Students flew from the catwalks, cartwheeled overhead, scrambled down poles and swept across the room, enthralling audiences packed wall-to-wall within the Black Box — or so the story goes. “X” stood for “Extravaganza” because that was what the Fir Acres dance show was: a wacky and wild pop-up spectacle that pushed the limits of the dancers and the space in which they performed. Although the program now is graciously granted the mainstage for the Dance X performance, receives departmental funding and continues to honor students’ desires to showcase their work, the unbridled potential that defined the fall Dance X performances and dance program 22 years ago seems rather mythic.
One would assume that more support for the show would spur further improvement, but Lewis & Clark’s dance program as a whole continues to suffer from insufficient support and opportunity for extensive development. We have been unable to expand our repertoire past the very few, basic classes offered each year and have limited access to adequate rehearsal spaces; this lack of growth has greatly hindered the program’s ability to fully serve the dance community at LC.
Although we have a theatre minor in place that allows for a dance concentration (“dance minor” is thus used loosely), it is difficult to describe the program as rigorous or beneficial to those looking to greatly improve their technical skills. Our dance program is defined by its inclusivity, meaning that courses are designed to serve interested students regardless of their movement experience or body ability. While this quality is cause for much of our pride and praise, the program’s resulting structure does not leave room for upper-division courses focused on technical training. Our course levels do not extend past 200, Composition and Improvisation (TH-308) being the exception; even then, many students who enroll are beginners. Additionally, two of the four technique classes available in the program, Contemporary Dance Forms I and II (TH-108, 208), are being phased out next spring. This limits the opportunities for minors or previously trained dancers to hone upper-level skills.
As it stands, the dance program has only two professors. When Susan Davis takes sabbatical next year, Eric Nordstrom will be the sole instructor within the dance program and will be forced to cut one course from the program’s already limited schedule. Not only should professors be able to take sabbatical without leaving their program short-staffed, but remaining faculty should be provided with the resources needed to successfully run the program. In an attempt to alleviate this burden, Davis and Nordstrom proposed hiring guest teachers or adjuncts to bring fresh energy as well as new classes to the program. One such course would have surveyed styles such as African, hip hop and contemporary, ultimately replacing Contemporary Dance Forms I and II. The proposal was rejected, reflecting campus-wide budget cuts.
The amount of useable dance space within the department also limits class availability as well as the efficiency with which we can practice, create and improve our art. The Black Box Theater in Fir Acres was built for one department, but two types of programs; because our work is rarely collaborative, theatre- and dance-concentration students partake in the battle for the Black Box on a daily basis. Because theatre projects tend to be prioritized when it comes to reserving the Black Box and no alternative space is available, dance students resort to using rooms that are neither built nor maintained in a way that make them conducive to dance. For example, our entire spring show, Dance Y, must be rehearsed in rooms such as Smith Hall or Miller classrooms. Between the food and ants littering the floor of Smith and having to dodge desks while getting carpet burns in Miller, these spaces prevent us from fully executing movement during rehearsals and stifle our creative process. A building project has been considered as a solution to add a dance studio, new dressing rooms and office spaces. The blueprints have already been drawn, but it would cost about $4 million — ouch. Because we do not have enough donors for such an expense, this further stymies our development.
I understand that a building or budget increase at this point is unrealistic, but I nevertheless implore decision-makers to recognize the consequences of ignoring our program’s needs as well as to understand the growth that could occur if some of these needs were met. For example, LC’s program has the potential be on par with Reed College’s. Reed has grabbed the attention of prospective students and Portland dance community members alike through their overt support for the arts, evident in their diverse stock of faculty and the construction of their performing arts building. LC’s dance minors are no different than our colleagues across the river: we simply lack the resources necessary to compete with their reputation. This is not to say that we should go to Reed for their dance program, but rather to look at them as a model for what we could do better and at what caliber we as a liberal arts institution could be operating.
I do not mean for this to be a demand for immediate funds; we are all well aware that the college is struggling to determine its current budget priorities. I present this to draw awareness to the plight of the dance program in hopes that decision-makers will consider providing aid in the near future, or at least begin thinking of the program as one of the many areas on campus that, if improved, could heighten the quality of the student experience as well as appeal of the college. If LC is to hold itself to the standard of being a reputable liberal arts institution, it should not continue to neglect our sector of the arts and cause students to feel under-supported as they pursue their passions academically.