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EKU Dance Theatre History

by Dr. Marianne McAdam

              EKU Dance Theatre began about 1950 and although it has gone through a few name changes it has been one of the more visible and active student groups on campus for over five decades.  The group originated to give students with an interest in dance a chance to choreograph, perform and take dance classes. This mission remains true with EKU Dance Theatre today. Dance Theatre boasts a membership of 40-65 dancers each semester.  These students have the option of taking dance classes in the Exercise and Sport Science Department for fun, credit toward general education requirements, or toward a dance minor. Most of the students who become involved in Dance Theatre begin in one of these classes. 

              Although dancers are highly encouraged to continue training on a regular basis, they do not have to be enrolled in a dance class to participate in Dance Theatre.  Auditions are usually held at the beginning of the semester and the choreographers for the semester’s concert choose dancers.  Concerts are usually in mid- November and mid-April.   Students choreograph the majority of the work with the Director, Marianne McAdam, choreographing 1-3 pieces each semester.  The director monitors the progress of the pieces throughout the semester making suggestions when necessary and helping with costumes. 

             Tanya Harper, a professional lighting designer who works as the technical director at UK’s Singletary Center for the Arts in Lexington, lights dance Theatre’s concerts.  Lights for our concerts are rented from a company in Cincinnati and with Tanya, dancers spend many long hours hanging the lights and cyclorama and laying the marley flooring for the concert.  Usually the technical/dress rehearsals are done for two nights and the concert runs for 4 evenings with one matinee.  Last fall the show ran for 5 performance and the 400-seat theater was full for every performance. Basically, the dancers give their lives to the concert for a week from Friday night the week before until midnight the next Saturday when all the equipment is finally “struck” and sent back to the rental company.  The “high” one gets from dancing provides the drive for the many long hours of rehearsals and preparation for the concert.

             One of the other major functions of Dance Theatre is to perform at P-12 grade schools around the state.  Kentucky’s Education Reform Act in 1990 made dance one of the core content areas.  Since then, dance has been tested by the state exams in the Arts and Humanities section of the CATS test. Even though the testing has now ended, the schools must keep a detailed portfolio of how they are covering the Arts in their curriculum. Dance Theatre provides a performance for the schools that covers the majority of the Program of Studies in a “nutshell”. The last couple of years we have been doing 8-13 shows a semester for the schools and would be doing many more if time allowed.  To keep from taking all of us out of classes we have gone to performing 1-2 days before and after each semester and then taking a couple of days during the semester to perform. We also perform for many professional and community functions including the American Alliance of Health, Physical Education and Dance conventions at both the state and national level, the Richmond Area Arts Council, EKU events, and many others.         

             Sometimes we marvel at the growing popularity of our performances. However, the answer seems to lie in the fact that most of our audience has had little exposure to dance as an art form, and they seem to relate positively to dancers that are similar to them.  Unlike professional dancers, Dance Theatre students are not highly trained and have not had much exposure to the professional dance world.  They are not dance majors but students from every discipline imaginable across campus.  This seems to make their choreography very interesting, fresh and understandable to an inexperienced audience. The only restrictions on the student’s choreography is that it be artistic (finding the movement to express your idea), tasteful and not dance/drill team material.  Another aspect of Dance Theatre that makes the show so enjoyable is the ballroom sub-group. Each semester the ballroom dancers place 1-2 pieces in the concert including dances such as the swing, tango, cha cha, waltz, hustle etc. These types of dances lend a great deal of variety to the concert, offer a break from more serious modern, jazz, ballet, or ethnic pieces and bring more men onto the stage.  Many of the men who become involved in the modern pieces in the Dance Theatre originate in the ballroom sub-group and through their exposure to the art form, choose to begin taking technique classes and performing in other types of pieces.  

             One of the most amazing things about Dance Theatre is that for the most part, dancers and choreographers are involved because of their passion for dance rather than for the college credit.  As Director, Dance Theatre counts as my scholarly/creative work rather than being given release time or as it counting toward my teaching load.  The Dance Minors receive 3 credits for their choreography for one of the semesters but most choreograph for many of our concerts.  While we have 15-25 dance minors at any time many more of our members do not complete a dance minor, instead completing majors and minors outside of dance. 

             Dance Theatre receives no money directly from the University for its operation and the    concert costs around $9000 a semester to produce. Costs include publicity, light and equipment rental, lighting designer and technical director fees, fees for guest choreographers and money for costumes.  These costs are recouped through the money we make in ticket sales ($5 for students and $10 for non-students) and through our school lecture demonstrations for which we charge $350 - $400 a performance. While the University does not provide funds directly, it helps us tremendously by providing free rehearsal and concert space. This would be an enormous cost if we were working outside the University.  In addition, 4wo years ago we opened an EKU Foundation account and began a “Friends of Dance Theatre” group.  We have been quite successful in building this account. .  

             Some people might ask the value of the dance experience and how it fits within the college experience.  To this there are many and varied answers.  The first answer resides in the fact that the group is based in Modern Dance. Although Modern Dance began outside the college setting in the early 1900's it found it way to the University of Wisconsin - Madison by 1928 where the first dance major was born.  From here it quickly spread to many other Universities and Colleges as both part of the curriculum and through intensive summer programs.  The reason Modern Dance fits so well within this setting is that it is about personal growth and expression as are the other arts (literature, music, theater, and visual art).  Modern dancers find the movement to express their ideas through improvisation and exploration rather than choosing them from a set vocabulary. This entails the dancers learning to work in this way immediately; at the same time they are taking technique classes to improve their skill and increasing their movement potential.  Improvisation and exploration can be a scary thing for anyone but even more so for dancers who have always been told how to move.  A dancer learns a great deal about themselves in this process as they work through their fears and dig deeper to find the creativity that resides within.  Through this process, the students also learn to appreciate dance as an art form and develop a love for the art, which carries into their adult lives.  These students then become part of the audience for the professional dancers as they pursue their lives and careers after graduation.  Having an appreciation for this art form also often spills over into an appreciation for many of the other art forms due to their heightened understanding of using the arts to express one’s self and their understanding of the creative process.  These goals connect directly with the goals of our University’s General Education program relating to cultural experiences.

             Other benefits connect with the goals of Student Life.  Research has shown that students are more likely to remain in college and learn lifetime social and leadership skills if they are involved in positive extracurricular activities.  Dance Theatre does all of this; providing a place to meet friends with like interests, keeping students on campus on weekends, offering a chance to learn leadership skills and giving students a reason to not only stay in college but become totally immersed in the college experience. Many of our members have danced in studios for most of their lives and want to continue dancing while in college, others have always wanted to dance and never had the chance.  Some students take a class like Ballroom to learn a lifetime skill and surprise them when they realize they love to dance.  Leadership skills are honed if the students run for one of our officer’s positions including President, Vice-President, Treasurer, Secretary and Historian or from acting as choreographer of a dance.  While Dance Theatre has a director, no major decision is made by the Director without the approval and input of the officers and many times the whole group.

             Dance classes and Dance Theatre membership have grown tremendously over the last couple of years.  I believe some of this popularity is because the general public is introduced to dance through media much more so than it was in the past.  Dancing with the Stars, So You Think you can Dance, MTV and other music video stations highlight dance on a regular basis, as do commercials between popular TV shows.  Young people are now seeing dance as something that is popular and desirable to do and learn.The challenge becomes moving them from pop culture dance to dance as an art form.   While some resist this transition, many more shine when offered the opportunity to grown and learn. Dance Theatre becomes a place for us all to grow as people and celebrate the beauty of the human body in motion.



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