Striking a Balance

October 21, 2009





Domingo Estrada, Jr., didn’t plan on majoring in dance. He was thinking about an engineering degree when a high school guidance counselor, who knew he was an avid hip hop dancer, suggested he look for schools with dance programs. That led Estrada, a native of Victoria, Texas, to audition for the School for Classical and Contemporary Dance at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where he was offered a partial scholarship. “At that point, I saw dance as my destiny and decided to go,” says Estrada, who had next to no training in modern or ballet when he entered TCU.

Now, as a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Estrada makes use of his TCU training every day, particularly its dual emphasis on modern and ballet. Though it offers distinct BFAs in the two genres, the TCU dance department—which celebrates its 60th anniversary with a gala this month—sees both as equally necessary for all dancers.

The gala program reflects the breadth of the department today, with students performing works by Balanchine, Doris Humphrey, Robert Battle, and Jessica Lang. The event commemorates the 1949 launch of the university’s BFA in ballet—the first degree of its kind in the U.S.—as well as the department’s evolution. In the late 1960s, visionary department head Fernando Schaffenburg, an ex-Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo dancer, invited Jerry Bywaters Cochran, a Juilliard graduate and mother of Paul Taylor muse Mary Cochran, to teach modern to the ballet majors. The modern major was instituted in the ’70s. Since then, TCU alumni have gone on to dance for a wide range of companies, including Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, Boston Ballet, Paul Taylor, Atlanta Ballet, and the Broadway productions of Mamma Mia! and A Chorus Line.

“There was a time way back when modern majors sometimes felt like second-class students,” says department chair Ellen Page Shelton. “But our faculty is now enthusiastic and embracing of different styles. We take each others’ classes—ballet teachers go to modern class and vice versa.” And, she says, they encourage students to do the same. At faculty, guest artist, and student concerts, it’s not uncommon to see modern majors on pointe and ballet dancers barefoot. “The department feels unified,” says Shelton. And this fall, she notes, it’s bigger than ever, having admitted a record number of freshman dancers—38, versus the usual 20 to 25. “I did a little extra recruiting, because we weren’t sure what the economy would bring.”

For their first three semesters, all dance majors take ballet and modern technique classes daily. (Within modern, students learn Graham and Limón, as well as release and other postmodern techniques.) But even after they’ve chosen a concentration, many audit the dance courses not required for their degree, or choose, like Estrada, to double-major in both genres. “They get into the rhythm of two techniques and don’t want to give it up,” says Elizabeth Gillaspy, associate professor of ballet. Shelton adds, “They find the styles have nice ways of feeding each other.”

This was true for 2008 graduate Tess Bernard, who now dances with Festival Ballet Providence. Her double major in ballet and physics didn’t leave time for a third major in modern. But her modern training, she says, has made her a more grounded dancer. “I learned to use my breath and to move with less effort, instead of trying to muscle through everything.” Having been “obsessed with ballet,” Bernard says, in high school, this approach came as a pleasant surprise. “I also saw that there were plenty of scholarly approaches to dance—kinesiology, dance history—that were intriguing and satisfying.”


Laying the groundwork for four years of training, TCU requires a weeklong bodywork intensive for all freshman dancers, taught by movement analysis and ideokinesis expert Deborah Vogel. Students explore how to move more efficiently and maximize their potential given individual tendencies and weaknesses. “Up to then, for most, dance has just been about doing steps,” says Gillaspy. “This begins to make it about understanding.” Estrada says the course was hugely helpful as he began his training. “It showed me how to use technique in the way that would benefit me most,” he says.

Students also benefit, says Shelton, from TCU’s teacher rotation practice, which challenges them to pick up new movement quickly. They take ballet with, say, Gillaspy three days per week and then with professor of professional practice Li-Chou Cheng for two. A similar switch-off happens in modern classes, so that students can’t get too set in any one teacher’s ways. “They have to be ready for anything,” says Shelton.

The ballet and modern tracks at TCU don’t have specific emphases, such as performance or pedagogy. “It seems to work for us to have all students take everything—teaching, theory, choreography,” says Shelton. “Students come in knowing they love to dance but don’t know where they’ll end up. Our job is to expose them to the field, so they can see what captivates them.” Shelton remembers a ballet major who first encountered flamenco at TCU. Her fascination with the form eventually led her to Spain, where she danced professionally. “She’s a spitfire now,” says Shelton, “and that wasn’t so when she was in college. You never know what will excite someone, so we try to provide lots of possible hooks.”

The department also allows students to seek degrees outside of dance, though this sometimes requires putting in an extra year or two. Bernard (who managed to finish in four years) says her physics degree informed her dancing philosophically. She saw interesting crossovers when studying randomness and chance, for example, and would like to explore those concepts in choreography. Though she’s not making dances these days, TCU’s strong emphasis on composition enriched her as an artist, she says. “It helps to understand choreographic structure when learning new movement, to know how to see and analyze dance. Now in the professional world, I can tell which dancers have had good exposure to composition and which haven’t.”

It is TCU’s desire to develop artists with this level of curiosity, vision, and adaptability. “We hope to give our students the tools they need to translate their passion for dance into a life that includes it,” says Gillaspy. “The dance world has no guarantees, so I’m always inspired by the risks students take. One of our graduates started her own dance company in Chicago, another is in New York dancing and doing photography, another is a doctor whose dance training is vital to her practice. I’m always impressed by their ability to carve their own way.”



Janet Weeks is editor of the Dance Magazine College Guide, contributing editor for Dance Teacher, and a TCU graduate.


Photo by Marty Sohl, courtesy TCU