Master Dancers

MFA dance program ‘a little jewel’ at Smith

by Elise Gibson

Smith MFA  dance student leading a class.

Photo credit: Clare Dubina

To mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of New England’s only master of fine arts in dance, graduates of the program are returning to Smith this year to teach classes, create choreography, and perform. It’s a fitting way to celebrate a program that its graduates credit with deepening their artistry as dancers, choreographers, and teachers.

An MFA dance concert featuring current MFA students will be presented February 10-12 at 8 p.m. in Theatre 14 in the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts at Smith.

“Walking into the studios at Smith, my senses were reawakened,” recalls Cathy Nicoli, MFA ’04, of entering the two-year program after she had already danced professionally and founded her own dance company. “Often I feel that ‘working’ artists aren’t necessarily ‘learning’ artists.”

MFA students find creative inspiration for their own dancing and choreography, and as teaching fellows they, in turn, inspire Smith undergrads—thousands of them over the years, in popular technique classes, like hip-hop, jazz, and tribal fusion, that are often overenrolled.

“It adds tremendously to the Smith community to have the MFA dance program here,” says dance department chair Susan Waltner, who helped launch the MFA in 1976. The tiny program—it accepts only four new students a year—has a disproportionate effect on the campus. “About 425 undergrads per semester take a dance class. Having MFA students greatly increases the classes we can offer,” Waltner says.

The MFA program’s anniversary also draws attention to how college-level dance has evolved. Before there was such a thing as a dance department at Smith, dancers performed their jetés and pirouettes as part of the physical education department and learned choreography as a theater class. Graduate students in dance got an MS in physical education. By extension, faculty members were hired not by other dancers but by, say, soccer and basketball coaches. “Dance is an art form, not a sport,” said Waltner of the arrangement.

By the mid-1970s, dance was thriving at Smith, and when the physical education department reorganized, jeopardizing the graduate dance program, Waltner seized the opportunity for change.

“A bunch of us in the Five College dance community said, ‘We have these thriving little departments, all as part of PE departments. Wouldn’t it be great to combine forces and create a stronger collective body to make decisions about dance programs?’” Waltner recalls. President Thomas Mendenhall supported a combined Five College dance department, which would also include a master of fine arts dance program to be based at Smith.

Dancer Rebecca Nordstrom, MFA ’79, who teaches at Hampshire College, was part of the inaugural class of MFA dance students. “I had stumbled into a job teaching college dance, but I felt I was about a half a step ahead of my students,” she said. “I had been auditing classes in modern dance with Susan [Waltner] and I knew that this new MFA program was an exciting moment. And the timing was perfect for me. I was a teaching fellow, so I got to hone my skills as a teacher.”

Last month, Nordstrom and her classmate Virginia Scholl, MFA ’79, joined forces again at Smith to create a dance for a special MFA alumni concert in November.

Also performing was Cathy Nicoli, MFA ’04, who created a new dance for the seven undergrads in her fall intermediate repertory course. For Nicoli, Smith was a respite of sorts from her work as a professional dancer and choreographer. “I saw Smith as a retreat: two years of not worrying about promoting myself or the company, two years of not worrying how to have the company make payroll,” Nicoli said. Now, as an adjunct professor of dance for the Five College dance department and for Keene State College, she notes that advanced dance degrees are playing a greater role for dance instructors. “It is a growing trend that an MFA is needed to earn a living as a dance educator,” she says. “I think the program is benefiting from this trend.”

Indeed, MFA graduates are teaching at colleges, universities, and secondary schools around the world, including Hampshire, Williams, and Middlebury colleges, Boston Latin, and Wake Forest University. They’ve also used their talent to found dance companies, work as choreographers, and, of course, become performers in celebrated dance companies, such as Bebe Miller and Doug Elkins. Outside the United States, MFA dancers are living and working in Ireland, Portugal, the Middle East, Taiwan, the Dominican Republic, and other countries.

The yearlong anniversary celebration will continue March 3–5, with choreography by Katie Martin, MFA ’10, for current MFA students as part of the Five College Dance Department Faculty Concert to be presented at Mount Holyoke College’s new dance theater.

Nordstrom, who is marking her own thirtieth year as a dance instructor at Hampshire College, remains enthusiastic about the MFA program, saying, “It’s a little jewel in the midst of this big Five College dance department.”

SAQ Winter 2010-11