By JACKIE HAUSLER
Thomas Ralabate came running home from school to light Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand”. Lifting her younger sister off the floor, together they imitated the dancers they watched on TV – including their own cousins on the show.
It was in these moments that the dance career of Ralabate, who recently retired after a nearly 50-year career as a member of the UB dance faculty, was born.
Growing up as a competitive ballroom dancer with his sister, Kippy, Ralabate learned the ins and outs of the dance world from an early age. Throughout their childhood and teenage years, they competed and performed all over the world. Performing, learning and creative expression was a way of life. Together they became United States Latin Ballroom Champions.
In 1980, Ralabate had the opportunity to further his performing career by joining “Dance Between the Lines”, a show in San Francisco, or UB’s dance faculty. His love of learning and being part of the creative process inspired him to take up teaching at UB.
As a visiting professor, Ralabate quickly became an integral member of the faculty, thanks to his expertise, fiery creativity and effortless diplomatic nature. He’s held many positions in the department over the years, including as chair, but he says his favorite roles always came back to his teaching and dancing roots.
“He’s a real human gem: inspiring, creative, and compassionate,” says Melanie Aceto, associate professor and undergraduate dance director in the Department of Theater and Dance. “He is hailed nationwide for his teaching and choreography, creating some of the most memorable pieces presented here at UB.”
Ralabate particularly enjoys his involvement with the Zodiaque Dance Company, which he joined in 1974 before becoming a faculty member. Founded in 1973 by Emeritus Professor Linda Swiniuch, the company began with a small group of dancers in what was then the Theater Department and became a significant catalyst in changing the culture of dance becoming an equal entity in the department. . On May 27, 1980, the official name of the department changed to the “Department of Drama and Dance”.
“At the time, some did not understand how dance could be a serious academic study and wondered if dance, unlike theater and music, had a place in a research institution,” Ralabate recalls. “The department’s renaming brought recognition, legitimacy, and paved the way for the breadth and depth of dance degrees and artistic programming for decades to follow.”
Ralabate’s love for creating and producing with Zodiaque led him to move from performer to choreographer to company director. It also led to one of the highlights of his career: playing for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. During a visit to UB in September 2006, Zodiac performed for the Dalai Lama and 6,000 attendees at an interfaith service at the Alumni Arena. The service was a collaborative effort with the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and Campus Ministry, led by the late Jeannette Ludwig, Professor Emeritus of French, and the Reverend Msgr. Patrick Keleher, Director of UB Campus Ministry.
“I have attended interfaith services all over the world. This one was different; it was artistic,” the Dalai Lama said after Zodiac finished his performance.
Reflecting on the experience, Ralabate notes with emotion that “it is not every day that you can say that they have impressed His Holiness. It was an honor for me to co-choreograph with my colleague, Jeanne Fornarola, and to receive personal honors from His Holiness.
Ralabate is also known for creating a classroom where students were encouraged to fall in love with their art. “My teaching style is empathetic and organized, probably due to my early Catholic upbringing with the Felician Sisters and the Jesuits,” he explains. “My teaching incorporates the belief that the classroom is a two-way street of exchanges and voices, a creative discovery shared between student and teacher.” He credits the latter to his family experiences and being allowed to speak out.
Ralabate’s years of teaching, researching and creating recently caught the eye of award-winning director Khadifa Wong, who was developing the documentary ‘Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance’. Ralabate has been invited to join the documentary team of international artists, practitioners and scholars exploring the surprisingly controversial art form of jazz dance. The film is described by its makers as “a cinematic exploration and celebration of jazz dance told through movement and music to keep the beautiful art form alive. It is currently available to stream via HBO Max.
After 47 years of service at UB, Ralabate reflects on his time at the College of Arts and Sciences. “Finding my home in college helped solidify my identity as an educator who believed in my art,” he says.
“College gave me a license as an artist, educator and dance maker (choreographer) to experiment and explore,” he continues. “I am grateful to the college for recognizing my impact and granting me tenure.”
Ralabate was the inaugural recipient of the College of Arts and Sciences Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Area of Arts in 2001. He also received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities in 2007 and the Julian Park Award in 2016, the highest honor given by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Robin Schulze, for his notable contributions to the college and university.
Although he officially retired in January, Ralabate continues his creative consultancy with Zodiaque, which presented its spring concert live last weekend at the Palais des Arts.
Will he continue to stay involved in the department? “As long as I’m still kicking!” he said with a smile.