In the dance studios at Emma Willard School, students learn and practice a variety of dance styles at various levels. Student dancers have the opportunity to perform, dance with professional guest artists, and learn to choreograph a performance that expresses their own artistic vision. This program has evolved over the long life of dance at the school, a progression that Dance Instructor Barbara Magee has witnessed throughout her years here. Read on for details from our conversation, and images from some of this year’s classes and performances.
Throughout the dance program at Emma Willard School, students of all levels are encouraged to try their toes at a class. Ballet, contemporary, and jazz are all available at multiple levels, instructed by Barbara and Kevin Magee.
“Last fall, because students are generally scared when they see the word dance, and think ‘no I’ve never done that I can’t do that!’ we offered this So You Think You Can’t Dance? Class at the very beginning of the year,” says Barbara (she has been a Dance Instructor at Emma Willard School since 1997). “Only three students came, but they all signed up for a dance class. They could see it’s not about already knowing something. It’s about finding out if you really enjoy dance.”
While students at the advanced level also have several outlets to grow in their dance experience, Magee notes that the program “emphasizes not just the technique, but what it means to explore your own body moving in space, in time, with energy. How do you perceive art? How do you participate in the art, not just technique?” This philosophy extends to accommodating and harmonizing the diverse dance experiences that come to the school from all over the world. That wasn’t always the case.
“Before I came, I know that contemporary and ballet were completely separate. They almost didn’t even talk to the other. But these are forms that anybody should study if they’re going to do any kind of dance—they’re not mutually exclusive.” Even for those at an advanced level, work in the studio is “based on how to anatomically, safely, accomplish the kinds of things that are in both contemporary and ballet vocabulary.”
Emma Willard Dance Company
For those that are very invested in the school’s program, the Emma Willard Dance Company offers a unique exposure to dance company life. Individuals who are invited to be part of the company are generally dancers that do not take many dance classes outside the school’s program, and who work well as part of a group. The pieces performed by the company are a mix of various styles and require quick adaptation on the part of the dancer.
In addition to the actual dancing, members of the company can serve as Costume Coordinator, Cohead(s) of the Company, Business Manager, and other roles that assist in fundraising and organizing efforts. This year, the company is heading to Boston to visit three schools, take a class and see a performance. “The idea is to give them a little taste of what it would be like to be in a dance company that tours.”
Insiders know how dance features in Revels, but how much of that performance changes? Each year, Barbara and Kevin reset the dances with input from the seniors. However, there are guidelines. For the Marshalls’ dance there is “a booklet that describes the forms and variations you can use, so it’s really very structured, and you can choose which you want to include.” They have added something that isn’t part of the old dance though: a bit of swordplay!
“It’s something that we can play with a little bit! Have some fun here!” However, the Morris dance and the Pavane that the lords and ladies do are strictly traditional.
Over the last three to four years the Emma Artist program has grown. This program allows students to work throughout the year to create individual performances that reflect the student’s ideas. While these dancers must have a certain level of technical ability, instructors “try to move [the students] away from what is traditional, from the things you see all the time in performance, to be more personal about their expression.”
Emma Artist pieces are performed during the Dance Assembly each semester, and in the spring for Signature Emma Artist Day. This year, some students in the Emma Artist program are also members of the Dance Company and the solo or group pieces they are creating will be included in the Company concert.
Visiting Artist in Residence
Each year, usually in the beginning of the spring semester, Emma Willard School’s campus and dance program host a visiting artist.
“As much as we can we bring in other people so [the students] are exposed to different forms, styles, and different ways of teaching.”
This January, dancer-actor-choreographer Adam Fleming visited the campus and worked with classes (and the Dance Company) throughout the week. Finding artists who are not only great choreographers but are also able to choreograph for students and make them feel good about the work they are doing is not always the easiest task, but Magee says that “every artist who comes here loves it, loves working with these girls, they all want to come back!”
Many Emma Willard School students who take dance classes during their four years here keep their love of learning through dance after graduation. Some go on to take dance classes in college, and though only a few might major in it, Magee says, “The ones who enjoy dancing want to enjoy dancing throughout their life if they can. Once it’s in your blood it’s really hard to give it up! Because it’s self-discovery.”