Creating artists through dance at The Gold School
By Karen White
At a Dance Masters of America competition last March, the students of The Gold School got a standing ovation, and it wasn’t just for their technique. It was because of their artistry. Seven years ago, when Rennie Gold, director of the Brockton, Massachusetts, school, decided to scale back from the competition scene and showcase his students through a series of benefit concerts, his goal was to create artists through dance.
Apparently he succeeded. “It was the second-to-last number in the entire [DMA] competition,” Kristen Bullock, mother of a Gold School dancer, says of “Heart Hand Hug Heal,” an ensemble piece about living with cancer. “And there was not a dry eye in the house. It was so powerful, with so many emotions in one dance. What an incredible gift to be able to learn that artistry.”
Gold’s students know competition success. He’s trained numerous competition title winners, and his dancers have had success regionally, nationally, and beyond. Gold School dancers headlined the U.S. Tap Team (made up of dancers mostly from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York) that took first place at the International Dance Organization World Championships in 2001 and 2002 in Reisa, Germany.
But then Gold (brother of Dance Studio Life publisher Rhee Gold) made the decision to do less competing. Instead, he decided to develop an intensive-study program that would celebrate artistry along with technical prowess. His students still attend two competitions a year. But what they really get excited about are the two full-length dance concerts the school stages annually, which raise thousands of dollars for charities such as the Boys & Girls Club, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and Save the Children.
But that’s now, in 2010. Back in 2003, the first concert was a financial bust. Gold had to dip into his own bank account to cover expenses and send a donation to the show’s chosen charity, the American Cancer Society. But that didn’t deter him. The next year the school produced two concerts.
“I stuck with it because I believed this could grow and attract a general audience,” Gold says. “I was willing to go this route with my own money because it was part of the [educational] program I was trying to build.” It took three years for the concerts to pay for themselves and raise enough money to make sizable donations without Gold’s financial help.
Last spring’s concert, “Change My World,” ran two nights and raised almost $1,500 for Hugs for Healing, a charity founded by Kristen Bullock after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and $2,200 for the Sherry Gold Foundation, a scholarship program named for Gold’s mother.
This was no recital. Each of the concert’s 30 numbers captured a mood, made a statement, or told a story. Pieces blended seamlessly into each other, sometimes with dancers staying onstage to begin the next piece with the new group. Video projections and lighting were used to full effect. The 63 performers, ages 10 to 24 and members of Project Moves, the school’s intensive division, danced to music, to spoken word, even to their own breath.
Along with Gold, Broadway veteran Larry Sousa and other faculty and guest artists choreographed dances that ranged from the stylish Broadway of “Swing It Sisters” to the heart-wrenching modern of “Mandela’s Dream,” from comedy numbers to elegant lyrical pieces to high-powered, jump-off-the-stage jazz.
The night ended with “Heart Hand Hug Heal.” Dancers quoted statements made by children dealing with cancer, then moved through poignant images of the struggle, pain, and hope that define life with cancer: the fear of isolation, the embarrassment of losing hair, the warmth of a friend’s embrace.
“All through rehearsals they told us, ‘It’s not just doing the steps to do steps; it’s what you feel, how you give back.’ It makes the dances more powerful.” —Emily Bullock, Gold School student
“All through rehearsals they told us, ‘It’s not just doing the steps to do steps; it’s what you feel, how you give back.’ It makes the dances more powerful,” says Kristen Bullock’s daughter Emily, an eighth-grader who has danced at The Gold School for nine years.
Competitions typically look for and reward the best technical dancers, and the pieces that take top awards often are designed to please judges—certainly not bad things. Emily explains the difference: “In a competition, we’re paying the judges to watch us. In a concert, the audience has paid to watch us. So we want to give back more.”
Today the concerts attract a wide-ranging audience, from residents of a nearby assisted-living center to students of other area dance schools. “The concerts are about pleasing a general public that knows nothing about dance, and who doesn’t necessarily love you because they are your parents,” Gold says. “A dance company in the real world has to make an audience feel something, to laugh or cry. If you can pull that off, you’ve done your job as an artist.”
As the school’s focus changed, Gold warned his students that the concert-style pieces they would now be presenting (rather than the standard competition fare) might not be met with enthusiasm from competition judges. “Sometimes they go over, sometimes not,” he says.
Take a piece called “Ancestors,” with simple movements and loose white clothing. The dancers thought Gold’s choreography “was the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen,” says former Gold School student Kellie Grant, a 2010 graduate of Emerson College in Boston. “But it was long and not flashy. It just didn’t translate to the judges.”
The dancers are OK with that. “We stood apart as dancers,” says Katie Kozul, a freshman in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program in dance, about her 12 years as a Gold School dancer. “It was all about the story, not about putting in a turn because we needed points. Competitions are good—we got inspired by other studios—but this gave us the potential to grow as dancers.”
Ross LeClair, a freshman in the New York University dance department, joined the Gold studio three years ago and noticed the difference in approach. “Especially coming from somewhere else, this was a big change,” he says. “[At The Gold School] we learned what art is and what it can do for us.”
Kellie Grant says the focus on artistry encouraged her to become a choreographer. In Across the Universe, a piece she created for the “Change My World” concert, she wanted to show how people connect through communication and relationships. She used imagery such as links and chains, hand holding, and even sign language to make her point.
“Rennie always gave us lots of opportunities to make our own decisions as dancers,” she says. “As a choreographer, [when] the students develop that, it helps your ability to put your vision on their bodies. We say what we want, and the kids understand how to put it on their bodies.”
Unlike recitals or competitions, the concerts teach the dancers how a professional dance performance is put together. Preparation for each show includes a tech week of onstage rehearsals, during which the kids are exposed to the setting of light cues, sound checks, and stage managing details. “This is an experience most kids their age never get. Because of this, they know a lot about how a real dance company works,” Gold says. “This has all paid off because I’ve watched a generation of my kids grow up with this, and I’ve seen what it’s done for them compared to the kids who never had it.”
Gold believes the combination of a strong technical base (at least three ballet and two modern technique classes a week), the emphasis on artistry, and the concert experiences is a winning one for his students. Many have been accepted into dance departments at prestigious schools such as Juilliard, Fordham University, and New York University, while many others dance professionally.
In a way, these concerts mark a return to The Gold School’s roots. When Gold was a child, his mother (and the studio’s founder), Sherry Gold, organized her best dancers into a troupe that did benefit shows. But over the years, as competitions became the rage, the benefit performances faded away. When Gold took over the studio upon his mother’s death, he says, “I just did exactly what she did.”
Gold’s thinking about the purpose of performing changed when a student showed him his application to Juilliard. One question—“When did you first discover you were an artist?”—struck him. “I had never looked at it that way,” he says. Then one day at a competition, a teacher from another school made a telling comment. “She said, ‘You should be doing your work for the general public,’ ” Gold says. “It got me thinking about the benefits we used to do.”
After the first lean years, the school learned how to harness the power of technology to promote the concerts. Gold knew that attracting the public to the concerts—not just parents—was the key to financial success. Last spring, five “video commercials” showing the dancers in rehearsal ran on YouTube, and the studio’s Facebook page was buzzing. With so much interest outside the dance studio, ticket sales skyrocketed. “We always had a bank account, but it would end up empty,” Gold says. “Now it has money in it. It’s an awesome feeling.”
This year, the power of dance to reach people and change lives took center stage at The Gold School. Throughout the year, the Project Moves dancers embraced the concert’s designated charity, Hugs for Healing, raising money through sponsorships. The charity donates tote bags filled with fun and helpful items to cancer patients, including the Hugs for Healing signature item—a sweatshirt sporting painted handprints representing “hugs” from family members.
In addition, parents held special fund-raising events. A “Yoga Day” at one mother’s yoga studio raised $700, while another mom’s “Pampered Chef” party brought in $600.
The most memorable moment happened in January when 11-year-old cancer patient Lexi Williams and her family met with the Project Moves dancers to talk about the reality of living with cancer. “It made me appreciate life more,” Matthew Gilmore, an eighth-grader, says.
“She just wants to go to school, but there’s so much craziness with the cancer, she’s just happy to get up every day,” says former Gold School student Kelsea Strucki, now a freshman at Marymount Manhattan College.
“It was one of the best days ever at our studio. It was a huge reminder to our kids about how lucky they are,” Gold says, adding that he and his faculty used Lexi’s experiences for choreographic inspiration. “Anytime a kid in rehearsal is looking tired, I say, ‘Remember, remember.’ And it works.”
At their two competitions this year, The Gold School dancers took home many of the top awards. But when interviewed for this story, all they wanted to talk about was the concert when Lexi and her family sat in the front row.
“In the concerts, you connect with each other and the audience,” Kelsea says. “I didn’t realize how much until I saw them in the front row, and the audience was crying. They understood what we were dancing.”