When I chose to attend Wellesley, I gave little thought to how the lack of an established dance department would affect me. I naively believed that the transition from dancing ten or more hours a week to zero was simple, but I missed the rigor of daily ballet and modern technique classes. I participated in Wellesley College Dancers, one of several hardworking student-run dance organizations that dutifully put on performances a few times a year. However, the student-run groups tend to focus on performances rather than a dancer’s personal development and are not a sufficient substitute for a formal study of dance. As institutions such as Harvard are currently increasing their support of performing arts departments, it is time for Wellesley to consider a dance major.
A dance department at Wellesley, with daily technique classes, as well as dance history, composition and theory courses aligns with the College’s mission in developing engaged citizens of the world. It also would provide students the opportunity to experience their liberal arts education in a more interactive and physically demanding setting. Getting a dance degree offers another window to different cultures and experiences. Studying dance creates opportunities for students to practice collaboration, communication, creativity, leadership and reflection, which are cornerstones of a liberal arts education.
Dance is currently enjoyed recreationally at Wellesley. However, it is impossible to separate the dancer from the dance, and the formal study of dance provides students with the opportunity to experience humanity across different cultures. For example, the hand gestures used in classical Indian dance are fraught with symbolic and religious meanings. Similarly, understanding the development of capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts form that combines rhythm and dance, is not possible without examining the racial and historical context of its slave trade origins in Brazil. Dance history and dance music courses can help supplement the need for more ethnic studies classes on campus. The art of dance, after all, is human, entangled with human things.
In addition to multiculturalism, the core values set by liberal arts colleges can be developed through the daily practice of dancing. Self-reflection comes through evaluating and analyzing every movement that a dancer executes on the floor. Creating a dance composition is more than just coming up with choreography. Dancers need to critically consider the music, costume and the themes of their movements. Teaching choreography is an exercise of leadership and effective communication. Dance compositions also offer opportunities for collaboration with others. Our on-campus dance organizations try their best to foster an environment in which students can create and collaborate, but we can only do so much with so little support from the College.
Wellesley College is one of the few women’s colleges without a dance program. Barnard, Scripps and Mills all offer dance majors or minors. Amherst, Smith and Mt. Holyoke offer dance opportunities across the campuses in their Five-College Consortium, creating a comprehensive program. Middlebury, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale and Harvard are currently strengthening and supporting their dance departments.
Wellesley offers approximately eight active student-run dance organizations and five dance classes that meet once or twice a week for an hour to an hour and a half per session. These classes may be enough to fulfill the P.E. credit, but a weekly meeting is not sufficient for students to significantly improve their technique, artistry and understanding. There is much more to be gained from dance classes than merely burning a few calories, though Wellesley’s course catalog suggests otherwise.
A successful dance program first needs to provide ample opportunity and proper facilities for students to dance. There should also be dance history, music, philosophy and theatre courses for dance students but open to anybody on campus, as well as workshops in nutrition, pedagogy and kinesiology. The ideal dance department would also include physical therapists and nutritionists on call who specialize in taking care of dancers. And, right in time for the Campus Renewal renovations, the college should create studios exclusively for students who want to dance with sprung floors, barres, mirrors, sound systems and marley. As a former member of Wellesley College Dancers, I have attended 10 p.m. rehearsals at the KSC on injurious floors because we have nowhere else to go. Better studios will certainly allow dance organizations to expand their programs and repertory, as well as provide the physical education department the space to offer dance classes more often.
Three years ago, when I was deciding where to attend college, it ultimately came down to two schools: Wellesley and Barnard. It meant more than a choice between Boston or New York, suburban or urban, solely liberal arts college or associated with a large research university. It was a choice to devote my energy toward becoming a dancer, a relatively unstable and fleeting occupation, or to study a more typical academic subject that results in a secure and lucrative career. I chose not to dance and to attend Wellesley College — the school with an incredible student community, strong sense of identity and unmatched academic rigor. I wish I could say I never looked back, but the strength and confidence I gained at Wellesley ironically made me regret the decision to not pursue the passion that makes me feel most alive.