Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Why Webster Dance Works


A year ago this month, I moved from Connecticut to St. Louis to take a teaching position in the Department of Dance at Webster University. It was a big move. Not only was I uprooting my family from the town that had been our home for the last ten years, but I was also leaving a job that I had taken great pride in.

The change was a risk, moving away from the East Coast to the Midwest, to a new city where I had no family or connections. What convinced me to make the move? What went into the decision to commit to the Department of Dance at Webster University?

While I was searching for a new position, I took into account my research focusing on the work of Clare Graves, Howard Gardner, and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. In a nutshell, I wanted to find a program that was employing a vision of dance education that was not merely the modernist paradigm that focused only on developing craft and discipline (the dancer) nor the postmodernist paradigm that focused only on nurturing creators and educators (the artist). Most programs I see engage some kind of either/or attitude toward these two approaches. I wanted to find a program with a vision that took a both/and attitude—one that taught depth of craft as well as creativity, one that created dance-artists.

H’Doubler/Hill Split
The split between educating the dancer and educating the artist can be traced back to two of the major icons in dance in higher education. Margart H’Doubler created the first college dance major at the University of Wisconsin. H’Doubler’s holistic approach to dance education was the precursor to the college dance program model that supports the training of creative/educational dancers. On the other side of the spectrum, Martha Hill was the first Director of Dance at the Juilliard School. Hill’s approach brought highly disciplined physical training into higher education and is the precursor to the conservatory model. Most programs either subscribe to one of these approaches or the other.

Conservatory vs Creative/Educational
Personally, I have seen both programs, either through my students from Connecticut who have gone on to pursue dance degrees or through my own participation as a teacher in a variety of dance departments. I have seen conservatory style programs that create technically proficient dancers, few of which have a deep understanding for the craft of choreography or a deeply considered teaching philosophy. They make wonderful company dancers but poor choreographers. I have also seen creative/educational style programs that create innovative young creative artists and informed pedagogues but without the necessary skills to sustain a performing career in dance.

Some version of this H’Doubler/Hill split seems to infiltrate every college dance program. When I was looking for a position, I wanted that unique mix where depth of craft and technique mattered just as much as creative and intellectual understanding of the dance field. I wanted a place that was not merely modernist or postmodernist, but truly a contemporary blend of the two. I found that in Webster Dance.

New Curriculum
There are a number of reasons why, after a full year teaching at Webster University, I believe Webster Dance works. One of those reasons is the new curriculum that was instituted by Department Chair Beckah Reed in 2011. Beckah worked tirelessly to design a new curriculum for Webster Dance that supports the development of both technically versatile and proficient dancers as well as creative and informed artists. There is a systemic intelligence in the curriculum that I believe will create seismic shifts in the coming years. From my years directing the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, I learned how powerful the affect was of good and bad curriculum design. To me, it is like looking under the hood of an engine to see what shape it is in. From the outside, it goes unnoticed, but after looking under the hood, you get a feel of whether the car will be able to make the long trip or break down just as it gets to top speed. From my perspective, Webster Dance will have a lasting and significant impact.

Technical, Depth of Craft Focus
Webster Dance has a long history of having a strong ballet foundation. Technical ballet training was the primary focus of Professor Emeritus Gary Hubler when he served for almost thirty years as director of Webster Dance. That focus continues today with ballet technique the basis for all training and classes in pointe, variations, pas de deux, and men’s classes. One way the we continue this technical emphasis is by having Michael Uthoff, executive and artistic director of Dance St. Louis, teach ballet for the department and set  choreography he had created in the past as director of the Hartford Ballet and Ballet Arizona.

Nurturant, Individualized Instruction
Balancing out the technical rigor is a nurturing, family-oriented atmosphere that allows for individualized attention. If you are the type of student that likes to hide in the back of a large studio and avoid being seen by the teacher, this is not the program for you. The faculty and students know each other well and support each other.This is not a Walmart styled program where you can get lost in the aisles amid the scattered boxes and congestion of people. This is a boutique program, where you encounter a personal, individualized, and sophisticated education.

Creative Sequence
As I mentioned before, a balance between depth of craft and creativity are important for the next generation of dance-artists. There is a creative sequence in the curriculum at Webster designed to support students as they find their own artistic voices. From a semester of improvisation in their freshman year, to two full years of composition courses, and then a senior year BFA Choreographic Project consisting of creating a solo, a duet/trio, and a group piece in a shared concert, the creative sequence prepares students with an in-depth understanding of being a choreographer while giving them tools they can use when they graduate to produce their own concerts and start their own companies.

Practical Skill Sequence
In addition to the academic courses from Webster University, the sequence of courses that Webster Dance students go through that exposes them to dance history, living anatomy and movement, health & nutrition, cross training, and pedagogy develops critical thinking skills that are vital for 21st century careers and life. Skill such as how to teach, how to write proposals, how to create and present a lecture/demonstration, how to promote a concert, how to write a press release, how to prepare a resume, and how to prepare a demo video are just some of the entrepreneurial lessons the program includes.

Community and Collaboration Opportunities
Webster Dance actively engages the community, teaching workshops, presenting lecture-demonstrations, performing in community festivals, and supplying residencies for local high schools. Students learn practical skills on how to do community outreach by participating in several of these each year. Not only does this prepare them for life in professional dance where outreach is an ever-growing focus for receiving grant support, but they also contribute to the positive exposure of the art of dance to the local community.

While I think I have laid out an accurate thumbnail of the program above, what is missing from my description is the grace and dignity with which this is accomplished. Students in the program receive the benefits from the experiences and education mentioned above while being treated respectfully as intelligent, creative, and dedicated aspiring artists. They are held to rigorous standards without being viewed simply as clay to be molded by faculty. They are expected to bring their own unique passion and vision to their work during their time in the program. 

Why does Webster Dance work? In my opinion, it works because it has a vision of contemporary dance education as a both/and rather than an either/or proposition. Webster Dance embraces the idea that you can develop to be both a technically proficient working dancer and a creative, informed artist and educator. To me, that is why Webster Dance works.