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Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - The World of Dance

by Gillian Ellis

Who in the world doesn’t dance? Some individuals, of course. We probably all know a person who may choose not to dance or who believes he or she can’t dance. But in the larger historic and geographic sense, it seems unlikely that there was ever a group of people who could resist the urge to move to a beat. Surely, as soon as there was rhythm, there was dance, and rhythm can be created just by beating two sticks together.

Before there was written history there must have been movement as an expression of emotion, ritual or celebration. In some ancient cultures, dance told stories preserved for generations without written record. In others, it produced a frenzy that prepared soldiers for battle or the trance-like state necessary for healing or prayer. And still today, in the Hindu tradition, the god Shiva dances to destroy, to sustain, to create the world. The earth’s very existence is dependent on his dance.

Many OU non-majors enjoy dance classes in world styles such as Indian, Middle Eastern, and Latin which are offered through our department, as are tap and jazz, in celebration of the world of dance.

To give dance majors the widest possible experience of the professional world of dance, the faculty frequently invites guest choreographers and dancers to teach master classes. There have been two such guests just in the past month.

Former Joffrey Ballet principal dancer Meg Paul, who is now Dance Director at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, taught February’s first master class. Alex Plaskey, dance major and co-president of Oakland Dance Theatre, says, “We have Meg Paul in house this week, which is a really exciting thing for us. It is an opportunity to dance for and with someone that we have never danced with before, and . . . the experience is always positive, since everyone is trying to absorb as much as they can from the . . . teacher. The guest artists have had incredible careers, and serve as an inspiration for me, because even though they may not be performing anymore, they are still involved in the dance 'world'. Much like professional football players become coaches, the same works for dance. It's comforting to see that there is life in dance beyond the stage!”

Later that week, Iris Wilson, a member of the original Broadway cast of Fela! and currently touring, came to campus to teach master classes based on African dance. She explained to the dancers that the movements she taught were not truly authentic, since African dance is very specifically purposeful. It is spiritual or ceremonial or for war. Certain movements, certain drumbeats are meant, for example, to bless the harvest or invoke rainfall. Certain others say, “I’m going to fight you.” She worked with the students on movement that was rooted in African dance, as distilled through the work of Bill T Jones, the great African-American choreographer who has won two Tony Awards, including one for Fela!

The students worked with great energy and determination, and most made enormous progress adapting their bodies to this new technique of dance, even within the time constrains of one class, as they at first copied movements and then developed their own combinations of “gestures” to add to Iris’s choreography. Their faces were alive with inspiration and the sheer fun of this new challenge. During the final moments of the class, the atmosphere was electric and filled with the kind of support and camaraderie that outsiders may not necessarily expect of young dancers who must compete with one another for places in performing ensembles.

Says Kayt Macmaster, a dance major and senior who spent some time in Ghana last summer and has a special interest in African dance, “Working with guest artists is an invaluable experience. Dance is a live art, therefore it is in a constant state of change. It is absolutely crucial to remain current in terms of training, knowing which performances are beginning and ending, and having vast knowledge about the companies that could be potential employers. This is rarely just the big three: Ailey, Paul Taylor, Martha Graham. OU does a wonderful job of introducing us to choreographers and performers who are accessible for us as dancers. Without taking classes with them here, we may never have otherwise learned of them because they are not household dance names.

“Class with Iris [Wilson] was amazing! So much fun! I couldn't have planned the coincidence with my dance if I tried. The dance I am creating for my senior recital project is going to be adjudicated at American College Dance Festival Association (ACDFA) in March, and I have been trying to explain to my dancers the difference between traditional African dance and African-based movement. Also, the nuances of African dance are SO different from Western dance. The class yesterday seemed to seal the difference I have been trying to make into the dancers' bodies, which was exciting to see! It was a good reminder for me, too. This summer I will be returning to teach my senior recital choreography to the Sakaamu Dance Troupe in Accra, Ghana. Iris's class helped bring some of the nuances back into my movement as well.” Watch some of Iris Wilson’s African dance inspired master class here.

Young dancers are invited to sample the OU dance experience for themselves by attending the dance program’s annual Dance Day, which this year is on Saturday, March 3. It features master classes in ballet and modern, taught by OU faculty and guest artist alex xan: the Median Movement, followed by performances by OU Repertory Dance Company, Oakland Dance Theatre, and Eisenhower Dance Theatre. Dancers wishing to register should contact Gregory Patterson, or dancers may walk-in and pay by check. No Dance Program Entry and Scholarship Auditions times are available for March 3, but there are still openings for auditions on Saturday, March 24. Visit our dance audition page for more information.

Fela! continues at the Detroit Music Hall until March 4.

Photos: Top: Meg Paul works with OU dancers. Photo by Thayer Jonutz.
Bottom: Iris Wilson works by OU dancers. Photo by Thayer Jonutz.