Ava LaVonne Vinesett, assistant professor of the practice of dance, was named recipient of the 2002 Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award. Presented each year by the Duke Alumni Association during Founders' Day ceremonies, the award is administered by a panel of undergraduate students who select the recipient from letters of nomination submitted by the student body. Vinesett was chosen from a field of fifty-eight student nominations, representing thirty-two different Duke faculty members.
Vinesett, whose specialty is African dance, is called a demanding teacher who expects the best from her students--and who motivates them to meet the challenges of the classroom and beyond. One of her students wrote, "It is rare to be in the presence of a professor whose demeanor and teaching style can touch one to the core."
She is widely praised for mentoring students, inspiring self-confidence, and forging a learning community in her courses. She is also celebrated for her interdisciplinary approach to teaching dance, an approach that embraces not only the art of performance but also such fields as history, music, and cultural anthropology.
A graduate of North Carolina Central University, Vinesett earned her M.F.A. degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1998. She is a founding and lifetime member of the Chuck Davis African-American Dance Ensemble, where she has served as a principal dancer, instructor, choreographer, and consultant, and has performed in more than 2,000 lecture-demonstrations, concerts, and related residency programs. Her education includes summers with the American Dance Festival in Durham, from 1983 through 1992, in 1997, and in 1998. In 2001, she founded AVA (African Visions of AchÈ), an organization for researching dances of the African Diaspora.
As one nomination puts it, "To say that this professor has changed my life is an enormous understatement. In addition to being an incredible professor, she is also my mentor, personal life-strategist, and most of all, my friend." This student goes on to say, "It is very clear from the first day that we dance as one--leaving no one behind and helping others when they struggle." In the words of another student, "Her level of professionalism and intensity is truly inspiring. I will count her as one of the best teachers of all time."
The Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award includes a $5,000 stipend and $1,000 for a Duke library to purchase library materials recommended by the recipient. Vinesett has chosen to provide films to the Lilly Library. "The films will address dance forms associated with several religious/social practices. Hopefully, video documentation of Brazilian CandomblÈ, Afro-Cuban LucumÌ and Palo, Haitian Vodou, Shouters, and Funeral dances will be among the works," says Vinesett.