Karen Mills Jennings
Dancing Into Retirement and Choreographing a Big Impact
Karen Mills Jennings, FIM Flint School of Performing Arts Dance Division Chair and Flint Youth Ballet Artistic Director, has dedicated 43 years to educating hundreds of FSPA dancers and spawned numerous professionals who have gone on to illustrious careers. Her work has impacted many, and FIM honors her service as she moves into retirement.
Jennings began her dance career by earning a BFA in dance and theatre from Marygrove College.
“During my time there, many guest teachers and choreographers challenged and inspired me. I was able to participate in collaborations and saw the value in bringing diverse groups together,” she explained.
She brought this value with her to FIM, fostering collaborations between different FSPA divisions and dance organizations around the world.
Jennings began working with FIM in 1980 in its professional ballet company, which later became Ballet Michigan. Jennings said within weeks the artistic director asked her to begin teaching classes. Jennings danced with Ballet Michigan until spring 1986 and, upon her retirement from the stage, she was offered FSPA’s Dance Department Chair position.
In 1987, Jennings started a dance ensemble for more advanced dancers at FSPA. The ensemble, Flint Youth Ballet, gave its first performance in May 1987 with eight dancers. The company now has 20-36 dancers and performs at least six times each year, including traveling to Austria
In anticipation of FYB’s 25th anniversary in 2012, and with the encouragement of then-FIM CEO Paul Torre, Jennings developed a five-year Balanchine Project. The project included annual master classes with Balanchine teaching artists, watching videos of Balanchine work, exploring ballet history and performing ballets aligning with that history.
The culminating event of the project was performing the opening movement of Balanchine’s iconic “Serenade” for the FYB 25th celebration concert. Flint Youth Ballet has now performed “Serenade” three times, including once with an orchestra, as well as sections from Balanchine’s “Raymonda Variations.”
“I am very excited Flint Youth Ballet will be performing the opening movement of ‘Serenade’ again this year!” says Jennings. The performance will be part of Festival of Dance May 13 and 14.
Jennings says her favorite memories from working with FSPA are watching Flint Youth Ballet perform Nutcracker each year and, more recently, “Serenade;” supporting dance students returning from pandemic Zoom classes and seeing the beautiful dancers her students have become.
Jennings says, “I’ve cherished the opportunity to see each young dancer’s growth through this challenging experience.”
When asked what Jennings’ work at FIM over the decades has meant for the organization as a whole, FIM President and CEO Rodney Lontine praised Jennings for her commitment to reflecting inclusivity in dance performances.
“For decades, Karen’s work and direction in Nutcracker and other programming has exemplified our early awareness and embrace of diversity and inclusion: its meaning and positive effects on the education and creative process,” he explains.
Because of Jennings’ dedication and leadership, the FSPA dance program is a leader nationally, according to Davin Pierson Torre, vice president of the FIM Music, Dance and Theatre Instruction Division. FSPA dancers go on to make professional careers including as dancers, choreographers, teachers and more. But whether making dance a career or not, she believes FSPA dancers learn focus, discipline and teamwork, and experience the sheer joy the artform brings.
Through her connections, Jennings has brought instructors from the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Sacramento Ballet and many other distinguished companies and schools to teach special classes for FSPA students. When asked what impact this has on FSPA students and their arts education, Torre has a clear perspective.
“It’s transformational. Visiting artist teachers bring their wealth of experience and so willingly share it. A master class, for example, can inspire a new level of passion for dance and dedication to the work.”
Torre adds that Jennings has a reputation for always putting the students and their needs first. Keeping them healthy and thriving in their dancing trumps everything for her.
Tara Gragg, an FSPA alumni dancer, will dance into Jennings’ positions of FSPA Dance Department Chair, Flint Youth Ballet Director and Nutcracker Artistic Director June 1. She knows she has very big shoes to fill.
“Karen has a special way of listening and always taking people seriously,” explains Gragg. “She demonstrates an ongoing commitment to centering the student and what kind of experience will best serve them—not just in the moment, but to build a strong and values-centered foundation for the rest of their lives. I personally think her most meaningful legacy will be the environment she has tirelessly worked to create that is safe and welcoming for everyone. Karen has been listening, observing and doing diversity, equity and inclusion work long before it became part of any mainstream conversations.”
Jennings feels grateful to have shared the art of dance with so many young people.
“It is so exciting to see the pathways our alumni take. They have pursued a multitude of professions,” she says, adding that some alumni are current FYB dancer, Nutcracker, 2022
Faculty and staff in the program, and several have returned to FSPA to choreograph.
But Jennings’ lessons haven’t always been for the students. Her colleagues, many of whom started as FSPA dancers, summer program instructors or assistants for productions such as Nutcracker, have gained knowledge and confidence from her that now affects their work at the school.
“Karen has taught me many things, but one that has stuck is to always take into consideration what might be going on outside of the classroom with our students. You never know what one has gone through before they get to our classes that can easily impact their mood. I try to keep that in my thoughts whenever I am struggling with teaching,” shared Elizabeth Philippi, FSPA Instructor and assistant to the director for Flint Youth Ballet and Nutcracker. She was also a student of Jennings’ at FSPA and an original member of FYB.
Peggy Mead-Finizio is an FSPA Instructor who has worn many hats over the years under Karen’s direction. These include teaching Adult Ballet Ensemble, Headstart classes, Children’s Modern, Elementary Modern, Discover Dance and Dance Makers. She has also done sound and music editing for Flint Youth Ballet and the Summer Dance Intensives, as well as Nutcracker props and volunteer wrangling.
“Without her as a mentor and colleague, I would not be half the dance teacher I am today. The thing that makes Jennings so inspiring is that she has a vision. She is an innovator. She has challenged traditions and grown with the times to the benefit of the dancers, families, FSPA and FIM. Karen refuses to stand still and rest on past success.”
Colleagues and students agree wholeheartedly that her legacy is enormous. In their eyes, she has worked to create a space where all dancers feel at home, regardless of the color of their skin or economic status. This is huge in the dance world, pointed out Mead-Finizio. She’s created a pedagogy that supports and trains dancers in a healthy and classical way. Jennings is also leaving her mark on the community of Flint through collaborations with other institutions.
“If I had to boil it down to a phrase, it would be ‘tenacity with grace,’” she said.
Once retired, Jennings says she is looking forward to spending more time with family.
“Our three adult children and grandchild live all over the country in Austin, Iowa City and Ohio. My mom is 91 and I would like to be able to spend more time with her. I also look forward to being able to take advantage of more Flint events I have had to miss due to my busy schedule.”
There is absolutely no doubt Jennings will be missed by many at FIM and beyond. The staff’s sentiments are heartfelt.
“Karen’s legacy is the entire dance program and what it has evolved into. She has worked endless hours to make this program something everyone can be proud of so they can say they trained at the Flint Institute of Music,” expressed Philippi. “She has fought to keep opportunities available to students of all backgrounds and ethnicities. One of her passions is that every dancer sees themselves represented in those that surround and influence them. I will miss her dearly! I can think of no one else that deserves this more.”
Torre echoed these feelings.
“It’s been a joy to work alongside Karen all these years. I know she will leave the dance department in great shape and prepared for continued growth. But she will be missed more than can be expressed in words. We all wish her beautiful and fulfilling new adventures!”
Mead-Finizio had this to say: “I wish Karen all the love and excitement of what lies ahead for her, celebrating what came before and what is to come. I’ll miss those footsteps, literally. You can tell it is her walking down the hall without seeing her because of her dancer’s gait!”
As incoming division chair, Gragg aspires to carry on her mentor’s legacy.
“It’s hard for anyone to imagine the dance department and all the programs and productions without her. She has built a strong culture of respect for one another and reverence for the art form, which I am committed to carrying forward.”
Lontine sees FSPA carrying on with strong accolades well into the future.
“The direction has been set, in excellence, love of the craft and creative process. Tara has our full confidence and support in raising FIM’s dance programing to the next level.”
The entire FIM family expresses its sincerest gratitude for all of Jennings’ amazing and impactful work and dedication. We wish her love, light and laughter on her journeys and adventures to come.