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Ralabate dances to the beat of his own drum

Zoom image: Ever the dancer, Tom Ralabate takes to the stage in the Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki Tom Ralabate does a leap on stage.

Ever the dancer, Tom Ralabate takes to the stage in the Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

By JACKIE HAUSLER

Published March 18, 2022

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“My teaching incorporates the belief that the classroom is a two-way street of exchanges and voices, shared creative discovery between the student and teacher. ”
Thomas Ralabate, retired professor
Department of Theatre and Dance

Thomas Ralabate ran home from school to turn on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Whisking his younger sister off the ground, together they mimicked the dancers they watched on television — including their very own cousins on the show.

It was in those moments that the dancing career of Ralabate, who recently retired after a nearly 50-year career as a UB dance faculty member, 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 entered competitions and performed all over the globe. Performing, learning and creative expression was a way of life. Together, they became United States Latin Ballroom champions.

In 1980, Ralabate was presented with an opportunity to continue his performing career by joining “Dance Between the Lines,” a show in San Francisco, or the dance faculty at UB. His love of learning and being a part of the creative process inspired him to jump feet first into teaching at UB.

As a visiting professor, Ralabate quickly became an integral member of the faculty, thanks to his expertise, spirited creativity and effortless diplomatic nature. He served in many departmental positions over the years, including as chair, but he says his favorite roles were always getting back to his teaching and dancing roots.

Zoom image: Tom Ralabate watches dancers rehearse a piece for last weekend's Zodiaque spring concert. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki Tom Ralabate observers as Zodiaque dancers reherse.

Tom Ralabate watches dancers rehearse a piece for last weekend's Zodiaque spring concert. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“He is a true gem of a human: inspiring, creative and compassionate,” says Melanie Aceto, associate professor and director of undergraduate dance in the Department of Theatre and Dance. “He is lauded nationwide for both his teaching and choreography, creating some of the most memorable pieces presented here at UB.” 

Ralabate is especially fond of his participation in the Zodiaque Dance Company, which he joined in 1974 prior to becoming a faculty member. Founded in 1973 by Professor Emerita Linda Swiniuch, the company started with a small group of dancers in what was then the Department of Theatre, and became an important catalyst in the culture shift of dance becoming an equal entity in the department. On May 27, 1980, the official name of the department changed to the “Department of Theatre and Dance.”

Zoom image: A relaxed moment with the dancers. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki Tom Ralabate smiles as he talks with Zodiaque performers.

A relaxed moment with the dancers. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

“At the time, some did not understand how dance could be a serious academic study and questioned if dance, unlike theater and music, had a place in a research institution,” Ralabate recalls. “The department name change brought recognition, legitimacy and paved the way for the breadth and depth of degree and artistic programming in dance for the decades that followed.”

Ralabate’s love of creating and production with Zodiaque led him to move from performer to choreographer to director of the company. It also led him to one of the major highlights of his career: performing for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. During a visit to UB in September 2006, Zodiaque performed for the Dalai Lama and 6,000 attendees at an interfaith service in Alumni Arena. The service was a collaborative effort with the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and Campus Ministry, steered by the late Jeannette Ludwig, professor emerita of French, and Rev. Msgr. Patrick Keleher, director of UB campus ministry.

“I’ve been to interfaith services all over the world. This one was different; it was artistic,” the Dalai Lama said after Zodiaque had completed its performance.  

Tom Ralabate.

Tom Ralabate spent nearly 50 years as a UB dance faculty member. Photo Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Reflecting on the experience, Ralabate emotionally notes that “It’s not every day that one can say they impressed His Holiness. It was an honor for me to co-choreograph with my colleague, Jeanne Fornarola, and receive His Holiness’ personal accolades.”

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, most likely due to my early Catholic education with the Felician Sisters and Jesuits,” he explains. “My teaching incorporates the belief that the classroom is a two-way street of exchanges and voices, shared creative discovery between the student and teacher.” He attributes the latter to his family experiences and being allowed to express himself openly.

Ralabate’s years of teaching, research and creating more recently gained the attention of an award-winning film director, Khadifa Wong, who was developing the documentary “Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance.” Ralabate was asked to join the documentary team made up of international artists, practitioners and scholars who explore the surprisingly controversial art form of jazz dancing. 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 to UB, Ralabate thinks back to his time in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Finding my home in the college helped to solidify my identity as an educator believing in my art,” he says.

“The college gave me a license as an artist, educator and dance maker (choreographer) to experiment and explore,” he continues. “I am thankful to the college for recognizing my impact and awarding me tenure.”

Zoom image: Tom Ralabate poses with members of the Zodiaque Dance Company after a recent rehearsal. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki Tom Ralabate poses with dancers from the Zodiaque Dance Company.

Tom Ralabate poses with members of the Zodiaque Dance Company after a recent rehearsal. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Ralabate was the first 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 awarded by the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Robin Schulze, for notable contributions to the college and university.

Although he officially retired in January, Ralabate continues his creative consulting with Zodiaque, which presented its spring concert live last weekend in the Center for the Arts.

Will he continue to remain involved with the department? “As long as I am still kicking!” he says with a smile.