Lectern to dance floor, professor moonlights as a swing dancer


By Zane Fletcher, Culture Editor

What do teachers and professors do on Friday night? One of the quintessential question students ask themselves. Do they return home to family board games? Do they spend their weekend grading papers? Do they live at school, nesting in a hidden annex of their classroom? Perhaps they read a novel with a glass of red wine. For most professors, their home lives are excessively normal.
Yet one professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha can be found in a very different atmosphere – Dr. James Wilson waltzes and Lindy Hops his way across the dance floor, displaying his unique talent for dance.
Wilson, an associate professor of Biology, estimates he has worked at the university for around six years. After completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Cal State Fullerton, Wilson moved to Oklahoma State University to finish his Ph.D. It was here where his love of dancing began.
“In every academic program I did, I always took a class that was just for fun and to teach me something new that was neat,” Wilson said. “My undergrad was SCUBA, my masters was fencing, and my Ph.D was ballroom dancing. I wanted to face my fear of dancing, and I was really tired of going places with friends and standing on the wall while everyone else danced.”
After his introduction to the art, Wilson fell in love. He began dancing avidly – so avidly that upon his hiring by the university, he found a group with which to dance before he had even found a place to live.
There were a few options out there for Wilson when he arrived – a salsa class, a ballroom, a West Coast Swing – but he settled on Omaha Jitterbugs, a Friday night swing dance.
“I have been focusing on Lindy Hop since I moved to Omaha,” he said. “Unfortunately, my ballroom and Latin dancing has suffered because of that.”
Yet this decrease can’t be construed as a negative for Wilson, as dancing in Omaha has led to a significant life event for him.
“I got married last August and met my wife at the Omaha Jitterbugs dance,” Wilson said. “I taught her to Lindy Hop, and now we compete at local swing dance competitions. We also seek out swing dancing locations whenever we travel, and we have danced in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Paris, Oslo and Copenhagen at Tivoli Gardens.”
Wilson, who specializes in mammals and physiological ecology, also runs the Wilson Lab at UNO, which conducts research in the latter. He believes that his area of study and dancing go hand in hand, as scientists generally enjoy finding patterns in things – which fit learning ballroom and swing perfectly. While teaching at UC Davis, Wilson also taught a social dancing class as well as a few around the country.
“Teaching both science and dancing takes the same skill, being able to break complex knowledge down into easy-to-understand pieces and then putting them all together into a large, seamless motion or idea,” he said.
The endlessly interesting James Wilson’s interests don’t end with dance. He also is a member of the Rebel Legion, a Star Wars costuming group that attends various charity events and interacts with participants.
Wilson encourages all to try their hand at dance and pointed out the upcoming “Cowtown Jamborama” a Sept. 11-14 event, sponsored by the Jitterbugs, in which newcomers to the art can learn how to Charleston and Lindy Hop from instructors in front of a live swing band.
While he dedicates a good amount of time to his talent, Wilson promises that it does not interfere with his teaching.
“The only real conflict is that dancing a lot makes me tired for lecture,” he quipped.