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Dance program leaps forward

November 27, 2000

Mary Ann Travis

Seventeen dancers dancing, pointing, leaping, spiraling, whirling. Dressed primarily in black with occasional leotard-splashes of color, they pause to carefully watch the instructor--guest artist Denise Jefferson--and then imitate and interpret her moves. A drummer slaps a bongo beat. Among the dancers in the third-floor dance studio of McWilliams Hall are assistant professor of dance Adele Myers and associate professor of dance Barbara Hayley.

The tops of Newcomb oak trees are visible from tall windows as the professors jump as high as or higher than any undergraduate. Tension and release. Attack and energy. Power from the center back. That's what Jefferson says she's looking for. "I'd love to see more physical commitment," says Jefferson, who speaks quietly, but whose every movement illustrates her words.

"I want you to be more precise so we can move with our musician. Travel across the room as if your life depended on it." This fall, the Newcomb dance program opened for the first time a dance major in both the bachelor of arts and bachelor of fine arts degree programs.
 
A minor in dance has been offered since 1985. And guest artists such as Jefferson, director of the Alvin Ailey American School of Dance in New York, contribute to the variety and collaborative nature of the program. Jefferson taught modern dance classes in the McWilliams dance studio for three days in November. She had also taught Hayley in the early 1980s when Hayley was a graduate student at New York University.

"Guest artists are vital to the dance program because they expose students to different points of view," says Hayley. "Sometimes a different voice will trigger the impulse that will make everything fall into place." A new voice added to the full-time dance faculty this fall is that of Myers. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Myers spent six years as a professional dancer with the Joy Kellman Dance Co. in New York before earning her master of fine arts from Florida State University.

"Adele is a breath of fresh air," says Hayley. Myers also is a bundle of energy and imagination. She's the dancer in Jefferson's class with the brightest neon-green dancewear. "Dance should take you beyond where you are on a daily basis," Myers says.

"Sometimes I feel like a colt," Myers adds. "The joy of dancing is why we do it." Myers welcomes the opportunity her new position gives her to nurture her passion for choreography.

Ze Moxy Baloop, a piece choreographed by Myers and presented by the Chattanooga Ballet this fall, also will be performed at the Newcomb Dance Company's Evening of Dance in February. "It means saucy dance," explains Myers, who says she's on an audience-friendly mission to create dances that aren't superfluous.

"It's really about the thrill of motion. That's what I'm investigating now." Myers says it's a real pleasure to work with Hayley and the other associate professors of dance Alice Pascal-Escher and Beverly Trask. "They accomplish so much. We all learn from each other. Dance requires creativity and intuition, but faculty will tell you that this art form also is steeped in tradition, history and lineage. It demands new young dancers and choreographers to innovate and push boundaries." Myers is impressed with the eight students this year who have declared dance as a major. "They are thinking dancers. Very curious, very intelligent."

Hayley agrees. "The students are pushing us, taking the initiative. The dance majors spur another edge to the program," Hayley says. "It's fun to be training and working with these students because they give so much back in that mentality. Educating dance professionals means that the program has to constantly be re-evaluated," says Hayley. "We have to keep it so that these students are competitive in the professional field. We want to be able to give them options that will allow them to dance and work as creative and independent contributors in the world. Interdisciplinary work is tied to the holistic focus of the Newcomb dance program," say Hayley and Myers.

Members of the dance faculty and guest artists have shared their work with the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women as well as community groups. And plans are afoot for joint projects with the Center for Bioenvironmental Research and the School of Architecture. This fall's Mellon professor, Barbara Browning, a professor of performance studies at New York University, integrates dance into a two-day symposium, Performance and Healing in the African Diaspora, on Dec. 12. (See Inside Tulane's calendar.)

"Dance is no longer simply teaching steps and creating dances that are combinations of those steps," says Hayley. "It's addressing issues that matter to people in our contemporary life. That's what's exciting about being in the field now. The dance curriculum is especially linked to the theater curriculumand the two disciplines form one academic department. Just this year with the theater faculty we have designed some interdisciplinary courses that will be core curriculum for both dance and theater majors," says Hayley.

"As Marty Sachs [associate professor of theater], the chair of our department, says, The curriculum is a living and breathing thing. That seems to be the essence of it. We're moving forward."

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