Suzanne Ostersmith is the founder of GU's academic dance program.

It would be no exaggeration to call Suzanne Ostersmith Gonzaga’s real-life Superwoman.  

Since starting her work at GU in 2000, Ostersmith has taken on the role of director of dance and interdisciplinary arts in addition to serving as an associate professor.

But Ostersmith’s contributions extend far beyond her job titles.

A now tenured faculty member as of spring of this year, she is also credited as the founder of GU’s academic dance program, where she remains the only full-time faculty member. 

An integral part of GU and its surrounding community, Ostersmith was recently recognized as a 2021 honoree for The Spokesman-Review’s annual “Women of the Year” award, which honors women of the Inland Northwest for their achievements and contributions to their home communities. 

Originally from the Bay Area, Ostersmith has always been interested in the performing arts.

She has been dancing since the age of 3 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in theater from the University of California San Diego and a master’s degree of fine arts in interdisciplinary arts from Goddard College before working professionally in Seattle as a performer, choreographer and director. 

Prior to entering the collegiate sphere, Ostersmith’s professional experience included work for a number of theater companies, like Pacific Northwest Ballet, where she created the DanceChance program in 1994, an educational program that aims to improve equitable access to classical ballet training in the Seattle area. 

Upon her relocation to Spokane in 1998, Ostersmith said she feared her involvement in theater and dance was behind her.

Not one to shy away from opportunity, the turn of the century saw Ostersmith strap back on her ballet shoes.

In 2000, Ostersmith began working for the academic dance and theater programs at both GU and Whitworth University, where she served as the concurrent director for 10 years. She said her new roles brought her an immediate sense of joy and fulfillment. 

“Dance has always been an important form of expression for myself, and so when I can help bring students that kind of expression and awareness of what they can do with their bodies, it’s so exciting,” Ostersmith said. 

Only a few years after her arrival, Ostersmith started to realize the great interest and passion students had for dance at GU. 

In 2006, the growth in interest led Ostersmith to create the school’s first dance minor, which was a hit among students and quickly became successful.

Soon after, she created the interdisciplinary arts minor, a study of dance and visual arts aimed toward students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. 

“As I looked at dance programs across the nation, our minors programs were more vibrant than some other major programs,” Ostersmith said. 

In recent years, Ostersmith outdid herself again by creating the dance major, giving her eager students even more opportunities to express themselves through the arts. 

One such student is Maria Carter, a senior dance major at GU.

Like Ostersmith, Carter has been dancing all her life and was compelled to join the program to pursue this passion. To Carter, the dance program at GU is incredibly special and a huge part of that is Ostersmith herself. 

“She full-heartedly loves what she does and I think that’s really amazing to find in a college setting,” Carter said. “Suzanne just brings so much love to the program and so much support.”

Carter said that her continued participation in the program has been maintained by the kindness and support she has experienced within it.

This community, enjoyed by Carter and the nearly 200 other students involved in the program, is not coincidental. Ostersmith has worked for nearly two decades to build a unique program that is both an educational and safe space for expression. 

“In a college setting, we so often get caught up in our heads,” Ostersmith said. “Dance can help us understand the world and knowledge through movement.”

Having created nearly all of the dance classes at GU herself, Ostersmith has been intentional with infusing a sense of community and trust in the program’s courses where students can feel free to take risks and make mistakes. Risk-taking, as Ostersmith says, is absolutely necessary for creating art. 

“Creating takes risk, and learning to take risks in this kind of supportive atmosphere, it teaches you to be bold in art and in life,” Ostersmith said in her 2017 video “What I’ve Learned” on the GU YouTube channel. 

With the opening of the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center, she was able to support more students than ever before.

The center, which opened in spring 2019, provided facilities to both draw in students and provide space to manage a rapidly growing and evolving program. 

In reflecting on the changes in the last 20 years at GU, additional facilities aren’t the notable area. Ostersmith sees a larger volume of passionate, “fired-up” students than ever before.

Students are not only learning to dance, but also about the history of the art form and its many genres. Students are put into interactive leadership positions, producing and choreographing shows and teaching dance themselves.

This leadership-centered approach to dance has not only been a source of empowerment for students but has also allowed Ostersmith to maintain and manage the program at its current caliber considering her host of responsibilities.

In addition to teaching, Ostersmith’s role as director involves producing concerts, supporting her part-time faculty and serving as an advisor for all dance majors and minors.

She is also in charge of bringing professional dance companies to campus through the university’s dance endowment.

The “Dance Presents!” event on Nov. 20, for instance, will bring Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater to campus. 

Ostersmith said that she feels “pre-programmed” for this kind of work. 

“I’ve always been one that has a lot of balls in the air,” Ostersmith said. “And I seem to be able to keep them going.”

This is reflected in her expansive career history, which includes over 100 performances in total. 

Particular points of pride for Ostersmith are her creation of GU’s “Dance in Florence” program, through which students like Carter have been afforded the chance to take their skills abroad and work with internationally renowned ballet companies.

She was also instrumental in hosting the American College Dance Association (ACDA) conference for the northwest region in 2020, an event that took three years to plan and involved over 500 registered attendees from 30 different universities. 

Outside of GU, Ostersmith is an active and integral part of the surrounding community. From 1998-2011, for instance, Ostersmith owned and operated a theater that raised $70,000 for college scholarships over her 13 years of leadership. 

This year, Ostersmith undertook the task of choreographing “Orpheus and Eurydice,” a show for the Inland Northwest Opera.

Her participation in the show allowed her to hold auditions for GU students, four of whom landed roles, becoming contracted members of the professional cast. 

Looking forward, Ostersmith is both optimistic and motivated.

Her thoughts have been occupied lately with visions of how the program could evolve to be even stronger. In her view, the next step is garnering further recognition from the campus and community. 

Ostersmith notes that unlike other academic disciplines, dance has the unique ability to be something public and unifying. 

“My hunger is that everyone in this kind of region knows that Gonzaga dance is something that they should go see,” Ostersmith said. 

Aside from ambition and hard work, what seems to underline her incredible success is a genuine passion and love for what she does.

“I feel really lucky,” Ostersmith said. “When I look at those Venn diagrams that show skills, interests and opportunities, I feel really lucky because it has all kind of intersected for me by getting to create this program. The sky’s the limit."

Sofia Chavez is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @sofia_chavez2.

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