My freshman year, I was greeted by a frenzied dance department. Having studied ballet for most of my life, I had become more interested in the ritual of taking ballet class, the religiosity of standing at the barre in pink tights, than pursuing dance seriously. However, for all my nonchalant removal from the dance department as a whole, it was obvious some radical change was underway.
Here’s how it went: the dance department, just recently receiving its independence from the theatre department in 2001, was expanding to offer both a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees, whereas before only a minor had been offered. The entire dance department faculty was replaced throughout 2005, except for Nolan Dennett, the director of the department, and Cher Carnell, a ballet professor. The replacements gave way to a new, fresh faced faculty that would deliver Western’s dance department into state wide notoriety as Washington state’s first public institution to offer a BFA in dance.
The department is intriguing, if not flat-out mysterious; its facilities are hidden in a hallway-converted studio in Carver Gym, and tucked into the bottom floor of an apartment building downtown. Dennett, the department head, shuffles through rehearsals and classes in sweatpants and a large earring. Little publicity has been done for dance concerts and events, and the average Western student is still unsure of what modern dance even is (and to those still asking, sacrifice $5, go to a performance and find out for yourself). However, since the arrival of the BA and BFA programs, the department is starting to peak through its perceived shroud and attempting to become a reputable force of fine art on this campus.
“We’re exploding. We’re close to full enrollment right now for what we can handle, as far as our faculty and facilities. And talent grows every year,” said Dennett.
However, despite all its explosiveness, the department has recently been hit by a wave of injuries to the dancers, and there’s been a reasonable suspicion that the department’s inadequate facilities could have been a contributor to the amassed injuries. As said before, the studio on campus used to be a hallway—it’s irregularly shaped, unusually small and has a horribly hard floor—a kiss of death to dancer’s joints. Most dancers in the department dance between 15 and 20 hours a week, between technique classes and rehearsals, and needless to say, dancing this many hours on hard floors and in improper conditions can contribute to injuries.
The downtown studio, Ving, is not much better. Though admittedly an aesthetically pleasing space, Ving is cold, suffering from an inconsistent and seemingly uncontrollable heating system. Doubling as a performance space as well as a studio, Ving recently had to destroy the bleacher seating and lighting system installed just last year because the facility didn’t meet fire code.
The dancers and faculty are all aware that change and acquisition of better facilities takes time, and we acknowledge that the funding, and more importantly the awareness of the department are not quite in place yet to push forward radical changes. Of course, under-funding is a continual problem—not surprising for a fine arts department, albeit a fledgling fine arts department. However, now that the department has reached, or is reaching, a pre-professional standard, it’s appropriate that the university and surrounding community take notice of our little dance haven and help contribute to the health of this unique art.
Since I first entered the program, my “religious” practice has become more reverent; I have become a dance minor, take technique classes daily and have performed in three of Western’s dance concerts. With a candid eye, I have watched the department promulgate and grow, re-establish itself with a new faculty and new curriculum. However, I feel people should look closer at this new addition to our campus, or at least just open their eyes to it.
When talking to Dennett in his office, the walls covered with carefully pinned dance photos from performances past, he noted the uniqueness of Western’s BFA program—it’s one of the only BFA programs grounded in a liberal arts curriculum. “We acknowledge that we want to develop human beings as well as artists,” Dennett said, “without the art in liberal arts, there is no liberal arts.”
Though a cheesy comment, Dennett’s on to something here. We have a unique artistic resource here on campus. And for those who don’t want to participate, it’s damn time that you appreciate it, or at least take notice.