The setting sun sends fading light through the towering glass windows of the dance studio as two dancers perform a series of dramatic lifts and turns.
Feet, knees, and legs pound the cushioned floor as they propel their bodies through the movements. The music quiets at the end of the dance, leaving only the sound of the dancers’ labored breathing.
“You must feel the musicality,” says visiting artist Jill Echo, interrupting the quiet, and shaking her head in frustration.
An assistant director and choreographer at the TAKE Dance Company in New York, Echo is at Randolph College helping the students perfect the duet, “Love Story,” which was created by the founder of TAKE and another Randolph visiting artist, Takehiro Ueyama. “The music is setting up a feeling of yearning,” she tells the two students. “You are not giving me the emotion I need. This dance is telling the story of love. When you are in love for the first time, you have all the energy, you feel like you can do anything. I’m not feeling that from you. You are making me tired. Do it again.”
Drenched with sweat, Duquan Little ’12 and Iwalani Martin ’10 take their places and repeat the grueling routine, this time seeking the emotion as they perfect their technique. Little’s powerful legs and arms propel Martin into the air as she balances the hold, their bodies creating perfect lines. It is late; they have both completed a full day of classes and face hours of homework. But this is dance, and for these three hours, dance is life.
The work with Echo is intense. In a few weeks, at Randolph College’s Annual Spring Dance Concert, they will perform the duet. A week with an acclaimed dancer is an opportunity, and they soak in her words and deliver.
“Yes!” yells Echo, jumping from her seat. “Do you feel the difference? You take the vision of the composer and the choreographer, and you stay true to their vision. Then you bring something extra to the dance. That’s what makes you an artist.”
“Dance is hard and can be frustrating,” said Martin, a double major in dance and philosophy. “We can’t just be physically strong. We have to be flexible. We have to be able to move and change and pick up things on a moment’s notice. But dance is a part of me. Other things make me happy, but this is the one thing that really fulfills me.”
Martin and Little often put in more than 30 hours a week dancing in addition to their full course loads, sometimes barely having time for meals.
“Your toes get split open, and your body aches everywhere,” Little said. “You are so tired during practice, but when it comes time to perform it, you suddenly realize that you’re not tired anymore. I might be beat up and bruised, but the audience will never know. They’ll just see the dance.”
Preparation for the concert begins as early as August and is filled with weeks and months of grit, tears, pain, and emotion. Students participate in one to eight dances choreographed by visiting artists, major choreographers, and seniors, who choreograph and direct their own pieces in the show as part of their senior capstone experience.
“People see the arts as glamorous,” said Charles A. Dana Professor of Dance Pam Risenhoover. “They don’t see behind the scenes. They don’t see what these dancers go through to make it look effortless. That’s our job as dancers—make them think this is all magic.”
Magic is not the word dancers use to describe the physical toll on their bodies. The constant pounding on the dance floor creates friction burns, called “splits,” on the bottoms of their feet. Shin splints, toenail problems, and muscle aches and pains are everyday occurrences.
“You get to a point as a dancer where you just have to get over the pain,” said Kelly Malone Dudley ’95, an adjunct dance instructor who danced professionally in Chicago. “This concert, and our program, teaches our dancers about life. They’ll need to learn how to balance their dancing with work and other responsibilities. They learn to make it work.”
Randolph College’s dance program is hailed by its dancers and by experts in the field for how it prepares students to deal with different personalities.
The College’s Helen McGehee Visiting Artist Program in Dance brings a different modern dance expert to campus every one to two weeks during the year, a unique practice that provides students with an amazing variety of dance experiences by the time they graduate.
The visiting artists are often well known and respected in the dance world.
“What is unique about our program is the revolving door,” Risenhoover said. “Other places have programs, but they only have one artist each semester. We have them coming in regularly, and that makes our students versatile.”
Visiting artists embrace college life, often eating dinner with students, attending extracurricular events, and creating close relationships with the students.
While on campus, the artists teach and work with the students on a dance. When the artists leave, the students have the responsibility of practicing and perfecting the dance for the concert at the end of the year in April. The concert is a full production, complete with hundreds of costumes, complex lighting, and the pressure of performing.
“What I love about this dance department is that we have such a mix of people,” Dudley said. “We have students who are looking for a professional career in dance and students who have never danced before. It’s great for the audience to see such a wide range of skill and opportunity.”
This year’s concert is the 27th concert for Risenhoover. “I like the word ‘concert’ because a concert is a coming together. That’s what this is. This is a culmination of a year’s worth of work—and for the seniors, four years of work. It’s an opportunity for our students to show how they have grown as dancers.”
While many of the dancers in the College’s program have danced their whole lives, others began a short time ago. Little started dancing at 16 after appendicitis forced him off the swim team in high school. “I took a dance class, and it turned out that I was really good at it,” he said. He joined a production company that performed throughout North Carolina.
“Dancing is a great way to express how you feel. It’s a great release of aggression or happiness or even if you just want to let loose some energy,” he said.
Little plans to pursue a career as a professional dancer before heading to graduate school to study dance education.
“If I had gone somewhere else, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of working with all of these different types of artists. They are all so prominent in the dance world. It’s great to be around them and absorb some of their knowledge.”
The visiting artists bring expertise from all aspects of the modern dance world, including jazz and ballet. The concert provides the dance students—whether they are beginners or about to enter the professional dance world—a taste of what it is like to be in a professional dance company.
“The dance department is like a family,” Risenhoover said, adding that the long hours spent together preparing for the concert often bring tears and frustration, but also closeness.
“This experience is a part of what prepares them for what is to come in the future,” Risenhoover said. “In order to get through a dance concert, they have to learn to work together as a team. They help each other get through it.”
For Little, the annual concert is terrifying. “The duet I did last year was the scariest moment of my life,” he said. “But I love dancing, and no matter how much it makes me cringe to go out there on stage, I have to do it.”
Not so for Stephanie Defillo ’12, who says she was born for dance. A graduate of Lynchburg’s acclaimed Virginia School of the Arts, Defillo came to Randolph College to pursue a double major in political science and dance. She hopes to earn a master’s degree in international relations.
“Dance is my passion,” she said. “Some dancers don’t like to look at the audience, but I love it. I love to look out and see people I know. When I’m dancing I get to express everything I’m feeling at the moment.”
Defillo thrives on the pressure and she enjoys the difficulty of learning a dance number during the week of a visiting artist and then having to perfect it between that time and the time of the dance concert.
“Nothing else matters when you are on stage,” Defillo added. “If you make a mistake, you just make it up. If you fall down, you have to get up and keep dancing. It’s like life. You just have to keep going.”