A Passion for Dance
Dance faculty, students, and alumni draw strength and creativity from a shared devotion to modern dance, recently put on display at the American College Dance Festival.
by Ryan LaLiberty '11
"Dance is like air," said Jessica L. Howard '09. "If I didn't have it, I would feel like I wasn't living fully."
The dance program at Keene State put down roots in the early 1970s with the arrival of then-English professor Alta Lu Townes at Keene State College. While pursuing her master's degree in dance at Smith College, Townes began teaching assorted dance classes at Keene State wherever she had time and could find the space to do so.
In 1975, she directed the first Evening of Dance. Five years later, Townes was asked to join with the newly formed Theatre Arts, Speech, and Film Department, a collaborative effort between theatre director Edith Notman and film's Larry Benaquist. Townes was named director of the dance concentration. While continuing the Evening of Dance tradition, 1980 also saw the first non-Evening program put on by the department, entitled Intertwinings and Unwindings and directed by Townes.
"Slower! Slower! Notice each muscle! Notice every crease you make! You're moving through life much too quickly. Slow down and notice what you're doing and what's happening around you."
– Visiting Professor Francis Nii-Yartey of Ghana, instructing a dance class
If the seeds were planted with the arrival of Alta Lu Townes, then in 1984, with the hiring of Marcia Murdock as an adjunct dance instructor, the tree began to flourish. Five years later, Keene State hosted its first American College Dance Festival, a multiday celebration showcasing the best in collegiate dance.
Sadly, in 1996, as dance began to thrive at Keene State, Alta Lu Townes passed away, after more than two decades of distinguished service to the arts at Keene State College.
Marcia Murdock was named program director, a position she continues to hold to this day.
Faced with the challenge of how to orient the program, Murdock chose to follow her predecessor, continuing to "delve deeply into modern dance." According to dance minor Richard Ouellette '12, the choice was a wise one. "What I really love about modern as compared to ballet," Ouellette stated, is that "there's so much room for creating any type of movement as dance." Unlike any other form, for Ouellette, modern dance is "more a commentary on life."
Citing the well-documented passion for modern dance among the dance faculty, adjuncts, and students, Murdock suggested, "Maybe we're so impassioned because it's such a young art form and ever-changing."
William Seigh, dance professor and artist-in-residence since 1997, expressed a similar understanding of the program's condition. "We are, by choice, a modern dance program," Seigh remarked, "and nature, by definition, is always inventing itself." Perhaps the reason is even simpler. As Murdock said, "Dancers want to dance."
Jessica Howard '09 (Alta Lu Townes Memorial Dance Award winner) and Shawn Ahern '10 (Michael Keller Award winner in 2009).
Speaking more to the uninhibited excitement among the faculty and students of the program, Seigh reflected on his experiences in the classroom: "It really is a gift to walk into a classroom and know the students would rather be there than anywhere else."
Moreover, said Seigh, speaking to any misconception that dance is academically easy, "It's not only rigorous physically, but it's also a rigorous academic program that challenges our students on a daily basis to be present, and not just to think creatively, but be critical thinkers and apply it on a regular basis."
Passion is universal across the small program. Students say that part of the program's allure is its size – currently about 30 students. Competition is minimal at Keene State College. "It's just not the vision of this program," remarked Seigh. Much of this is due to the prevailing attitude of the program's educators, of which there are currently six: Marcia Murdock; William Seigh; Professor Francis Nii-Yartey, on a year-long appointment from the University of Ghana; and three adjuncts, Candice Salyers, Cathy Nicoli, and Jodi Leigh Allen.
Speaking of the faculty and adjuncts, Howard expressed a great fondness for all those who helped her along the way: "They're really trying to get you to be the best dancer you can be." Nii-Yartey echoes her: "I got here and realized what I heard on the phone is the same thing on the ground, that people care about the students and caring is not just the immediate things they have to offer. People go beyond what they have to offer, and I think that makes this place very special."
One student in particular testifies to what a small dance department can produce. In 2010, Shawn Ahern '10, recipient of that year's Alta Lu Townes Memorial Dance Award Endowment, competed with 300 students from around the world, including such schools as NYU and Juilliard. Ahern, alongside two other Keene State students, Thomas Sommo '10 and Angie Hartley '10, made it into the finals.
Ahern signed a three-year contract with the internationally acclaimed Pilobolus dance company and joined the company immediately after graduation. Sommo was invited to work on Shadowland, a Pilobolus project. Riley Ahern '12, Shawn's sister and fellow dancer, had this to say, both about Shawn and her own experiences in the program: "I'm proud to say I'm a Keene State College dancer. I have the technique, knowledge, and creative ability to prove it."
Beyond physical technique and content, dance teaches life lessons. Providing many lessons lately has been Nii-Yartey. In Ghana, he is the director of the two national dance companies, founder of a school, fellow at the University of Ghana, and choreographer for major national events.
Murdock relayed a story of one of her visits to his classroom. "I was stunned," she began. Sitting in the center of the room was a pile of flat sheets of paper. "He handed them out. I thought he was going to use them as fabrics or they were going to be playing with semaphore … but he gave each person one and then told them, ‘OK. I want you to take the paper in your hand and crumple it up until it disappears into your palm. Do this as slowly as you possibly can.'"
As the students continued, Nii-Yartey instructed as Murdock observed: "Slower! Slower! Notice each muscle! Notice every crease you make! You're moving through life much too quickly. Slow down and notice what you're doing and what's happening around you." For Murdock, the lesson was pertinent: "I think those students learned as much from that as they did from the polyrhythmic dances, songs, and drumming."
Professor William Seigh coaches dance students Casey Gallagher '07 and Adam Berube '06.
In 2006, with Keene State's new four-credit redesign, the program faced a transformative point. With two specializations, choreography/performance and dance education, the program was becoming stronger and able to reach a wider audience.
In 2010, continuing with new energy, a new specialization was introduced: dance education/dual degree. Unlike the original dance education specialization, which is more of a complementary degree for those in elementary education or early childhood development, the dance education/dual degree specialization offers the benefits of the original but also certification in K-12 education.
Anna Cerilli '11 will be one of the new specialization's first graduates. For her, dance provides another way of knowing and another way of learning in the classroom. Speaking to the possibilities of incorporating dance into the classroom, Cerilli suggests that "instead of just singing a song about something, writing a paper or making a poster, they could make a dance about something."
This spring, Keene State College hosted the American College Dance Festival Association's New England Conference. For three days, March 9 to 12, nearly 400 dancers, representing about 30 colleges from all parts of the nation, filled every danceable nook and cranny of our campus, celebrating the best of collegiate dance.
Jessica Howard '09 and Thomas Sommo '10.
While Keene State has always attended the ACDFA's conference, it hadn't been hosted on this campus since 1989. According to Seigh, who served as president of ACDFA from 2005 to 2009, the desire was certainly there "for us to be able to share dance in that way" again. The schedule included eight concerts that were open to the public, including, on opening night, a performance by Monica Bill Barnes & Company, dual-hosted by the Redfern Arts Center.
From April 13 to 16, with Marcia Murdock directing, Keene State College will hold its 37th consecutive Evening of Dance, continuing the tradition that Alta Lu Townes began so many years ago. The faculty, student, and guest work will include both a collaborative piece between Marcia Murdock and William Seigh as well as new choreography by Francis Nii-Yartey, which he promises to be a contemporary African dance: "Something new, even in Africa." Tickets are available through the Redfern Arts Center box office.
The air is electric in the Theatre and Dance Department's small wing of the Redfern Arts Center, and with a present so enthralling, it's no surprise that the future for dance at Keene State College looks so promising. "Keene State is getting known. We are the modern dance gem in New Hampshire," Murdock remarked, "and we're proud of that. Because of our experience with the American College Dance Festival, more than just New Hampshire will find out about us."
The Alta Lu Townes Memorial Dance Award
In 1997, in memory of Alta Lu Townes and in recognition of all that she gave to the campus community, the Alta Lu Townes Memorial Dance Award Endowment was formed on behalf of her family, friends, colleagues, and students. Geared toward summer professional development, the award can be given to any junior or senior who shows skill and a great willingness to learn.
William Seigh explains the significance of the award for dancers: "The continuation of dance training over the summer months is essential for dance majors who are pursuing careers in dance performance, choreography, or education. This award recognizes the talents and potential in our dance students and provides support for intensive dance training at summer dance festivals, workshops, and conferences."
Shawn Ahern '10 provides a fine testament to what the award can provide for a student. Shawn was able to travel to the American Dance Festival at Duke University, where he danced and learned alongside professionals and semi-professionals from across the globe. What he gained from this experience helped to make him into the kind of dancer the prestigious Pilobolus dance company was looking for when they awarded him a three-year contract upon graduation.
The fund has not yet reached the $20,000 mark needed to endow awards permanently. Donations may be made online at www.keene.edu/giving or by calling Sean Gillery '89 in the Development Office at Keene State College, 603-358-2371.
About the author:
Ryan LaLiberty '11 is an American studies major. He will begin graduate study in library science at the University of Rhode Island in the fall. When Ryan was a freshman, he wrote a piece of music to perform at the Academic Excellence Conference. As a result, Shawn Ahern '10 asked him to provide music for a new dance piece, and Ryan got to know the faculty and students of the close-knit Theatre and Dance Department.