In Training: To the Beat of the Drum
College students explore African dance.
A University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee student in performance. Photo by Mark Frohna, courtesy UWM.
What makes a well-rounded dancer? A strong base in ballet and modern comes to mind. But African dance, which has unique rhythmic structures and emphasizes use of the full body, can deepen your understanding of musicality and movement. Many college programs are prioritizing the study of the techniques, history and music, while exposing students to rep from African dance–influenced artists working today. “We are providing dancers who are much more marketable,” says Ferne Caulker Bronson, creator of the African dance track at University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. “The playing field is different now. There are a lot of choreographers out there who are using African dance as a base.”
Degrees offered: BFA or BA in dance with an optional certificate in African Culture Through Music and Dance
No. of dance majors: 50-plus
Courses: All majors take at least two levels of African dance, and intermediate and advanced levels also take music. History and culture courses are offered to all students.
Performance opps: Select students join the OU African Ensemble, which performs in the school’s World Music and Dance Festival Concert and a festival in Athens. They have toured to other cities in the U.S. and Canada.
Guest artists: Recent ones include Urban Bush Women and National Dance Company of Ghana artistic director Nii-Tete Yartey.
Study abroad: OU offers a three-week intensive in Ghana.
- Some students join Azaguno, a professional African music and dance group with ties to OU. This summer, it performed at the National Theatre of Ghana.
University of Florida
Degrees offered: BFA or BA in dance
No. of dance majors: About 60
Courses: BFA students take at least two levels of West African technique. Other courses focus on African history, repertory and performance, and drumming and other percussion.
Performance opps: Dancers can join the school’s African dance ensemble, AGBEDIDI, after taking specific courses. Students perform alongside guest artists in an annual West African concert on campus, participate in African dance-related events in UF’s summer festival and do outreach in the community.
Guest artists: About four guests come each year through UF’s Center for World Arts. Recent ones include Congolese choreographer Faustin Linyekula and Panaibra Gabriel Canda, founder of Mozambique’s first contemporary dance company.
Study abroad: UF has a relationship with Senegal’s Ecole des Sables dance school.
- UF’s Center for World Arts also hosts artists-in-residence from China and Latin America.
University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee
Degrees offered: BFA or BA in dance, with an Africa and the Diaspora track (only available to BFAs)
No. of dance majors: About 100
Courses: Students in the track take six-plus semesters of African dance, plus African percussion and history of Africa and the Diaspora.
Performance opps: UWM holds one major concert for African dance-focused students each year. Ko-Thi Dance Company, an African and Caribbean dance ensemble, is affiliated with the university and rehearses on campus. Students sit in on rehearsals, take workshops with company dancers and sometimes perform and tour with them.
Guest artists: Every semester, a guest has a week-long residency. Artists have included Assane Konte, artistic director of KanKouran West African Dance Company in Washington, DC, and Amaniyea Payne, artistic director of Muntu Dance Theatre in Chicago.
Study abroad: Every other summer, the department leads a trip to Brazil, where students study the influence of African traditions there.
- Ko-Thi Dance Company also offers internships for students, in marketing, administration and development.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.