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Georgetown dance en pointe
In a not-so-well traveled corner of Georgetown’s campus, tucked in the maze that are the Village A residences, dance groups of all types find time in between classes and studying to practice in the spaces in Riverside Lounge. Nearly every night of the week, you can find one group or another rehearsing, perhaps for an upcoming show, or to perform at halftime at a basketball game. This space is Riverside Lounge—the New South dining hall until Leo’s opened in 2003—a converted series of dance studios, now fitted with the appropriate adaptations to fit a performer’s needs.
Georgetown has a small but well-established dance community that ranges from the classical and modern ballet style of the Georgetown University Dance Company to the hip hop rhythm of Groove Theory. The groups have a unique structure with faculty involvement in the Performing Arts Advisory Council as well as their ties to the Department of Performing Arts. But, despite their connections to the administration, many groups still struggle to find adequate practice space. While the dance community doesn’t receive the same publicity as other student groups, such as the International Relations Club, Georgetown dancers feel support from other students, particularly other dancers.
“I feel like the dance teams at Georgetown are all very supportive of each other. During shows, the loudest cheers come from other dancers because we are really aware of the hours of practice, dedication, and passion that goes into every movement,” Dale Andrew Batoon (NHS ‘13), head choreographer for Filipino hip hop dance group Flip Dis Funk Dat, wrote in an email to the Voice.
“The dance culture is also very welcoming. Other students are really excited to come see the shows and help out backstage … it’s normal for our audience to help us clean up and take down lights and chairs after our last performance,” Jaclyn Markowitz, (SFS ‘14), a Black Movements Dance Theater Assistant Student Director last semester, wrote in an email to the Voice.
“You can definitely see the diversity of the student body if you look at dance groups,” Carolina Velarde (SFS ‘14) added. She is in her second year as a choreographer for the Latin American dance group Rítmo y Sabor, which performs regularly each semester in festivals like Reventón Latino, as well as in a special showcase in the spring.
There are many dance events on campus, such as the philanthropic South Asian dance show Rangila, that give students the opportunity to participate and learn about other cultures. However, Velarde feels there has been difficulty in maintaining interest and participation from the general student body in on-campus dance events. “We send emails out to the Spanish and Portuguese departments, but that just gets people who are already interested in Latin culture,” she said.
Robynn Stilwell, Associate Professor of Music and the Area Coordinator for dance added that Georgetown dance groups manage to reach out to the greater D.C. community. “Our dancers are at a remarkably high skill level,” she wrote in an email to the Voice. “They perform in a variety of styles and contexts, and there’s a solid history of performances ranging from formal concerts, to outreach, to appearing in larger festivities at the Kennedy Center or White House, as Ballet Folklorico de Georgetown did last year.”
Erica Pincus (SFS ’13) is the student co-director for the Georgetown University Dance Company. She cites the variety of dance styles at Georgetown as an important aspect of the dance culture. “Georgetown has a lot of talented dancers, which is exciting. The dance culture on campus is very diverse,” she wrote in an email to the Voice. “From hip hop, to ballet, to Irish Step Dancing or Mexican Folkloric Dance, there is something for everyone.”
Despite the community’s relatively small size, many dance groups at Georgetown receive official backing from the DPA. This is especially true with students in BMDT and GUDC, all of whom receive academic credit for their participation in their co-curricular activities. PAAC is separate from the Student Activities Commission in approving groups and allocating appropriate resources. It fulfils the role of an advisory board in aiding student performing arts groups in development.
In part due to the academic credit and in part because the performance spaces on campus—Black Box Theater in Walsh, as well as Gonda Theater—belong to DPA, PAAC includes faculty advisors who are heavily involved in both the administrative and creative aspects of dance.
Faculty advisors have proved useful in many cases. Catharine Maitner (COL ‘15), the PAAC student representative for dance and the GUDC secretary, cites faculty expertise as essential on issues from budgeting to running performances. Although each group submits a budget proposal for review at the end of each academic year, unexpected mishaps can throw student leadership into uncharted waters. “When we had to replace Mask and Bauble’s lightboard after it broke last September, we needed someone who understood the technical aspects of theater. How much should a lightboard cost? How long should it last? I wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for the faculty,” Maitner said.
Velarde agrees. Many times, faculty members have sat in on her rehearsals and provided advice on specific aspects of staging. “It’s very helpful,” she said. “They have much more experience.”
“Before I danced here, I’d never touched a light,” Maitner said. “And suddenly, I had a wrench in my hand. So it’s good to have someone who knows about those things. It’s essential to have dancers advise dancers.”
Stilwell agrees that the symbiosis between student and faculty leadership enriches the dance experience for students. “PAAC really is a collaboration,” she wrote. “We don’t just do nuts-and-bolts administration, but we look for ways to help groups realize their goals, often working through the student leaders of the individual groups … ideas are as likely to come from students as the faculty. I’m always really impressed by the ingenuity and determination of the student representatives.”
There is also an academic element to faculty involvement. Creative and artistic growth can be difficult without professional guidance, and Markowitz recognizes its importance: “Our dance professors are extremely accessible and work very closely with each student,” she wrote. “It’s nice that both academic companies are small because it allows the dancers to form meaningful relationships with their professors.”
Stilwell reveals that a large part of the creation of the Department of Performing Arts was to accommodate arts groups who wanted to shift towards gaining academic credit. “The dance companies have syllabi and semester goals just like any course,” she wrote. “So, they aren’t really extracurricular, they are now academic courses. Some of the practical advantages are also creative, like acknowledging the scholarly component in the work, but sometimes even the little things are tremendously helpful—for instance, even those taking the courses for zero credit have the meeting times blocked out in their schedules via the registrar.”
At the same time, there are many dance groups on campus that feel that gaining experience as a fully student-run group comes with its own benefits. Stilwell acknowledges that students are capable of handling many of the tasks themselves. “There’s also still a very active and robust student leadership within the groups,” she wrote. “They are responsible for devising budgets, creating publicity, and managing aspects of production, along with faculty, staff, and professional production people, like lighting designers,” she wrote.
Although groups that are not affiliated with DPA have limited benefits, some dancers relish the opportunity to not have a faculty member looking over their shoulder. “Non-DPA groups aren’t given priority for practice spaces,” Batoon wrote. “In fact, they’re technically not allowed to practice in DPA spaces at all. However, I feel that with this independence comes freedom. I have always felt that the creative expression of my dance group has been unlimited; not being restricted by anything other than our own visions is liberating.”
Each group has its own way of putting on a show, with students often in charge of choreography and costuming. Despite Rítmo y Sabor’s DPA affiliation, each of their performances is completely student-directed. “There are four student choreographers, two girls and two boys,” Velarde said. “We often film each other dancing, and pick out a turn or a flip that we like. I often watch Dancing with the Stars to get ideas for stunts, because that’s what people like to watch.”
Markowitz explained BMDT’s creative process. “We do everything—choreographing, lighting, music, teaching—ourselves,” she wrote. “We bring in a mix of some guest artists who choreograph for us and students who produce original works … we always start with a theme … both the students and professionals are asked to create their pieces and choose music that would fit their personal interpretation of that theme.”
Camille Squires (COL ‘15). a member of Groove Theory, describes the production process as difficult, particularly when it comes to teaching other dancers her choreography. Absolute dedication to putting on a good show often requires time outside of rehearsal. “You practice at home … we spend the last stage before a performance getting everything perfect.”
“In recent years, [Flip Dis Funk Dat] has had a number of dancers who contribute to choreography, so when putting together a performance, myself and the other FDFD board members get a general sense of how these songs mesh and tell a story,” Batoon wrote. “Dance is a bodily expression of self.”
“It’s very rewarding to see the entire production take form through the efforts of the group as a whole,” Pincus wrote.
The work that dancers put into creating and rehearsing pieces is often the extension of a lifelong passion for dance and expression—and Georgetown has continued to give them reasons to dance. “Dance was one of my main activities in high school and I knew I wanted to continue it in college,” Markowitz wrote. “BMDT … hosted a ‘meet and greet’ type potluck the night before their auditions. From that experience, I realized the company was more than a group of dancers, they were a family.”
“I heard about GUDC before I started freshman year, I auditioned that fall, and I’ve been a part of GUDC ever since,” Pincus wrote. “The entire experience has truly enriched my time at Georgetown by enabling me to continue my passion for dance and introducing me to a community of students who love to dance as well.”
Velarde had a different experience, coming in with no previous dance experience. “I was actually an athlete. I played soccer in high school,” she said. “I saw the Rítmo table at SAC fair my freshman year, and I thought, ‘Why not try something new?’ Auditions were the same day as club soccer tryouts, but I’ve stayed with it ever since.”
Velarde believes the creative outlet is important for Georgetown students. Of Rítmo y Sabor’s audition process, she said, “You don’t need experience … We look for people who have charisma and who learn the moves quickly. This spring, we had 30 people audition for five spots. It’s great to see the group grow.”
Although some dance groups have the privilege of receiving practice space from the DPA, the fact remains that facilities are limited for all dance groups, whose membership is only growing. What’s more, the construction of the New South Student Center, which begins this summer, will render the Riverside spaces unavailable for use for a year. The University has not presented a solution to student leaders yet, with assurances that there will be practice spaces in the new center but no concrete plan for the interim. Dancers, meanwhile, are hard-pressed to think of other spaces on campus that can cater to the specific needs of each group.
Markowitz emphasized the need for adequate space to foster the social nature of dancing at Georgetown. “The dance companies on campus allow many students to feel as if they are truly part of something,” she wrote. “I really hope the department, students, and the administration find a place for dance to grow on campus.”
“They said, ‘we’ll deal with it, you’ll be okay’, but there has been no solid response,” said Velarde.
“[Performance space] is a significant issue. A non-dancer doesn’t necessarily understand the specific needs of each group. We need wood floors because of the shoes we wear, and the kind of moves we do. Everybody needs mirrors to make sure [their performance] is clean,” said Squires.
Stilwell is worried about of losing Riverside, but she thinks the loss of space could force groups into creative solutions that would prove beneficial in the long run. “Dance has space demands that are different from just about anybody else,” she wrote. “But we’re also looking at this as an opportunity … to explore alternate kinds of performance … there could be collaborations between dance and theatre, or dance and various music groups. There really are so many options that we’re developing now that would make this challenge into the opportunity for a really special year.”
In September, Center for Student Programs Director Erika Cohen-Derr wrote in an email, “The transition planning for the New South Student Center will get started in earnest sometime later this semester, and continue throughout the spring.”
But the promise of a plan did not satisfy Batoon. “I was upset. Riverside, the very lifeline of dance, cultural shows and various other student organizations was going to be torn down,” he wrote.
“I’m excited for the New South Student Center and all that it will offer, I am just worried that the future of student organizations, the legacies of generations of Hoyas, might be in jeopardy. To Georgetown’s credit, I do know that they have been asking organizations … what spaces they may need for the upcoming years. I’m hopeful, but wary.”