FSU’s Department of Dance has a bright future ahead of itDancing to the TopFlorida State University’s Department of Dance offers up a little slice of dance heaven
By Rosanne Dunkelberger
One by one, they enter the spacious and sunny classroom, take a chug of bottled water and begin to reconfigure their outfits. Shoes are tossed off, and hoodies as well. Cut-off sweatpants are pulled over tights, which are inexplicably worn on top of a leotard, which may be rolled down to the waist and replaced with a camisole.
There are two dozen of them, give or take. All young, mostly women. Lithe and flexible, their posture is magnificent and their back musculature to die for. A musician begins to play something wonderful on the Yamaha grand in the corner and the teacher begins to lead a stretching exercise.
It’s 9:35 a.m. at the Florida State University Department of Dance – and class is in session.
And it’s nothing like the English or business lecture hall. For an hour and a half, they will contract, release, spiral, fall and recover. All together at first, standing in lines and then, breaking down into smaller groups, they unselfconsciously dance their way kitty-corner across the room. If the teacher requires them to writhe on the floor, they’ll do that, too.
Definitely nothing like the lecture hall.
For the school’s 75 majors and 30 graduate students, it’s a little slice of dance heaven.
It wasn’t always this way.
In years past, the dance department was housed in a small part of FSU’s 1928-vintage Montgomery Gym, which it shared with movement science, physical education, an indoor pool, an after-school program and recreational karate classes. The facility was, in a word, decrepit.
“There were holes in the roof, and anytime it rained we’d have buckets in the studios and by the elevator,” said Russell Sandifer, who has provided technical and productions services for the department for 20 years and was recently named as its co-chair. “There was a leak in almost every window. The faculty were two to three to a very small office. There were showers, but it became too scary to use them.”
Some of the department’s classes (and its costumer, Currie Leggoe, working out of a Dickensian space cobbled above one of the dance studios) were housed in the Johnston Building, which often would require students to dash across Landis Green to get from one dance class to another.
However, the building underwent $17 million worth of renovations and was reincarnated in 2004 as Montgomery Hall, which now exclusively houses the university’s Department of Dance. While the building maintains the Collegiate Gothic looks of the original construction – and a few details such as the cross-cut wood flooring that was part of the original gymnasium flooring and the decorative iron stairway railings – it has evolved into a dance student’s dream facility.
“I think our facilities are the best in the country – and arguably the world – in college dance,” said Sally McRorie, dean of FSU’s College of Visual Arts, Theatre and Dance.
The former gymnasium space in the heart of the building was converted into the Nancy Smith Fichter Dance Theatre, a 380-seat venue fully equipped with advanced sound, lighting and projection systems. There now are six sunny, airy studios equipped with grand pianos for dance classes, dressing rooms, a locker room with a foot bath, a costume shop, an exercise room, classrooms, a studio for listening to and mixing music, and a “black box” theater – basically a blank slate for creating productions.
It’s nearly perfect: The only misstep seems to be placing the “shoe studio” – home of tap dancing – above the department’s administrative offices.
When the renovation was complete, the expansion gave Patty Phillips, the other new department co-chair, some restless nights worrying, “How are we going to fill all these new spaces?” She is sleeping soundly now. The new facilities have allowed the department to double its number of graduate students, add a prestigious national center for choreography, and offer classes to more than 350 students who are not dance majors. The building stays so busy, Phillips said, “in the afternoons, there’s just no studio space.”
A Short History
Even today, dance is the Rodney Dangerfield at most bastions of higher education. No respect. And lots of classes in the basement.
“I’ve taught and guested at a lot of universities, and dance is quite often the low person on the totem pole of the arts – and quite frequently the arts are considered low on the totem pole at the university level,” said Andrew Noble, who left a professional dancing career to come to FSU and work toward a graduate degree. “Just a handful have this kind of support … That was a major reason I came here. I wanted to be somewhere where dance was going to be honored and recognized and supported. Florida State has great facilities, amazing faculty and a very strong education.”
And for that, you can credit a trio of strong and forward-thinking women who have led the dance department for the past 70-plus years.
As with most other college programs, dance started out at FSU as classes that were part of the physical education department’s curriculum – there was no actual major in dance. The classes were presided over by the commanding presence of Nellie-Bond Dickinson, known as “Bondie.” An advocate for modern dance, she began the tradition of inviting important artists, including her former instructor, Martha Graham, to the campus to perform to enrich the students and the community.
One of Bondie’s eager undergraduates, Nancy Smith, would help start the Theatre Dance Group and an annual concert, “Evening of Dance.” Smith left FSU to pursue a Ph.D. and returned again in 1964, ultimately heading what would become the university’s department of dance.
During a 33-year career as head of the department, Nancy Smith Fichter was a vital force in establishing FSU’s reputation as one of the nation’s finest college dance programs, as well as being an advocate and guiding light for college-level dance nationwide.
According to Phillips, Fichter was part of a group that met informally over the Thanksgiving holidays “to get dance established as a credible art form in the university community.” The group eventually would evolve into the Council of Dance Administrators.
Fichter’s pioneering work at the national level has created “a whole network of our alums,” Phillips said. “Because of her, there are lots of FSU graduates either in departments chairs or administrators or on faculties all around the country. We always tell our students, ‘Even if you’re worried about dance being a viable career, you’ve come to the right place. You’ll be able to make connections.’”
During Fichter’s tenure, dance was established as a major course of study, and students were able to co tinue on to earn an M.F.A. degree in performance and choreography.
“She created a program of integrity that produced strong dancers, and she did it in a loving and nurturing way,” Sandifer said.
Although she retired in 1997, Fichter continues to teach master’s-level classes each fall in choreography and direction.
Elizabeth “Libby” Patenaude served as department chairwoman for nine years, presiding over the renovation of Montgomery Hall – which led to the growth of the graduate-level program and to the creation of the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC for short). Since Patenaude left in 2006, longtime staff members Phillips and Sandifer had been temporarily leading the department, which is part of FSU’s College of Visual Arts, Theatre and Dance. In May, they dropped the “interim” from their titles and were named as co-chairs.
What’s Going On
Undergraduates fortunate enough to be accepted into the program – there are three highly competitive auditions each year – have a certain amount of required general education, but they also take studio dance classes from Day 1. Unlike many other college programs that focus on modern dance, the technique classes are split about 50/50 between ballet and modern.
College programs trend toward modern dance because, as grad student Noble puts it, “ballet is a younger man’s game.” Large ballet companies such as the American Ballet Theatre or the New York City Ballet have their own “farm” systems, identifying talented young dancers in their teens and teaching them in the ways of their corps. That is important because, in ballet, having dancers looking and moving the same is of critical importance. It is less important in modern dance.
As faculty member Tom Welsh so lyrically put it, watching a modern performance is more like seeing “a field of flowers – each is just a little bit different.”
Noble said ballet dancers are considered “old” in their early 30s. A career is about 10 years longer for modern dancers.
“When I got in (to Utah’s Repertory Dance Theatre) at the age of 25, I didn’t have nearly as much to dance about as I do now,” said Noble, who is 33. “I’m married and I have a kid and I’ve had some hardships and I’ve had some joys. Modern choreographers usually are looking for dancers who bring a richness to their performance always, and the way to get that is through experience.”
The dance department faculty includes many gifted teachers and a few superstars, such as legendary ballerina and Kennedy Center Performing Arts Award winner Suzanne Farrell and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, an FSU alumna who has gone on to found a dance company (Urban Bush Women) and choreograph award-winning modern works.
Undergraduates also are required to take non-dancing classes to prepare them for a future in the performing arts, including history, music, production and the study of body movement and conditioning.
One area where FSU is emerging as a leader is in combining dance with technology. It can be as simple as teaching students how to use computer graphics programs to make their own promotional posters or as complex as “dance telematics” – real-time, fully interactive, life-size-projection Internet2 broadcasts of dance classes.
In between are courses that teach students how to compose their own music, film dances – either as entertainment or to create a visual documentation – or create multi-media productions incorporating live dance with projected images.
“I’ve seen a great shift in the students just in the six years that I’ve been here,” said technology professor Tim Glenn. “Now we have students videotape and edit and compose. The creative possibilities have just expanded so much.”
Since the days of Nancy Smith Fichter, the department has offered the Master of Fine Arts degree in dance that emphasizes choreography and performance. A student’s thesis is a concert, open to the public and fully produced by the student.
Since the improvements to Montgomery Hall and the department’s expansion, it has added two more academically based master’s programs, doubling the number of graduate students. In addition to the M.F.A., the school offers a Master of Arts in Dance with a major in studio and related studies and another Master of Arts in American Dance Studies.
As anybody who ever has tried to catch a flight out of town soon discovers, Tallahassee is off the beaten path. And when it came to leaders of the dance world looking for a place to light, this place was pretty much Nowheresville.
Enter MANCC (pronounced MAN-see), now in its third year of operation. The purpose of the center continues to evolve, but it currently serves as an irresistible lure for choreographers from throughout the nation – and the world – to come and create innovative, new modern dance.
“It’s an extraordinary center that’s bringing us international attention,” said Dean McRorie. “It really gives our students and faculty the ability to work with world-class people without having to leave Tallahassee.”
It is named for Maggie Allesee, a philanthropist and 1949 FSU graduate who now lives in Detroit. She provided $1.5 million, which attracted state matching money, to get the center started. (One of FSU’s original cheerleaders, Allesee was the first woman to earn a varsity letter and is the benefactor who donated the bronze “Sportsmanship” statue that sits outside of Doak Campbell Stadium in honor of her father.)
MANCC has big ambitions, as articulated by its director, Jennifer Calienes:
“Modern dance – it kind of came out of (the United States) and we promoted it to the world with (Martha) Graham and (Paul) Taylor,” she said. “Then … Europe and Australia developed national choreographic centers that were government-subsidized. The government paid for their artists to come and develop work. They invested – and it worked.”
Realizing that the U.S. government wasn’t going to establish such a center, “FSU deemed itself the national center for choreography” and created MANCC, Calienes said.
MANCC has different programs, but they usually involve inviting a choreographer and dancers to use the facilities at FSU for two or three weeks to create … whatever.
A financially precarious art, even dance’s most successful practitioners operate on a shoestring, Calienes said. A goodly amount of grant money is reserved for the restaging of classic works of modern dance. Those lucky enough to win a commission to choreograph usually are expected to have a fairly complete vision of what they want to create in advance and show a work product or go on tour at the end.
Under the current model, funding organizations require choreographers to “tell us how many dancers you’ll use, what lighting and costuming before you get the money to start,” Calienes said. “The best people to ‘frame that box’ get that money.”
MANCC wants to take a more research-based approach.
“What we’re looking for is what happens to get to the box,” Calienes said.
Those seeking to come to FSU are asked to write a proposal that basically answers the question, “If you had time and no worries about transportation and lodging, what do you really want to do?” she said.
MANCC also seeks to incorporate these workshops into a learning experience for dance students and to involve the university and local communities in the process.
At times, what choreographers want requires some imaginative networking by the MANCC staff. One, who wanted to explore the subject of transformation and gestation through dance, asked to be introduced to scientists and visual artists. Another wanted to choreograph using ballroom dancers – preferably over the age of 80.
In April, six dancers from San Francisco’s AXIS Dance Company spent three weeks at MANCC, working with four choreographers (chosen from 63 applicants). AXIS provided a special challenge to organizers and the choreographers, because it is a mixed-ability group with several dancers in wheelchairs.
Dance students were invited to view what was being worked on and ask questions in the middle and at the end of the group’s stay. Some of the fruits of the collaboration may be seen in Tallahassee in February 2008, when AXIS returns as part of the “Seven Days of Opening Nights” festival.
“The artists that we bring help us tap into the community,” Calienes said. “It’s opened some very interesting doors.”
Of course, New York City is the center of the dance universe, so FSU has created an “FSU in NYC” program. Led by director Sally Sommer, students are invited to spend a fall semester in New York City, taking academic and studio classes, participating in internships and attending performances.
Looking to the Future
When department director Libby Patenaude left, the college began the search for a new, high-profile director. But after two years of looking, it was decided there would be two new leaders in the spotlight – who had been waiting in the wings the whole time.
Sandifer and Phillips – interim co-chairs during the search process – were tapped to head the department together in May.
McRorie is convinced the new team is the right choice. “They have done an extraordinary job this year with running this department,” she said. “They do a good job balancing one another and are really ready to step up as partners to continue their management of the programs, but more importantly to vision with the faculty and students about what’s next.”
“We’re the quiet ones,” Sandifer explained. “We’ve (both) been associate chair for years, so we know how most things should be done – and over the year (as interim chairs) we’ve learned the rest of it.”
The pair say they have complimentary skills. Sandifer focuses on the technical, facilities, production and budgeting, Phillips on academics, and the day-to-day running of the program.
“We have a real clear idea of who does what,” Phillips said. “It’s worked out really well … . Our management styles are different enough that they work together.”
When asked what the future holds for the department of dance, Sandifer was ready with an answer.
“More of the same,” he said. “To continue research into what dance is and what it can be. Maybe trying to make an international presence for the department. We’re already well known nationally.”
“We’re not calcifying yet, we still have some goals,” said Phillips. Currently, the M.F.A. is considered the terminal degree in dance. FSU is hoping to take it to the next – doctoral-level.
“The M.A. in American Dance Studies was developed with an eye toward that being a stepping stone into what we hope will be able to establish as a Ph.D. program,” she said.
Photographer Jon NalonCapturing Beauty in Action
By Rosanne Dunkelberger
If you have seen a photograph of a Florida State University dancer perfectly posed en pointe or caught in the midst of an impossible-looking, lighter-than-air leap, chances are very good that you’re looking at the work of Jon Nalon.
For more than 25 years, the mostly self-taught photographer has made himself a highly praised, if not very lucrative, career out of shooting dancers as they ply
“I have a day job that pays for the photography,” said Nalon, 59, a pleasant, self-deprecating fellow who calls himself “self-underemployed.” He photographs all of the FSU Department of Dance’s performances (during the dress rehearsals) and schedules photo calls – studio shots of dancers costumed and dancing – as well as photo shoots for the Tallahassee Ballet and other regional dance groups. He also is the go-to guy for photographing some of FSU’s theater productions, most notably the opera, as well as artists and their art.
It all started “in ’81 or thereabouts,” he said, when Nalon’s sister – who worked as a union stagehand with dance department productions and was buddies with the production manager – got him in to photograph a dress rehearsal.
“I got lucky, and out of a couple of rolls of slide film, there were one or two frames that were recognizable as something of interest – and I kind of got the bug,” he said. “I had never seen a dance performance prior to that occasion … I was in a different world … I sort of kept at it as an enthusiastic amateur.”
A year or so later, the dance department’s publicity director asked Nalon to try a photo call.
“I won’t say it was a disaster, but it was close,” Nalon said. But he persevered and, through trial and error, figured out what kinds of lighting were likely to work and what sorts of movements produced the best results on film.
Photo calls are a tricky business that involves getting dancers to do their best movements, over and over, in a particular spot without music or other cues and in sync with the strobe lights required to catch them in action. And woe to the photographer if a dancer is hurt during a photo session.
“You’re in big trouble if somebody limps after a photo call,” Nalon said.
His only “formal” training was early in his career – a two-week workshop in 1983 with New York dance photographer Jack Mitchell.
“That was very serendipitous for that event to become available at that time,” Nalon said. “If it had been earlier, I might not have been too ready. Sometimes things fall into your timeline just at the right time, and I think that was one of them.”
The photographer’s career has followed the modern evolution of photography. In the beginning, he mostly shot 35-millimeter, black-and-white film. During one rehearsal, he might use 30 rolls, which then had to be developed in the darkroom before prints were made.
Nalon has happily made the switch to digital photography and now is “free of the tyranny of standing in the darkroom,” he said. However, he added, whatever amount he is saving on film now is spent on “overpriced” digital equipment.
Nalon’s “day job” is building and maintaining racing motorcycles – the type that are used in time trials. His creative mechanical ability also is obvious in some of the repurposed mid-century objets he uses to decorate his home on Tallahassee’s north side. These include an Electrolux vacuum that was turned into a lamp and a toaster that became a nightlight.
His mechanical skills also have found their use in Nalon’s dance photography. He fabricated a special metal holder that allows him to mount three cameras on one tripod to make it easier for him to photograph dress rehearsals. Because he has just one opportunity to shoot a rehearsal, Nalon sets up five cameras focused on different areas of the stage – from one that covers the entire stage to another that zeroes in on individual dancers. As the production progresses, Nalon moves between the cameras, clicking away.
Some of his earlier black-and-white photographs promoting the FSU dance department were unearthed during the Montgomery Hall renovation, and now they line the walls of the faculty office hallway. An exhibition that appeared at Tallahassee Regional Airport now is hanging in the passageways leading to the Nancy Smith Fichter Dance Theatre, and Nalon’s photographs are ubiquitous in the department’s programs, magazines and promotional literature.
Nalon reflected on his decades behind the lens: “You know, when something sparks your imagination, you get sort of gung-ho about it.”
Performing on the FringePianists Make Beautiful Music While Dancers Take Center Stage
By Rosanne Dunkelberger
Slip into one of the Montgomery Hall studios at Florida State University during a dance technique class and you will quickly be captivated by the sight of lithe young bodies as they bound and twirl across the space while the teacher calls out instructions and advice.
It may take a few minutes of visual blitz before you realize that the resounding tune that is inspiring all this movement is coming from a grand piano in the corner – and it’s being played with great enthusiasm by Douglas Corbin, or one of several musicians who play live during the dance classes.
Live music is an important part of the dance training process, he said. There is a particular give-and-take that happens between the teachers, dancers and musicians that is hard to explain to the uninitiated, but Corbin is willing to take a shot:
“It’s a simple obvious fact: Dance and music go together,” he said. “It’s like men and women … We belong together and everybody figures out a way to do it, but, God, there’s a lot of questions and mystery involved.”
Corbin is attempting to unravel the mystery for dance students. In addition to his duties as an accompanist, the full-time faculty member has also taught music in FSU’s department of dance for the past 11 years. Before that, he worked as a dance musician in New York for 18 years.
It takes a certain kind of talent to be a dance musician, said Corbin, and a special type of instrumentalist to tap into it.
“Music is very intellectual; it has mathematical underpinnings,” he said. On the other hand, he added, dance is “a body thing.” A proper dance musician is able to “hunker down and feel it” while playing for his or her audience, keeping a tempo and accenting notes to cue the dancers.
While musing that “nobody in music school dreams of becoming a dance musician. People who drop out of music school become dance musicians,” Corbin said he is proud of his work – and appreciative of his audience.
“I look at it as a performance – it just happens that people dance when I perform,” he said. “Not only do they respond, but they show you in their bodies. Maybe the way you’re playing accents makes somebody jump higher – and you can see that. It’s instant gratification. It’s not like you wait for the end and there’s going to be polite applause.”
The other upside is that, as long as the tune works with the movement, dance accompanists can play pretty much what they want to during class.
“That’s part of the fun of doing this, unlike doing a choir rehearsal or even a band,” Corbin said.
“It’s functional music … You can do a medley – from ‘Swan Lake’ into Gershwin to some pop tune,” he said. He got a nod of acknowledgement from a student after playing a U2 track from the band’s recent album. Not so much when he tries a number from the Temptations or other ’60s hits from his generation.
“That goes right over their heads,” he said.
Sheet music usually is not used by Corbin and the other, mostly freelance, musicians who play in the classes.
“Most of us are improvisers or we play from memory,” he said. “It’s just a little tricky if you (sight) read because it takes your eyes away from the moment. Whether it’s visually or you have a sixth sense, you need to kind of feel those bodies out there bouncing around … If you get too much attention on that page, you’re probably going to lose something.”
Musing about his esoteric vocation, Corbin said “there absolutely is” a skill to being a dance musician.
“It’s just not one that’s taught over at the music school,” he said.