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Body Language: UCLA Dance

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By Bekah Wright, Photos by Patrik Giardino

Published Apr 1, 2013 8:00 AM


Many dance schools teach technique. At UCLA, something more ambitious swirls through the classrooms: a conviction that art really can change the world.

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Kenji Igus '13 Specialty: Tap

Kenji Tap Dancing

Watch Kenji's performance for UCLA WAC 180: Dance and Video Production http://vimeo.com/22957296

For a young tap dancer, Kenji Igus '13 has an interesting career arc planned.

"I'm planning on getting my Ph.D. in dance, dealing with tap dance and tap culture and tap dance theory—be a kind of tap dance professor," he says.

UCLA Dance by Patrik Giardino

Watch UCLA students Renee Lee '14, Kevin Le '14, Kaiya Gales '15 and Kenji Igus '13 perform in campus settings. All four are dance majors in WACD, the department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance.

In 2012, Igus spent a month on tour in the Congo, Mozambique and Zimbabwe with a State Department-backed program called DanceMotion USA. He got the gig in large part through Lynn Dally, artistic director of the famed Jazz Tap Ensemble and a faculty member at UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance (WACD). "I'm extremely interested in studying the correlation in African roots in tap dance and the relationship between tap and race," says the young dance scholar.

Can dance heal? Can dance teach? Can dance save? What can or should this performing art do to make the world a better place? Plenty, if you share the unique philosophy of the dance program at UCLA. There is, in fact, something novel going on in Glorya Kaufman Hall, command headquarters for an approach that is anything but the typical conservancy dance program.

For one thing, since a merger in 1995 between the World Arts and Cultures Program and the Dance Department, the dance program shares its space, literally and figuratively, with the studies of anthropology, art, art history, folklore, mythology, music and theater.

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"It's this polyglot mix that makes dance at UCLA what it is," explains David Gere, professor and executive director of the UCLA Art & Global Health Center. "This nudging and colliding against each other is sometimes uncomfortable, but mostly stimulating, causing a friction that leads to a synergy that makes both components stronger."

The approach draws students as unconventional as their teachers. "Our students learned to dance salsa in their living rooms, practiced dance in a private studio or were part of the afterschool, hip-hop culture in their communities," says Victoria Marks, professor and vice chair of undergraduate affairs. "In some educational settings, this kind of experience is often ignored or set aside. WACD, however, is interested in dance as an expression of human sociality."

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Kaiya Gales '15 Specialty: Ballet, West African

Case in point: dance major Kevin Le, on track to graduate in 2014, whose version of contemporary dance is "to infuse hip-hop and contemporary ballet." Le explains that "I came from a strict competition background, so I grew up with training rather than theories of performance and dance. Coming through the program, I learned there's a whole new perspective of dance in terms of looking at it as an artist, innovator and creator of movement."

And some come to Westwood already successful. Jeanine Mason arrived on campus in January 2010 fresh off her win in the fifth season of Fox's Emmy Award-winning hit So You Think You Can Dance and a subsequent SYTYCD tour of the U.S. and Canada. She was initially curious about WACD "because I had friends who were artists and were raving about the program."

Once here, Mason, currently appearing on ABC Family's Bunheads but still working on a degree she expects to complete next year, was pleasantly surprised. "I anticipated UCLA would have more of a traditional conservatory, and I knew for certain that was something I didn't want," she explains. "Little by little, I learned how unique the program is."

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