“My mom was a mom to so many,” said Vanessa Morgan of her mom, Jessica, who passed away on Aug. 30. “She was always looking out for everybody and mentored so many dancers. But when she came home, she was always there for my brother and me.”
In 1986, Jessica started Jessica Morgan’s School of Dance in her church’s basement. Not long after, Jessica bought her first studio where Vanessa worked behind the front desk many summers as a teen. Over the next 28 years, Jessica opened three additional studios and used her talents to help others.
“My mother always reminded me of the wise words of my grandmother,” Vanessa remembered. “‘We are given special talents, not just for ourselves, but to use to help others. We must share our talents with the world.’ This is what my mom always tried to instill in my brother and me.”
As owner of Jessica Morgan’s School of Dance, Jessica organized the first Virginia Dance Festival in 1999 with 12 dance troupes, raising $3,771 for Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. Last March, the event, which featured 30 dance troupes showcasing everything from ballet and tap to Indian and Irish dancing, collected nearly $20,000, bringing the festival’s 20-year fundraising total to $228,500. Vanessa, a graphic designer, has supported the festival since its early days, initially helping her mom with the festival’s stage management before moving to Florida, where she continues to manage the event’s marketing and graphic design needs.
“My mom began the Virginia Dance Festival as a way to bring local dance studios together for the greater good and do something to spread the joy of all kinds of dance,” Vanessa said. “It was truly a family affair. My dad, Glenn, helped backstage while other parents assisted with getting donations for the silent auction.”
After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April 2018, Jessica began sharing festival planning duties with Marianne Kelley, who bought Jessica’s studio in 2014 and renamed it Marianne Kelley’s School of Dance. Jessica’s vision will continue during the 21st annual Virginia Dance Festival next spring.
“My mom wanted the show to go on,” Vanessa said.“Before she died, I asked my mom if she felt cheated [by her cancer diagnosis]. She said ‘I’ve traveled the world, owned three dance studios, and have two children and two grandchildren.’ She felt like she had lived a good life.”
That life also included playing clarinet and serving as a majorette in high school, sewing clothes, gardening, and performing in water ski shows as a youth and continuing to ski until she had double knee replacement surgery in 2009. Jessica also loved anything about space.
“Mom always told me she was going to come back in her next life as an astronaut,” Vanessa said. “She was considered a Trekkie as she was an avid Star Trek fan.”
Jessica was awarded the Presidential Citation three times, recognizing her as an "Outstanding Educator" by the Governor's School of the Arts in Virginia. She also was nominated for a lifetime achievement award, which will be announced at the RVA Dance Awards later this year.
“My mom was an inspiration to so many,” Vanessa said. “Although she left us too early, she left us with a wonderful gift, her legacy. It will live on through the hearts of her students, family and friends for generations.”
Children’s Hospital extends our deepest sympathies to Jessica’s family and friends.