New respect for dance, and new opportunities, draw students to non-arts-focused schools
By Lisa Okuhn
Where do dancers go for training at the college level? In the past, they have typically chosen to attend conservatories like The Juilliard School, or colleges and universities known for their dance departments. Rarely would they choose Ivy League schools or universities like Stanford (called by some an “Ivy of the West”), which have not accorded dance much esteem. On these campuses, dance typically has been limited in terms of class offerings, performance opportunities, and funding.
All that is changing. Now students can choose to immerse themselves in dance—as well as philosophy, quantum mechanics, and comparative literature—at Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.
Until 2006 Yale had no formal dance curriculum. Now dance faculty reviews dance portfolios as part of prospective students’ admissions evaluations and is building the university’s dance curriculum, offering eight credited dance courses through the theater studies program; and the university has added to its Office of Career Strategy staff an advisor who focuses on arts-related professions, including dance.
At Harvard, many dance courses for credit are offered, and this year the school began offering a concentration (major) in theater, dance, and media. “With this exciting development we expect that the dance faculty and dance curriculum will expand,” says Jill Johnson, director of Harvard’s dance program since 2011.
Stanford’s dance division has grown steadily. When dance was introduced on campus in the 1930s, it was housed in the athletic department; now the school offers a minor in theater and performance studies with a dance specialization. All three universities have glittering rosters of faculty, guest faculty, and visiting artists.
At these schools, increased funding, new opportunities and initiatives, and direction from leading dance artists are making dance available as an integral part of any interested student’s education. Professionally oriented dancers’ needs are met through technique and performance- and project-based classes, plus theory, history, and other courses.
Why the change?
Why is dance being embraced on these campuses? Harvard’s Johnson cites a report by a 2007 task force on the arts, which called on the institution to make the arts “an integral part of the cognitive life of the University.” She credits the task force with driving the emergence of a robust dance culture on campus. Johnson echoes the task force report in saying—as do an increasing number of voices in academia—that arts practices develop imagination, inventiveness, mastery of technique, and boldness of conviction, all attributes that are needed to navigate a complex society.
“If an education can provide students with a dexterity in thinking and the courage of artistry,” Johnson says, “then we’re preparing citizens who can negotiate our complex world and make it a better place.” And, she adds, there is recognition that offering the new concentration will diversify and add vibrancy to Harvard’s student body, attracting “students who might have chosen other universities because of their offerings in the arts.”
Dance in a liberal arts context
Stanford, Yale, and Harvard don’t offer dance majors per se; Columbia is the only Ivy that does, through the Barnard College Department of Dance. This hearkens back to a longstanding mutual mistrust: of the intellect by some in the pure dance field, and of the body by many in academia. Successfully presenting dance as a real and legitimate area of study to a sometimes contemptuous academy has required patience and long-term strategic thinking. But a burgeoning recognition on liberal arts campuses that arts practices are valuable is producing a cadre of dance scholars, choreographers, and performers who bring context, consideration, and rigor to their work.
“Situating dance studies within the liberal arts curriculum,” says Emily Coates, director of dance studies at Yale, “cultivates artist citizens whose medium is dance. The students have plenty to say in relation to and through their dance practice, a model in which they write, make work, understand historical context. They’re well equipped to ask a lot of questions and to think about dance as a form of research and inquiry.”
At Stanford, says Diane Frank, lecturer in the university’s division of dance, this has been true for some time. “Since the 1940s there was a group of people who framed dance as a research investigation in addition to technical training and in addition to being an art form. Dance is simultaneously a studio practice and a cultural critique or carrier of culture.” There is, she says, “a reaching from our department toward an engagement with large questions about history or politics or medicine.” Dance theory, history, and criticism courses complement and illuminate studio work, a kind of layered inquiry much valued at Stanford. Studio practice at the school, Frank adds, always “shares this investigative view of embodied practice; in fact most performance projects can be characterized as investigations with performance outcomes.”
Delivering dance in a liberal arts context invites interplay between fields, and multi- or interdisciplinary work forms a core part of many students’ study. For some, dance provides an entry into other fields. Coates, with associate professor of physics Sarah Demers, teaches The Physics of Dance, a course commissioned by the dean of science education to strengthen the science curriculum for non-science majors.
“The course happens in a dance studio,” Coates says, “and moves between the physics lecture, studio practice, and discussion. The students do movement phrases and choreograph studies in relation to the physics material. We didn’t want a studio dance course with Newton’s second law thrown up on the board at the end, and we didn’t want a physics lecture course where they tried out a plié at the end. We aimed for an equal flow of ideas between the physics and the dance knowledge.” The class has been enormously popular and has garnered attention in the scientific world, and Coates and Demers have written a textbook based on the course.
The focus on dance as a research endeavor also encourages students to apply theories and systems from their dance studies to other fields—and vice versa—enabling them to look at both from an original perspective.
Yale senior Zoe Reich-Aviles, a religious studies major with a concentration in environmental studies, recalls a class called Gender, Justice, and the Environment. “We were looking at the intersections of a human body with the environment and looking at the body as permeable, constantly changing, and influenced by and influencing our environment,” she says. “That related exactly to what we were talking about in Postmodern Dance, about the body as a site of interaction with people, with the world, with objects.”
It also means project-based interdisciplinary work can and does form a core part of many students’ experience. Rossi Lamont Walter Jr., a 2014 Harvard graduate who concentrated in the history of science, and is now in the Alonzo King Lines Ballet Training Program, met Sarah Kariko (’90) who was back at Harvard doing research in arachnology, when both took a class with visiting artist Liz Lerman. A collaborative project in which both were involved, Silk, Sex, and Poison, explored what Kariko describes as “the wonder of spiders,” and was performed in various iterations by different groups of dancers.
Kariko, who is now research director of Gossamer Labs, says that she, Walter, and Dr. George Dyer, program director of Harvard Combined Orthopedic Residency Program, later created a movement lab called The Informants of Movement: Endoskeleton, Exoskeleton, and Anatomic Scale. In this lab, Walter, Kariko, and Dyer—who operated on victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and was part of one of the first medical teams to go to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake—and two of Walters’ dancers “explored anatomy and how physics at the micro-scale can influence or inform movement,” says Kariko.
Walter believes this experience was seminal in his artistic development and memorable for all participants. “The fact that we could all get together and learn something, and move our bodies, and speak as colleagues, is amazing. I’m confident this will stay with the five of us forever,” he says.
Guest artists and opportunities
High visibility, proximity to urban centers, and most important, the professional experience of dance faculty at these schools afford students plenty of opportunities to work with visiting artists and perform with numerous companies on campus in a variety of settings. Yale students, through their involvement with the extracurricular Yale Dance Theater, have performed choreography by Reggie Wilson, Akram Khan, Twyla Tharp, Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, Matthew Rushing, and Alvin Ailey.
Coates, who has danced with New York City Ballet, Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, Tharp, and Yvonne Rainer, brought in “these incredible guest artists,” says Reich-Aviles. “I was able to learn Trio A from Yvonne Rainer,” who taught a series of workshops at Yale. And, she adds, “Emily also is able to—having worked with the people we’re studying—teach us the exercises that allow us to physically understand these ideas.” Guest faculty this year include Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson of Big Dance Theater, and New York Times dance writer Brian Seibert.
Johnson, a former soloist with The National Ballet of Canada and former principal dancer with Frankfurt Ballet, has set William Forsythe’s works on companies around the world. “Being a part of and witnessing the creation of great works at The National Ballet, with Bill Forsythe and my Frankfurt colleagues, and with Mikhail Baryshnikov, taught me the power of positive collaboration,” she says. Making collaboration an important aspect of Harvard’s program has influenced her “designs for the courses, class content, transdisciplinary engagement, and the kind of artist citizens who teach our students.” Artists in residence have included Aszure Barton, Dwight Rhoden, Andrea Miller, and Francesca Harper.
Stanford lecturers and artists in residence include Robert Moses, Alex Ketley, and Muriel Maffre. Guests from the Cunningham Foundation and the Limón Dance Company have taught, performed, and set works on students. And Frank’s background as a revered Cunningham teacher has helped Stanford forge a unique relationship with the Cunningham Trust. In 2005 she was instrumental in organizing a campus-wide interdisciplinary event, Encounter: Merce, as well as a series of lectures on Cunningham repertory and video dances.
Stanford dancers learned a piece by Elizabeth Streb, who, according to Frank, tossed off a promise that they could perform it with the Streb company if they did it well enough. “We rehearsed, and then when the company came out to do their residency Liz saw it and she was floored,” says Frank. “Liz said, in effect, ‘Well, yes, I said you could, and you did it, and so it’s going to go on. You’re going to perform with the company on this thing.’ ”
Can these schools attract and cultivate aspiring professional dancers? Absolutely, says Frank. Stanford has “had a huge bump in the number of applicants who are sending in arts supplements—dance videos—and they’re incredibly good. We used to get a handful; now we’re looking at 180 to 200 videos.”
Frank spotted 2012 graduate Gary Champi in a hip-hop class and convinced him to try modern. “He enrolled in as many dance classes as he possibly could—ballet from Muriel Maffre, modern from me,” Frank says. “He ended up on scholarship at the Cunningham studio and is now dancing with H.T. Chen. He was selected by the Cunningham Trust to reconstruct the Cunningham repertory.” Another Stanford grad was awarded a full fellowship to Ohio State University’s masters program in dance and performed with Robert Battle’s Battleworks.
Yale graduate Kelvin Vu is dancing with Batsheva Ensemble. “Others,” Coates says, “are making work and getting into the New York dance world and performance scene.”
In addition to Walter, a number of Harvard graduates have pursued professional dance careers. “One, who concentrated in physics and math and is now pursuing a PhD in applied math at Princeton, is also apprenticing with Andrea Miller’s Gallim Dance in New York,” Johnson says.
Harvard, Stanford, and Yale dancers often bring into the professional world an appetite for and habit of incorporating knowledge and experience gained in other academic arenas into their dance practice.
Katharine Hawthorne graduated from Stanford in 2010 with a degree in physics and a minor in dance. Now, as she forges a career as a dancer (currently with Liss Fain Dance) and choreographer in the San Francisco Bay Area, she utilizes “an experimental mindset when making dances. I’ll set what I think of as a movement experiment. There are some initial parameters and I let the experiment run for a certain amount of time, and we’ll do it again and add more information. I’ve tried to transplant into the dance studio the actual process of doing research.”
Asked if the students she sees at Stanford are different from other dance students, Frank says, “Seventy percent of the undergraduates here are in STEM fields, so our classes reflect that. They’re very much attuned to structure, and they pick things up quickly. That intellectual appetite is in the room making work, taking class, doing the things that dancers do.”
However, she says, in most ways they’re like dancers anywhere. “They don’t have a sign on them saying ‘I got 800s on my SATs.’ What they have is appetite, drive—and maybe a pair of shorts with ‘Stanford’ written across the seat.”
DSL associate editor Lisa Okuhn is a writer and a former dancer with Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians, ODC/Dance, and others. She founded arts-focused Okuhn Public Relations.