In Contemporary Dance Practices, a recent addition to the Core Curriculum, students take time between discussions of different aesthetic theories, the influence of pop culture, and the privilege of Western perspectives in dance criticism to engage in a real practice of movement, learning a wide variety of techniques and styles.
In another class, this one called Move and Think / Think and Move, students break the divide between intellect and physical by using ‘built-in research methodologies’.
In Katherine Dunham: Politics in Motion, students trace the life and work of one of the first black women to graduate from college. Dunham made many contributions not only to dance, but also to anthropology and political activism. Students view dance as a work of social activism in the context of Dunham’s life while learning the movement technique she created and which bears her name.
As a member of the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS), the University of Chicago dance program allows students to take unorthodox and unique classes like these. Almost all courses have a physical component to match theoretical and academic work, mixing discussions of readings and videos with corresponding studio practice. In an interview with BrownJulia Rhoads, who heads the dance program at TAPS, said, “I think students are so drawn to the classes because they are all about getting people to think differently through integrated research. It is an embodied practice. At the University of Chicago, intellectual processes are usually first and foremost, [so] having the opportunity to engage with integrated ways of thinking and acting is exciting.
In recent years, interest in dance has grown within the college community: student groups and dance RSOs have become increasingly popular, while in 2018 the dance was officially created by the University. Student feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. “Students are so hungry for these new modalities. They really like to move. They are really excited about the pitch and the practice, ”said Rhoads.
Classes in the dance program attract students from all backgrounds and levels of experience. There are no prerequisites for dance lessons and they are available to students of all majors. “They are very open level,” said Rhoads, “and the mix of student movement backgrounds brings vibrancy to every class.” Beginning dancers practice alongside skilled veterans, and the theory and historical context provided by the readings and videos serve as an ideal mediator between different skill levels.
The dance program currently offers two courses that meet the basic requirements – Contemporary Dance Practices and Move and Think / Think and Move – and six more courses as part of the TAPS major. But the program also offers plenty of extracurricular classes, ranging from yoga to hip-hop fundamentals. These are open to all members of the University of Chicago community, and they tend to focus on hands-on assignments, teaching participants specific styles and shapes.
All classes are currently remote due to COVID-19, but there have been some surprising benefits for students and teachers. “We all miss being in real time, in real space,” Rhoads said, “but there are things I want to highlight – making dance more accessible to people. [who] cannot go to a studio or [who] feel more secure practicing in their home environment. A huge thing was to have international guest artists, and you can’t [always do that]. “
Extracurricular classes are taught by local artists affected by the pandemic. Rhoads says she was interested in supporting the community around the college, with all course payments going directly to teachers. The dance program, since its inception, has attempted to situate students in the larger Chicago context and help them connect with the city’s rich artistic tradition. COVID-19 thus provided a unique opportunity to expose students to new techniques and approaches to dance while giving back to local dancers.