Making It Happen: Pittsburgh Goes Global
Point Park University students celebrate world dance.
PPU students with Judith Leifer-Bentz, Photo: John Mckieth, Courtesy Point Park
Just a hop, skip, and a grand jeté from the Monongahela River, Point Park University’s burgeoning academic village expands past downtown Pittsburgh, while its global outlook embraces the outside world. This March, an annual food, craft, and music festival highlighted the flavors of Australia, Tibet, Ireland, Vietnam, and other countries. And at the month’s end, the university’s eight airy dance studios overflowed capacity, offering students a taste of butoh, Latin, Ukrainian, West African, and Middle Eastern dance.
While the food and music festival is an initiative of Point Park’s Office of International Student Services and Enrollment, the dance festival is entirely student run. “The two international celebrations are independent events, but we try to overlap them,” says Megan Meyer, current president of the Dance Club, which has sponsored Point Park’s World Cultural Dance Week for the last four years.
A brainchild of past Dance Club president Shonica Gooden, WCDW was modeled on a program from her former high school that allowed students to explore dances of various cultures. Gooden, a 2011 grad who is currently dancing in Rogers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway, had hoped that a series of diverse master classes would not only expand the club’s visibility across campus, but also provide artistic connections outside Point Park’s Conservatory of Performing Arts.
“Exposing students to world dance is so important,” says PPU jazz teacher Kiesha Lalama. “[This week] forces students to step out beyond what they know and it deepens their appreciation of all kinds of dance.” Though PPU’s dance curriculum already includes classes in character, folk, ballroom, and Dunham technique, WCDW “shows what else they are hungry for, and they make it happen for themselves.”
Students began planning for this spring’s festival last October. Meyer and club officers arranged for funding from PPU’s United Student Government coalition; additional costs were offset with earnings from club raffles and bake sales. They looked for professional dancers from the outside community who might be able to teach, and scheduled classes that would be open to the entire university population.
Dance faculty members give up their usual class slots in order to make time for WCDW events. For instance, Lalama hosted two workshops: one taught by PPU alum Natalie M. Kapeluck, artistic director of Kyiv Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, and the other by Desiree S. Lee, a West African dance specialist. Salsa and cha-cha instruction replaced a Horton class, and in place of Judith Leifer-Bentz’s Graham-based modern class, Lani Fand Weissbach, the founder of Erie-based Shen & Bones Performance Group, led an introduction to butoh.
Freshman dance major Christian Warner enthused over the opportunity for self-discovery. The classes, he said, “brought different things to me. West African was very energetic; butoh was very internal. I’m so glad that I got to participate.” Butoh in particular taught him to trust his body and to approach something new with an open mind.
Experiences like Warner’s are exactly what makes WCDW so successful, and Dance Club president Meyer says that the 2013 events exceeded her expectations. “Some students had to observe classes, because there wasn’t enough space for them to participate,” she says, noting her plans for expansion in 2014. “There’s always room for new styles,” she says. “In the past we’ve had hula and East Indian Classical Dance. Native American might be cool to try next.”
Karen Dacko is a Point Park University alumna and a former Dance Club secretary.