding generosity of spirit.” Like his sister, he sang with GDS a cappella groups and participated in theater productions.

Check out Jillian’s work as a hip-hop educator through her website JillianAmadi.com; her YouTube Channel with instructional videos; and Instagram.

 

  • Alumni
  • Dance