Backstage Pass to Reed's Newly Created Dance Major
“I tell everyone to take dance classes their freshman year,” says MacKenzie Schuller, improvisational dance enthusiast and one of three dance majors graduating this spring. For most of its existence, dance at Reed was offered as an interdisciplinary major in conjunction with other departments, including theater, anthropology, sociology, and history, not unlike a minor at other institutions. “At that time, we didn’t have enough depth and scope of classes to support a major,” explained Reed dance professor Carla Mann ‘81. In 2014, an $80,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation transformed the department, providing funding to hire new professors and expand existing positions.
With the grant’s support, the department was able to increase the number, frequency, and range of dance courses offered, making a standalone dance major a reality. While the major was officially approved by the faculty and instituted in 2016, some students were already eagerly preparing to become the first standalone dance majors.
Currently, the major offers two main study tracks: dance studio, which focuses on dance practice and performance, and dance studies, which focuses on ethnographic research investigations. Most dance department classes include both approaches, placing significant emphasis on integrating study and practice. Dance theses consist of an academic research document just like any other major, while also including the opportunity to incorporate creative components such as choreography, performance, or practice-based research.
Three dance seniors are graduating this spring, and Carla is thrilled at how tight-knit the thesis process has been for them: “I know the thesis process can be kind of lonely, kind of isolating, so I like to think that it’s not like that for dance,” she said. The performance theses this year all involve casts of dancers, building on the collaborative nature and supportive environment that dance classes strive to create. “I love the thesis process, actually,” said MacKenzie. “It was really great to just focus on dance. I’m really into kinesthesia and the physical aspects of dance, which doesn’t cross over with other disciplines as much.” MacKenzie’s thesis was performed along with Rika Yotsumoto and Olivia Hasencamp’s thesis shows the first weekend in February.
In her thesis, MacKenzie investigated two different forms of improvisational dancing, Gaga movement language and contact improvisation. “I used those two forms and the ideas of image-based and contact-based improv to challenge our ideas about how we can or should move,” she explained. A significant portion of the project is focused on the process of creating an improvisational performance; an entire chapter of MacKenzie’s thesis will be dedicated to reflecting on the rehearsal process, during which she had her dancers keep journals. “We never had mirrors, I never showed them videos. I wanted it to be about the experience.” Most dance classes make use of wall mirrors, such as those in the Performing Art Building’s main dance studio, to check body alignment and synchronization between dancers. But for the purposes of MacKenzie’s project, this was not necessary. “In terms of improv I find mirrors really detrimental, because they give us a two-dimensional image of ourselves and we have three dimensional bodies!” she said. “We just see this one plane, and it’s so easy to be judgemental when you’re improvising. I just wanted [my performers] to feel beautiful, because they are.”
For all three thesis performances, the audience was seated surrounding the stage space and on the same level as the performers, in an arrangement meant to destabilize performance conventions and focus on potential interactions between performers and audience members instead of presenting a more traditional show in which the audience is expected to be passive.
While there are several passionate advocates for dance and Reed’s dance programs, being a dance major or scholar is certainly not free from stereotypes and frustrations. “I’ve heard a lot of people apologizing for being dance majors, because it’s not considered academically rigorous,” lamented MacKenzie. In a deeply intellectualized environment like Reed, a discipline that focuses on movement and the body might seem apart from the ubiquitous motto ‘life of the mind,’ but MacKenzie believes that dance offers an excellent space for students to engage creatively as well as intellectually. “I’m really proud of [being a dance major] and all the things we are asked to do,” MacKenzie said. “I don’t ask if people take me seriously as a dance major, because I take myself seriously.” Another assumption students may have about dance is that they must already be technically skilled or intent on the major in order to participate. Both Carla and MacKenzie emphasized the opposite: “I would love people to know that the Dance department loves having non-majors take our classes,” MacKenzie said. “It’s exciting and inspiring, and we’re all really friendly!”
For students interested in getting involved with dance outside of or beyond classes, MacKenzie recommends the student dance organization Dance Troupe, which is dedicated to teaching and learning dance together in a supportive environment. The Mellon Foundation also offers grants for students seriously interested in dance to participate in intensive dance courses, attend workshops, and gain experiences through internships and other opportunities. In addition to offering opportunities for outside study, the Mellon grant also funds visiting artists to do workshops and performances throughout the semester, a cornerstone and highlight of the dance major experience. Visiting artist events are often open to the public.
The blending of theory and practice is not typical in collegiate dance courses, and has become one of the most beloved and unique things about Reed’s dance department. “We recognize the making, the moving, the seeing, as part of the academic practice, not just reading, writing, and speaking,” Carla said. is approach to academic inquiry and creative practice was what drew Carla into dance as a Reed undergrad. “It was really my very first dance class at Reed that got me hooked on dance,” she recalled. As a music major at Reed, Carla tried dance for the first time and immediately found herself thinking about how much she would love to teach the classes she was taking. She later went on to graduate school for dance, and has been teaching at Reed since 1995.
Valuing and exploring the experience of dancing instead of just its aesthetics is a project MacKenzie plans to continue beyond her thesis. “We don’t pay that much attention to the body in everyday life,” she said. Dance improvisation can be used as a method of pushing the limits of what we believe we can do, building intimacy with our own bodies, and sharing that intimacy with other bodies through movement. Because dance functions in so many ways, a key aspect of the major is delving into the intersections between dance, history, sociology, and culture in addition to performance and technical skills. “What I would love for people to understand about dance is that it’s huge. It’s a huge discipline that involves many activities, many sorts of ways of thinking and of engaging with ideas, directly with physicality, with social life, politics,” Carla said. “For me, that is why dance has been so compelling and engrossing for so many years ... Dance allows me to engage at the same time with all the parts of myself, intellectual, emotional, physical.”
Cover photo: Dancers in MacKenzie's thesis project improvising during rehearsal. Photo courtesy of MacKenzie Schuller.