According to Professor of dance Janice Roberts, the chair of the department, there are over 800 students who enroll in dance classes each year. Most are not performers. All of them are dancers.
There is an ancient Zimbabwe adage that says, "If you can walk, you can dance." Professor of dance Sherry Saterstrom would agree. She calls dance "a quality of being" and talks about movement "as a way of knowing." This definition differs from the idea that dance is only something that happens on a stage with pretty people in pretty costumes and carefully chosen music.
At St. Olaf, classes are offered in ballet, modern, international and ballroom dance techniques, as well as in dance history and choreography. Saterstrom teaches a number of classes which incorporate highly anatomically-based movement awareness in connection with a school of thought called Body Mind Centering, making the study of dance both highly organic and highly intellectual. Dance is not devoid of spirituality, either. Students can come to "moving meditations" which she leads twice a week, proving there is definitely more to dance than meets the eye.
Most technique classes fulfill the physical activity general education requirement, which is an incentive for some students who enroll. These classes are also required for any member of Companydance, a modern dance company which holds open auditions every fall for a variety of projects. Guest artists, faculty members and senior dance majors choose dancers for their own pieces at this audition. Also, all first-year students can participate in Project Dance, which allows them to work with different faculty members throughout the year on several small projects. The international dance group, Veselica (pronounced "ves-a-leetza"), also has open auditions each fall. It is not necessary to major in dance to participate in any of these groups.
Of the dancers here, Janice Roberts said, "I find myself in awe of the work students are doing." This awe reaches beyond the dance department and even outside the St. Olaf community. The premiere of "Swing a Club: Facing Cancer" by Professor of dance Anthony Roberts last spring received enough high praise to gain support for a national tour of the work over the next few years. This project is one example of the benefits of a welcoming and strong dance community. Roberts's wife, a performer in "Swing a Club," said that "dancers grow together, as we stress that everyone has something to offer." The dancers in this piece include dance majors, non-majors and professors. The ensemble includes students from all four graduating classes, not to mention faculty performers, including Artist in Residence Dona Werner-Freeman of the theater department. The inclusiveness of Roberts' approach to the work is likely one of the reasons it has received such positive attention.
No matter what one's philosophy of dance is, the department opens its doors to anyone who wanders up to the second floor of Dittman.
Another example of the diversity and inclusiveness of the department is the recently christened "Fresh Space" concert, held annually each November and open to anyone who wishes to perform. This year's program included pieces by Veselica, the Ballroom Performance Group the Improv Ensemble, the St. Olaf Dance Team and various works in progress from a choreography class.
The concert began with a dance in traditional Hungarian style performed by members of Veselica, under the direction of Professor of dance Anne von Bibra, wearing bright cultural costumes. A series of playful and thoughtful works were presented by choreography students, a sensual samba by the Ballroom Group and a jazz piece to Usher's "Yeah" by the St. Olaf Dance Team. This showy performance piece stood in contrast to the work immediately following: a perfect example of dance growing out of everyday movement, the "space study" called "Caf Chaos" by choreography students Brittany Shrimpton '08, Jake Fitzpatrick '07, Charity Hall '07 and Amy Trowbridge '05. This piece explored the sounds and movement in the St. Olaf cafeteria, which were brought to life in Studio 1 using trays, cups and silverware all removed from Stav Hall (and then returned, I'm sure). Tapping silverware, talking and dropping cups transitioned into an entertaining, vaguely familiar sort of dance. It was choreographed movement grounded in an experience all members of the audience understood perfectly. It makes sense, too, that if the roots of dance are in the natural capacity and need of all people to move, then everyone who moves should be able to relate to and participate in dance.
If you walk into the dance department looking for highly specialized tricks and exceptional physical skill, you may find it, but you won't find a group of people who glorify "shining stars" competing for the spotlight. In fact, Roberts said, "It doesn't work like that." Here, dancing is about understanding how and why bodies move the way they do and how that movement expresses the way people feel and reflect on our life, community, and identity.
Among dancers at St. Olaf - majors non-majors and professors alike - there exists a chorus of voices valuing thoughtful, emotive and reflective movement as a way of interacting with the world and with each other. Saleha Erdmann '06, a Center for Integrative Studies major who enrolled in a modern dance class this semester, said, "Dancing at St. Olaf is about being part of a physical, emotional community."
There are opportunities for everyone to be part of this community. Dance performances happen constantly. Some come and go without much fuss or advertising. The Improv Ensemble showed up on Election Day in Buntrock Commons to do a short spontaneous dance celebrating democracy and the people who came to exercise their right to vote. "Swing a Club" and "Fresh Space" are two major performances which happened this fall. Twice a year dance comes to Kelsey Theater, with the performances of senior dance majors' choreography projects in December and the well-attended annual Spring Concert at the end of second semester. There will even be two dance performances this week.
This Thursday night, members of the Improv Ensemble and a few alumni will dance with the Percussion Ensemble at their concert at 8:15 p.m. in Urness. Then, on Friday, the annual dancing and drumming community celebration "Gather" will happen in Studio 1 at 7 p.m. The Senior Dance Concert will be December 9 and 10 at 7:30 in Kelsey Theater. For up-to-date performance information, consult the St. Olaf website at www.stolaf.edu/depts/dance.