Fly High, Ukulele Lady: Remembering Beloved ROOTer Ann Kilkelly

Ann Kilkelly, Carol Burch-Brown, and Steve Bailey at ROOTS Week 2019. Photo: Melisa Cardona.


October 10, 2023


Longtime ROOTS member Ann Kilkelly passed away at age 76 after a long struggle with dementia on September 9, 2023. Ann was the 30-year life partner of fellow ROOTS member Carol Burch-Brown and a friend, teacher, mentor, and collaborator to many Alternate ROOTS folks over the years.

This remembrance will focus on Ann’s presence in the Alternate ROOTS community. There is a beautiful obituary in the New River Valley News if you’d like to read more about her very full life.

Ann Kilkelly, Hank Smith, Paul Bonin-Rodriguez and others at ROOTS Week pre-Lutheridge. Photo: Lisa Q. Mount. Caption Author’s Note: I don’t recognize all the folks in this photo, apologies, would love corrections. 

Very Big Deal Professional Artist and Feminist
She was Emerita Professor of Theatre and Women’s and Gender Studies at Virginia Tech, where she taught for more than 20 years (1991-2016). She was a scholar of jazz-tap dancing, history, performance and gender studies, as well as a teacher, director, choreographer, performer and writer.

Ann Kilkelly and Carol Burch-Brown, ROOTS Week 2019, Photo: Melisa Cardona.

“She Choreographed the First Boob Ballet” and Other Legendary Performances at ROOTS Week
With percussionist Beverly Botsford and singer Elise Witt, she created the multi-dimensional “Hair, Hands, and Feet.” According to Elise Witt, “In addition to her many stellar performances, choreographed as well as improvised, at Late Night’s Café Bizzoso, Ann was the mastermind and director (several years) of the Post-Sensitive Men’s Candlelight Aquacade, a wholly aquatic, immersive, synchronized swimming performance at Lake Eden.”

Image from the Alternate ROOTS newsletter. The Headline: Historical Moments in the History of Alternate ROOTS. Caption: No one will ever forget the time that Ann Kilkelly just got a wild hare and began floating around the room at the 1992 Annual Meeting. Another great moment in the history of Alternate ROOTS. Created by Linda Burnham. 

Lisa Q. Mount writes, “Ann’s final tap performance that I saw, late at night at her last ROOTS meeting, was another of those moments when time suspended itself, and we all lived in her feet and what they knew, as other kinds of cognition had begun to falter. Singing Hard Times, not of the Stephen Foster variety but of the Ain’t Gonna Rule My Mind kind, accompanying her entry into a dance trance state, one of the most profound moments ever. And all who were present knew they were witnessing a peak performance, by someone whose craft and life were completely intertwined.”

Elise Witt, Kay Renee, and Ann Kilkelly at ROOTS Week 2016, ROOTS’ 40th Anniversary, during which Ann Kilkelly was honored as a “Deeply ROOTed” member. Photo: Melisa Cardona

Love, Art, and Friendship
Ann and Carol enjoyed a long creative partnership, with collaborations that ranged from exuberantly whimsical (the Junk DNA Trio with Patrick Turner) to the ethereal and immersive (“Singing Darwin” and “Salt Marsh Suite”).

In the company of Carol and Joanna Burch-Brown, Elise Witt, Celeste Miller, Rachel Rugh, Tony Waag, Ash Devine, Hank Smith, Lisa Mount, and innumerable wonderful dance and music companions, she gave legendary performances of songs like “Ain’t too Proud to Beg”, “Singing in the Rain” and “Ukulele Ladies.”

Watch this amazing video of “Natural Phenomena” with Ann Kilkelly, Carol Burch Brown, and Lisa Mount from All Singing: The Elise Witt Songbook Release Concert.

Junk DNA Trio, “a recondite, wacky, neo-Vaudeville, faux-Tin Pan Alley trio of profs with a bucket load” Carol Burch-Brown, Patrick Turner, and Ann Kilkelly, photo via Carol Burch-Brown, 2014. 

Wrote a Book with Bob Leonard
She was co-author of Performing Communities: Grassroots Ensemble Theaters Deeply Rooted in Eight U.S. Communities (New Village Press, 2006), with Robert H. Leonard, in which she documented the work of ROOTS member companies Carpetbag Theater, Roadside Theatre, Jump-Start Performance Co., and other grassroots groups.

End of Life in the Company of ROOTers
At end of life, Ann was blessed by tremendously steadfast, skillful, loving care from family friend and musician Ash Devine, who was Ann’s professional companion for two years; and she was supported by many devoted friends including singer Elise Witt, Kathy deNobriga, Bob Leonard, and Carol Burch-Brown.

Ash Devine and Ann Kilkelly. Photograph via Ash Devine. 

In the Words of ROOTer Ash Devine
A couple of years ago, I began working closely and one on one with my lifelong family friend and mentor, the one and only Ann Kilkelly. I’ve known Ann since I was 8 or 9 years old. Ann was a prominent role model for me as a community-based artist, musician, and a powerful feminist and queer woman. Carol Burch-Brown and Ann have always been supportive of me as a musician and an artist, and they even recorded my first demo tape in their living room when I was 13. I went on to perform and learn alongside Ann and Carol for the remainder of my childhood and into adulthood.

My goals were to support her and Carol in the process of navigating the effects of dementia-related condition, to support them in their experiences within the health care setting, to empower Ann to stay engaged in her art forms for as long as possible, and to find ways to facilitate Ann’s needs for engagement as an artist within the confines of an assisted living setting.

Three days a week, sometimes more, we spent many hours together working on tap practice, singing, visual art practice, and performing for and with the other residents. I will always admire her for her determination to continue dancing and sharing her gifts with those around her, even as she was experiencing so much challenge and loss within her personal situation. During her last days, I asked her to be my guardian angel, and she agreed. I will always have Ann by my side as a source of strength, inspiration, and grit.

Share your Memories of Ann
Ann’s family and friends are posting memories on this Bridging Histories page. ROOTers are invited to add photos or testimonials via this submission page, with “Ann Kilkelly” as the title. Hidden-gem dance videos welcome!

Celebration of Ann’s Life
A celebration of Ann’s life will take place on October 24, 2023 at the Creativity and Innovation District, 185 Kent Street, Blacksburg, VA 24060. Doors open 5:45 – 8PM, with performances and speeches from 6:00. Please RSVP HERE or to jburchbrown@ by October 14. In 2024 there will also be a celebration in Atlanta, Georgia (details to come).

Honor Ann Kilkelly with a Donation to Alternate ROOTS
We are deeply touched that Ann’s family invites donations in her memory to Alternate ROOTS. We promise to put them to good use.

Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.