Dance department takes novel approach

Sarah Eberspacher

For the 30 dance majors, two graduate students, five full-time professors and seven adjunct professors in the School of Communication Dance program, the craft and study of dance is beginning to reflect the changes of the 21st century.

For instructors, that means dividing their time between the classroom and projects in Evanston and beyond. For students, it means challenging the boundaries of what an undergraduate dance program can achieve, both at the academic and extracurricular levels.

“(Dance) involves technology,” said Rives Collins, the current Dance department chair, who has worked in the School of Communication for 23 years. “This is an education for me as well. All of a sudden, dance involves spoken word, songs, mash-ups ­­- common in terms of sound design.”

These new ways of approaching the discipline come from both students and faculty, Collins said. Students have the opportunity to work on programs such as the New Movement Project, a student-choreographed and -performed event taking place in late November. But faculty members also go beyond the Northwestern campus to work on projects outside of Evanston, Chicago and even the United States.

Billy Siegenfeld is a full-time professor in the department. Off-campus, he focuses on his work as the founder, artistic director, principal choreographer and ensemble performer for the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. The company puts on performances all over the world, demonstrating the “very rhythm-based approach” to dance that has caught on in the last 20 years, Siegenfeld said.

Maintaining ties with a company outside of NU and not just teaching classes as a full-time professor is important for both fulfilling his “research” requirement to the University, as well as for the benefit of the students he teaches, Siegenfeld said.

“This area of research that I’m pursuing is not meant to be something confined to the academy but taken beyond,” he said. “I’m doing the work outside because it feeds my teaching. I do the teaching to feed my creative my work. It’s a totally symbiotic relationship.”

Jacklyn Giannitrapani has benefited from having professors who continue to perform, choreograph and work on other ventures outside of NU, she said.

“These teachers have taught all around Chicago and beyond,” the Communication sophomore said. “They can bring their experiences and their knowledge and even other teachers and guest teachers and guest artists in – with that network of interaction, they have a broader scope to go from.”

Still, Giannitrapani, who is changing her major from dance at the end of the quarter, said she worries about the small size of the department and the difficulties this poses to non-dance majors who want to take classes in the discipline.

“I’ve been dancing my entire life, and it’s my highest passion,” she said. “(But) I’m worried I won’t have the convenience of taking classes here (as a non-major) because it’s so difficult to get in.”

While dance majors and minors register for classes without a problem, students outside the program can run into trouble when trying to register, said Communication senior Kimberly Dooley.

“It’s sad because there’s just not enough funding and faculty to provide as many classes as we would need to serve that kind of demand,” she said.

The department is aware of its limitations right now, as is the University, Collins said. In light of economic hardship and limited space for expansion, the program must strive for “excellence in the classroom,” rather than increasing the number of faculty members or studio spaces, Collins said.

“I would love to expand the theater faculty, the dance faculty,” he said. “But, I recognize that we are in challenging economic times. I’m talking to colleagues at other universities that are talking about having to cut so many positions – I’m really proud of the fact that we’re not cutting any teaching or staff.”

While waiting for such expansions, the hfaculty will continue to focus on their three teaching imperatives: teaching, service and research, Siegenfeld said.

“I want students to not just think of being a dancer, choreographer, teacher, or writer – be them all,” he said. “Obviously students can’t do all of those at once, but if they increase the number of options they have, it makes the chances of gaining a foothold in the professional world better.”

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