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Body Language: UCLA Dance

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.


Kenji Igus '13 Specialty: Tap

Kenji Tap Dancing

Watch Kenji's performance for UCLA WAC 180: Dance and Video Production

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.


"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."


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."


Cultural Movements

Dance auditions at UCLA, in fact, are stringent, with more than 240 applicants vying for approximately 30 spots in the major alone every year. Classes aren't just targeted toward barres and pointe shoes. Activism and community outreach are major components of the curriculum.

Shiva Rea '91, M.A. '97 came to Westwood after doing volunteer work in Kenya and Zambia, where she'd become a member of a woman's dance group. "I'd seen the power of movement as a cultural force for change and was looking for a university program that merged anthropology and dance," she says. "Entering [WACD] was like discovering a field with a richness beyond any goals I could have had."

This new way of looking at dance takes many surprising and sometimes provocative shapes, such as AMP!, an arts-based, sexual health education program for Los Angeles high school youth that's part of the UCLA Art & Global Health Center founded by Gere in 2004 to explore "the interface of art and medicine." The AMP! Sex Squad surprises even its own members, like WACD student Sebastian Milla '13.

"I'd never seen anything like it before," he says of his first time as an audience member. "My own sex ed experience taught me nothing except how the plumbing works, which doesn't help. Sex Squad is eye-opening, focusing on the emotional and maturity aspects of sexual health. Seeing the Sex Squad in action tied me to the major."


Kevin Le '14 Specialty: Contemporary Ballet, Modern, Hip-Hop

According to Timothy Kordic, program manager of the Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit, "AMP! uses the visual and performing arts to deliver sensitive information in a relevant, fun and genuine way that meets the standards, objectives and goals in framing that information for education."

And then there is Marks' use of dance to explore the post-war experience of veterans, an unconventional approach to the performance art that even impressed her fellow faculty.

"Exposure through a dance and theater environment allows people like me to 'get with it,' this moment in time and the suffering that has taken place that I wouldn't feel otherwise," Gere says of Marks' work. "Being knocked off balance is a very good thing for a dancer. That's when the movement becomes more compelling, where interesting discoveries are made and where the metaphors of life get played out."


Let's Dance This Outside

Taking dance beyond the Kaufman Hall walls is actually a requirement for undergrads. Key to this element is the department's partnership with LAUSD. Nonprofits have also seen their share of student volunteers from the department, as has the UCLA Center on Aging, UCLA Lab School, UCLA Community School, women's shelters and prisons.

"Dance can sew a community together," says Marks. "It can contribute to a sense of identity that might be missing or lost, work against our anxiety over taboos, teach us our history and engage political ideas."

Contributing as well are guest artists in various affiliations, including the Residency Project for Movement (RPM) that includes such well-known dance figures as Bill Forsythe, Meredith Monk and Rennie Harris. Visiting RPM artists perform as part of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA), as well as deepening artists' relationships to the community by offering intensive classes to UCLA students and master classes to area high school students.

The Trisha Brown Dance Company's visit to UCLA this April is another example of this type of partnering, says Kristy Edmunds, CAP UCLA executive and artistic director, bringing with it collaborations between CAP UCLA, the Getty Center, the Hammer Museum, the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture and WACD. The company will be teaching as well as having dance students perform the choreography of their Floor of the Forest exhibit at the Hammer.


Renee Lee '14 Specialty: Chinese, Modern, Ballet

Edmunds says this is beneficial on many levels. "It's helpful to curriculum aspirations," she says. "It transfers knowledge from this incredible company into another generation of practitioners, and it's supported through a collaboration with the Hammer."

Projects from the Trisha Brown Dance Company involve dancers walking down the side of a building, dressing horizontally amidst sculptures and performing on the Getty's rooftops. With so much fun to be had with projects like this, it's not surprising that UCLA students extend their time by pursuing M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in culture and performance and M.F.A.s in dance with an emphasis on choreography.

Using What You've Got

As one would expect, there are as many different ways to use a UCLA degree in dance as there are dance students. Rea has gone on to produce festivals like the World Festival of Sacred Music. She's also well-known in the yoga world, often teaching large-scale movement experiences across the globe. She sees this as a natural extension of what she took away from her time with the department.

"Today's job market is for innovators," she says. "WACD is for people who see the interconnectedness of the world and want to be able to pass through a process that helps them speak to the interdisciplinary nature that the global landscape is requiring."

Or as faculty member Marks puts it, WACD graduates no longer see dance "as an ornamental or frivolous activity, but as an essential practice that can change things for the better. They're leaving us with a sense of purpose and conviction."