Centerwork: European Exposure

July 6, 2011

Imagine doing fouettés in Tuscany, making modern dances in Paris, or sipping tea in London while soaking up various dance cultures. These are but a few of the options available to college students choosing to study dance abroad, whether for a summer session or semester. And while the global dance scene has become more accessible, thanks to networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, there’s no virtual replacement for the transformative experience of living and dancing in a foreign country. Dance Magazine looked into three colleges offering such programs.


Artists of the World 

Karen Dearborn is director of dance at Muhlenberg College, a small liberal arts institution in Pennsylvania. Five years ago she founded the dance study-abroad program affiliated with Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo, Italy. She says response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive.

“One thing students gain is a new sense of artistry and what it means to be in the moment. Since it is an intense program of working with artists, a transformation takes place for those who want to open themselves up. It’s away from the hurry-up of America, and they learn what it means to be an artist of the world.”

The Arezzo program is diverse, with a focus on contemporary European dance. Classes are taught by, among others, Mark Wilson, who performed with Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal for five years. Other studies include butoh, led by Mitsuru Sasaki, who trained with butoh founders Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata; and tarantella, led by Gianni Bruschi. In the latter, students explore ritual dances of the ancient Mediterranean as a basis for contemporary work. In addition, the program requires studying Italian and philosophy of art. As for accommodations, students call an Italian villa, 45 minutes south of Florence, home.

Senior Jeremy Arnold, who studies dance and communications at Muhlenberg, says he didn’t feel he’d missed out on anything back at school during his semester in Italy. “You have a better understanding of how dance fits in the world and also how we as dancers fit within the world. It’s the most fertile ground to create art, and the dance program is very nurturing.”

Crossing Boundaries Across the Pond 

An equally picturesque place for study is France. Liz Claire is the founder and director of the French-based MADE (Movement Arts & Design in Europe), a program begun in 2008 and based at Washington University in St. Louis’ performing arts department. The month-long summer abroad program, which is also open to students from other universities, offers a survey of European art, dance, and costume design.

By spending time in Paris as well as in France’s Burgundy region, students have opportunities to engage in dialogue with French artists, which, Claire says, proves to be a rich cultural exchange.

“We begin with a course in Paris on dramaturgical research for the movement arts and combine it with costume design. And since our students work directly with European artists, it’s also eye-opening, as European artists have different skills, techniques, and approaches to the creative process. But the main benefit to studying your art and/or craft in France,” adds Claire, echoing Karen Dearborn of Muhlenberg, “is that you gain a deeper access to your artistic self.”

Claire points out that studying abroad is, by definition, rigorous. “Classes are extremely challenging and students are encouraged to think and act outside the box. Many professors tell me their students have grown after attending our program, that their work matures after the experience in France.”

One such course, says Claire, resulted in a site-specific sound-dance in the entrance to a wine cellar in Burgundy. “A sound installation was built with strings, metal coils, and electric triggers for pre-recorded sounds that responded to the movements of one student’s dancing body.”


Maya Orchin graduated from George Mason University last year after participating in MADE in 2009. She said being in France inspired her to move to Europe to dance. “MADE helped me decide what type of dance career I wanted, which was contemporary, and exposed me to the European style of dance. What was cool was that it wasn’t so competitive or focused on technique, but that it was more about dance as an art form. We also learned how to make costumes, which helped us create movement.”


Cosmopolitan Scholars

While both Muhlenberg and Washington University’s study abroad programs are optional, in 2006 Baltimore’s Goucher College made an abroad experience mandatory, with three-week, full-semester, and academic year programs available. Dance students’ options include London’s Middlesex University, the Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo, and the University of Ghana in Accra. Elizabeth Ahearn, chair of Goucher’s dance department, says that by gaining an international experience in a country other than their own, students benefit from a more cosmopolitan perspective.

“At Middlesex University in London, they are able to take advantage of all that city has to offer,” explains Ahearn. “There are wonderful libraries and bountiful opportunities to see a variety of dance forms in one of the world’s premiere cultural centers,” adding that students return with greater self-confidence and are able to think more creatively.

Middlesex, with its strong classical ballet and contemporary dance training, also has a range of course offerings, including Body/Mind/Movement, Dance Histories and Cultures, and Science of Movement. As a junior, Merril Doty spent her fall semester at Middlesex last year. With her studies concentrating on dance history and criticism, she says she was particularly pleased with the abroad program.

“There was a class in how cultures manifest themselves in London—for instance, how hip hop started in New York and is manifesting itself in England,” Doty says. “That was really interesting. The technique repertory of Middlesex was also history-based—with a lot of Graham, Humphrey, and Cunningham—and being a history person, I loved that. It was also rigorous—I took two or three dance classes a day. The whole experience was so different, even going to another, quote unquote, Western country. It was a wonderful change.”

In other words, have passport, will dance.



Victoria Looseleaf contributes to the
Los Angeles Times and teaches dance history at USC and Santa Monica College.


Muhlenberg students warming up before class in Arezzo, Italy, last April. Photo Jess Bien, Courtesy Muhlenberg.