Five-College Dancers Mark Two
Maybe there's a whiff of inspiration left in the dance studios from the days when Baryshnikov trained at Mount Holyoke. Maybe it's because our Five College Dance Department (FCDD) is the second largest dance department in the nation. With many reasons behind its success, FCDD is marking its twentieth anniversary with a yearlong series of master classes, performances, workshops, and teaching residencies.
There's lots to applaud in this unique collaboration among Mount Holyoke, Amherst, Smith, and Hampshire Colleges and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Joint planning lets the FCDD offer more than one hundred dance courses to some 1,000 students in a typical semester. Ballet, jazz, and modern dance are joined by a vast array of courses in dance technique, composition, performance, theory, history, science-based dance study, and cultural dance forms such as West African, Chinese, flamenco, Butoh, Indian, and Javanese.
Graduates of the program "have gone on to professional performing careers at the highest levels," says Jim Coleman, FCDD chair. Alums have danced in national companies-with Trisha Brown, Mark Morris, Pilobolus, Doug Elkins, Donald Byrd, Paula Josa-Jones, Bebe Miller, and David Parsons, to name just a few. "These are the kinds of careers people typically associate only with dance conservatory training," Coleman explains.
"The best thing about having a Five College dance department is that it allows for a greater variety of dance technique," says Naomi Wimberley-Hartman '00. This is enhanced by prominent visiting artists such as Bebe Miller, Marta Renzi, Stephen Petronio, Butoh artist Nia Love, and Virginia Johnson, former principal ballerina for the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
"No one college could offer the variety of courses that the Five Colleges does," agrees Suzanne Wiltgen '99, who also appreciates the abundant performance opportunities. "Each college has a faculty dance concert, student dance concert, senior thesis concerts, the Five College faculty concert, and performances by master's degree students," says Wiltgen, who is dancing in Ůve concerts this year alone. "You have a tremendous opportunity to work with an enormous variety of people as well as to create your own work."
The FCDD has depth, too, with six levels of instruction offered in modern, ballet, and jazz dance. And although those with no dance experience are welcomed, the artistry in upper-level classes impresses even accomplished dancers. "When prospective students watch dance classes here, many are surprised to see that the technical level is equal to that at conservatory-like schools," says Charles Flachs, MHC assistant professor of dance. "And if they've seen dance classes at other small liberal arts colleges, they see a big difference in the technical level here."
FCDD classes are small, training is rigorous, and a thriving repertory program provides frequent opportunities for students to perform. "You can dance Ůve days a week, choreograph, and perform in three concerts a semester if you want," says dance and English double major Rain Ross '00. "It all depends on how much intensity you want in studying dance." Ross has performed each semester so far, and plans a senior honors thesis comparing ballets with the literature from which they were developed.
"Students are mentored here, and the focus is on each individual's strengths," says assistant professor of dance Rose Flachs. "The dance professors I've worked with are approachable, encouraging, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable," says Katie Krokey '01. "They have helped me pursue my particular interests, pushed me to grow, and seem genuinely interested in what I want to do." Abby R. Yager '92, now a dancer with the Trisha Brown Company, one of America's premier modern dance troupes, recalls of her FCDD days, "We worked in a small group and received enormous encouragement and support. I remember learning while also having a blast."
Young dancers serious about the art form are sometimes torn between studying dance exclusively and getting a broader education. "People might assume that purely practical dance training is the best way to go, but I'm not sure I agree," says Yager. "At a liberal arts college, you can also study art, literature, music, science, anthropology-all the academic disciplines-and that gives you a broader perspective on whatever you're doing in dance."
"I get a much fuller, interdisciplinary experience by studying at a liberal arts college," agrees Katie Krokey. "The dance courses draw from multiple disciplines, and I get a still broader base from courses taken in other departments. Some of my best experiences have involved seeing how a geology, English, or studio art major brings her perspective to the study of dance. Also, I can apply my biology background to dance in understanding the structures and functions of the body, and literature courses help with the rhythm, cadence, and structure of a dance."
Naomi Wimberley-Hartman adds, "A liberal arts education allows you to become a thinking dancer. For example, if you walk into technique class and the teacher says, 'Stretch your sternocleidomastoid,' you know what to stretch. Or you might create a piece of choreography based on readings from a religion course."
"Students come here because they have a number of interests, and they can get the level of dance training they'd get at a conservatory while also training in other academic areas," says Jim Coleman. The liberal arts context also offers other opportunities, such as Rain Ross's summer internship dancing with a ballet company in South Africa and Suzanne Wiltgen's year studying dance in Brazil.
"If students aren't aiming for a professional dance career, they have hundreds of other options due to the other courses they take at Mount Holyoke," says Charles Flachs. FCDD alumni are working in dance administration, dance education, dance anthropology, cultural studies and criticism, and physical therapy, and as professional dancers. Rose Flachs adds, "Dance can instill qualities that students will use throughout life, qualities including discipline, strong focus, dedication, creativity, self-confidence, and risk taking. No matter what they do after graduation, these qualities will last forever." Above: Alumni of the Five College Dance Department gave a gala concert to celebrate the program's twentieth anniversary. Dancers for this piece, "All About Richard," included Marya K. Wethers '97 (top).
Photo Collage by Andy Owens