Dancing through Duke
Although movement touches every aspect of our lives, conveying messages just as words and images do, dance is not often considered a required mode of learning in the conversation of liberal arts. It is often sequestered away as something only relevant for those who wish to perform. Yet dance encompasses more than just fine art; it acts as a physical text of culture, history, communication and healing.
Duke, compared to other mid-sized research universities, places a strong emphasis on understanding dance through an interdisciplinary major that trains students in artistic performance and the verbal and cultural dialogue around dance. While many of Duke’s peer institutions including Brown University, Stanford University and University of Chicago offer dance classes only within their theater and performance studies departments, the Duke Dance Program offers its own major and minor, as well as opportunities to graduate with distinction and complete senior projects in choreography.
“Duke has become the go-to place for students who have a passion for dance but want to be at a rigorous academic institution,” said Barbara Dickinson, director of undergraduate studies and former director of the dance program. “Not very many schools [like Duke] have a rigorous institution for dance, such as a full ballet program or a specialization in African dance.”
Ambition ‘beyond just dance’
For students who have spent days and nights practicing in the studio and rehearsing for auditions, a college experience without dance is nearly unimaginable. Junior Ellen Brown has been dancing since she was three years old, and said she ultimately chose Duke because she knew the time and training that she invested in her passion would not go to waste.
“Sometimes I hear about how much my friends dance at conservatories and wish I had gone to one,” Brown said, comparing Duke to art schools where students train in music, theater or dance. “But I get to dance just as much here at Duke, if not more. We definitely have more opportunities to perform.”
Brown is currently the co-president of On Tap, the student tap dance group, and vice president of the Duke Dance Council. Over the years, she has learned ballet, modern, jazz, tap and even Scottish Highland dancing.
Not only has Brown been able to perform frequently at Duke, which other schools would probably not have allowed her to do until junior or senior year, but she has also been able to delve into other intellectual interests. Now a double major in dance and psychology, Brown’s curriculum combines concepts of physical movement and the body and mind, which has led her to want to pursue dance therapy after college.
Senior Zsofia Solta similarly aspired to become a professional ballerina up until her last year in high school. Routinely commuting more than an hour from Connecticut to New York to take classes and rehearse, Solta deliberately pushed herself to face the competitive nature of dance in the city. Yet when college application season came around, she realized she didn’t want to have the intellectually narrowing college experience that dance schools might offer.
After looking into the dance program at Duke, she decided to fly down to Durham and test a few classes.
“When I came to visit, I met a bunch of students who would be in a rush to their biology or anthropology class right after dance,” Solta said. “They seemed so ambitious in ways beyond just dance, and the environment was just something that I immediately latched onto.”
Duke’s program allows students to pursue academic interests outside of dance, but its relatively small size creates a sense of intimacy. While the classes themselves are open to all students and can range from 20 to 30 people, the actual department only has six declared majors and six minors.
“The intimacy of our program allows our faculty to spend a lot of time with students,” Dance Program Director Keval Khalsa said. “We’re invested in helping students develop their own personal voice in dance and that’s really unique to the program here.”
Senior Matt Jones, for example, chose to major in psychology and minor in visual studies, yet his involvement in the program inspired and influenced his identity and confidence in dance. Jones had always been self-conscious about his skills and performance, partly due to his tall six-foot-five height, and doubted his potential career.
“Duke has definitely helped my self-esteem in dance,” Jones said. ”It’s such a small community of dancers here, and we all know that we could have chosen a dance school and pursued that. We’re always encouraging each other and lifting each other up to reach our highest goals.”
The dance program here differs from conservatories in that their overarching objectives for students transcends just performance. Rather than focusing on the competition, body type or technique, the program allows students the freedom to feel comfortable about struggle, vulnerability and development.
“We look at the dancer as a whole person, body and mind, and really focus on individual growth,” Dickinson said. “At a dance company, they might not even take a second glance at you if they know you won’t make it as a professional dancer. That’s what makes our program different and unique and really, quite intimate.”
Physical and academic rigor
While the program continues to foster these relationships and atmosphere of closeness, it has also maintained the same academic rigor that other Trinity College of Arts and Sciences majors require. Through different lecture-based and studio courses, the major aims to shape students into flexible, creative thinkers who can critically evaluate multiple perspectives, according to the Duke Dance Program’s mission statement. Not only are students expected to understand the principles of performance and choreography, but they are also expected to use research methodology to discuss and analyze dance theory and cultural history.
“We want students to know and learn dance in its cultural context, really understand where physical behavior is derived,” Dickinson said. “Dance is a step to something much larger—it’s a deep communication that paints a deeper message.”
Cultural context for dance lies at the heart of courses like West African Rootholds in Dance, taught by Associate Professor Ava LaVonne Vinesett. The lecture and laboratory course examines the aesthetics and traditions for African dance forms and their connections with culture, health, politics and spirituality.
“You gain another perspective of the world by actually studying the movement of the body,” Vinesett said. “When we’re composing dances and choreographing pieces and talking to students about their bodies in space as this expressive tool, you have to have a wide pool of knowledge to pull from.”
Students have found that learning the more theoretical components of dance also enhances their sense of artistry, as they begin to learn the context of the movement they are experimenting with.
“Coming out of high school, it is difficult to get dancers to actually sit down and talk about dance,” Solta said. “There’s this obsession for perfection in dance, and the idea is that perfection comes with rehearsal, sweat and practice. At college, I’ve realized that you also need to sit down and think a little about what you’re doing.”
Engaging in this cross-cultural dialogue of dance histories offers a dual experience for students, allowing a time for both self-discovery and exploration in newer, unconventional spaces. Associate Professor of the Practice Andrea Woods Valdés draws her inspiration for modern dance from the African Diaspora, African and Caribbean music, social dance forms and literature, and aims to bring this sensibility into the classroom.
“I don’t present my work as a sort of dogma or propaganda,” Woods Valdés said. “I hope that students can reflect on who they are themselves through my work. As much as I love the specific, intense study of what I do, it has to ripple out and I have to be in other spaces other than my cultural heritage or gender.”
Beyond the classroomSome students have found that in addition to the program’s course offerings, various extracurricular dance groups have also helped them immerse in unfamiliar cultures. Senior Rebecca Pham, a dance and biology double major, and member of Defining Movement and Dhamaka, said that student groups have helped her grow in a diversity of styles.
“Learning about the history behind bhangra, the props we use, and why we use them is fascinating to me,” Pham said. “There are so many nuances to the dance. It’s definitely more than just learning movement but also a culture.”
Before Dhamaka members go onstage to perform, they present an offering to a god through their hands and arms. Hair, makeup and costume all comprise a Punjabi ritual inseparable from the motions of the dance itself, Pham said.
Similarly, sophomore Maurice Dowell has been able to weave his exposure to different cultures into his dance lifestyle through Defining Movement, a dance group dedicated to preserving and performing multicultural forms of dance.
“Learning the dances during Lunar New Year season and hearing how each step was rooted in a story and tradition has always been interesting for me,” Dowell said. “There’s not always that active learning with your peers in courses offered by the major.”
An education to fall back on
Dowell also feeds his creative dance outlet at the new American Dance Festival office on Broad Street. Founded in 1934, ADP has been known to encourage and support up-and-coming modern dance work by both “established and emerging choreographers,” according to the organization’s website. Given its more progressive edge, some students have found that they are able to stretch their dance range through the different intensives and programs they offer.
During Dowell’s time as the studio assistant at ADF, he was also offered the opportunity to perform with the Gaspard & Dancers Company, an unusual experience at Duke or in Durham but made possible by an unlikely connection—the founder of the dance company, Gaspard Louis, is married to ADF Director Jodee Nimerichter. Dowell’s unique chance to perform in a professional company while still pursuing a full academic career at Duke doesn’t necessarily mean that his two identities never clash.
“Sometimes I wish I went to a conservatory because all I want to do is dance,” Dowell said. “But there are other days when I just want to learn something. It’s difficult to reconcile these two different identities, but it’s nice to have education to fall back on if I don’t become a dancer.”
For most students, education would never cross their minds as a back-up plan. If anything, their education becomes the foundation for their career aspirations. For those on a more preprofessional track, what they learn in class is actually transferable to a professional environment. Yet Dowell said he has come to find that, in the end, this type of environment has strengthened his identity as a dancer.
“I would definitely identify first as a dancer,” he said. “It’s weird to say this, but I feel like Duke has reinforced that on me—I’m a dancer first and a student second. I want to dance professionally.”
Beyond the Duke bubble
Kristie Landing, Trinity ’13, questioned her dreams to become a professional dancer as an undergraduate. When her friends around her were slowly searching for jobs in business or preparing for graduate schools, she took a leap of faith and moved to New York City after graduation to find dance opportunities.
“I definitely feel more confident now that I’m here,” Landing said.
While her competitors may have attended conservatories and had a more dance-focused college experience, she feels that Duke has allowed her to feel strong and comfortable about herself as a dancer.
“The program helps you realize you’re a beautiful person and dancer,” she said. “You’re not dragged down in that unhealthy mindset a lot of dancers find themselves in.”
Outside of the intimacy of the Duke Dance Program, where the desire to perform for a dance company onstage is more common, if not tangible, dancers can often feel alone in their pursuits.
“It’s sometimes scary because I forget how many people out there are actually trying to perform like me because so few of them are here at Duke,” Brown said.
Every year, Brown attends the American College Dance Festival where college dancers from different regions come to take classes and perform together. There, Brown is reminded that more than just the 12 people in the dance program are hungry for performance the same way she is.
“If the festival were my everyday, I would get discouraged,” she said. “Being here I get to become more of an individual in the type of dancer that I am.”