Amherst Dance Taps Into Campus Talent

“[The concert was] our way of bringing together dance of all types and styles to show what we know, create, perform,” said Heather Werner ’03, a dancer and choreographer.

Not all of the 48 performers in the concert were seasoned dancers. The experience levels ranged from novice to expert. Some of the dancers also choreographed for the first time.

“What it becomes is a real learning experience, not only for the dancers but for the choreographers too,” explained Erzsi Palko ’02, who choreographed a ballet piece to Bjork’s “I Miss You,” and organized the concert.

In this sense, Sunday’s dance concert was more about spirit than execution, and no one expected the preparatory dance lessons to completely transform people’s movements. “You can’t expect everyone to lift his leg over his head and do splits,” said Palko.

But in the end, the difference in experience didn’t matter. “They don’t want to exclude anyone, so everything is on a basic level,” said Daniel Perez ’04. “That’s why I feel Amherst Dance is so awesome. People who have never danced before perform, and you would never be able to tell they’ve never danced.”

This accessible aspect of Amherst Dance was a big draw for potential performers. “I wanted to try it out because my friend and I saw the dance concert at the beginning [of the year during Freshman Orientation], and we just thought we’d try it,” explained Alex Linden ’04. “It was hard at times, but Anne [Gittinger ’01], the choreographer, was really helpful and really great. It ended up being a lot of fun.”

New Enthusiasm

In addition to reaching out to inexperienced students, Amherst Dance makes an effort to bring dance to the campus at large. “I didn’t think that there would be a big dance community,” said Arthur Lord ’03. It is this kind of mentality that Amherst Dance is trying to dispel.

According to the group’s statement, “The Amherst Dance concert is the culmination of a semester’s worth of independent, extracurricular work by Amherst students in choreography and performance [and] is part of our continuing battle to increase the visibility and presence of dance-and all the arts-on the Amherst campus.”

The organization seeks to increase the school’s awareness of the dance community by organizing concerts and demonstrating that a demand for dance exists. “There’s a lot of hidden talent on the campus,” said Sara Hurtado-Rogers ’01.

It is that hidden talent that is the foundation of Amherst Dance’s variety, which will change as the student body changes. “The nice thing about Amherst Dance is that it incorporates a lot of different elements,” said Gabai. “It’s individual choreography, but we came together under the name Amherst Dance.”

Amherst Dance was founded in the spring of 1998 by Tammy Venit ’00 and Alissa Wilson ’00. After a small initial performance in the basement of the Alumni Gym and an informal demonstration in Webster Hall’s Studio 1, Amherst Dance grew and evolved, eventually holding a larger performance in the spring of 1999, organized by Palko and Kathy Lawson ’02. Sunday’s concert marked the College’s second major student-run dance concert.

“This year is a really big step up [because] the theater and dance department is letting us use Kirby Theater,” said Palko. “They’re bending over backwards to let us use that space.”

But the College’s theater and dance department is not a training program, and it has only one full-time dance faculty member, Wendy Woodson.

The department does advertise technique classes available within the Five-College system, but many students find it difficult and time-consuming to take dance classes off-campus at Smith or Mount Holyoke Colleges.

“If you don’t have a car, you’re looking at a one hour bus ride,” said Perez. “You’d be sacrificing a lot just for an hour of ballet.”

In providing a more convenient outlet for students, “the dance club is a significant factor for those who dance,” noted Perez.

Amherst Dance hopes to provide an on-campus outlet for dancers to perform and learn. “We didn’t come to Amherst College expecting a dance conservatory,” admitted Palko. “But there are so many talented dancers around-why not organize ourselves here on this campus?”

An Artistic Assortment

Sunday’s concert presented a variety of dance forms, including modern, ballet, jazz, bellydancing and Tahitian. Two hip hop dances were also performed by DASAC, another dance group on campus.

Each piece was done independently by a different choreographer. “It was a bunch of students who liked to dance and wanted to do something that would incorporate different dances,” explained Gabai. “It took initiative to put it all together and make something people want to see.”

Some groups had not even seen the others perform before the open dress rehearsal on Friday night. “I was sitting there watching Megan [Shields-Stromsness ’03E, who performed an Indian dance], and I had never seen her perform that dance before,” said Palko. “She was amazing.”

The students said they would like to see more technique classes offered at the school and more facilities created for dance. Until then, Amherst dancers practice independently in the dorm basements and the libraries, venues that are less than ideal. “At the basement in Marsh, there’s a small studio with a low ceiling, and every time the dancers would jump, they would hit the ceiling,” said Palko.

For now, Amherst Dance is working on an end of the year banquet so that they can start a dialogue with the theater and dance faculty and the deans about the future of dance on this campus. Members also have plans to conduct student-run classes in various dance forms.