The Fight of a Dancing Thinker

Before she came to New Haven, before she brought dance to the Yale curriculum, and before she began her crusade to have dance accepted as a legitimate part of an Ivy League education, Emily Coates introduced Twyla Tharp to the Blue Book. At the time, Coates was 29. Taking classes at Fordham University, she had forgone full-time college to pursue a career in dance, first with the New York City Ballet, then with veritable dance god Mikhail Baryshnikov, and finally with Tharp. Both her mentors thought she would be crazy to leave dance and enroll at Yale. But Coates persisted, which is why, on a July day in 2003, she sat in a cramped dressing room in Manhattan’s Joyce Theater, watching a legendary modern dance choreographer leaf through the Yale course of study. She remembers Tharp hovering close to the book and peering at it through thick black glasses, looking for classes in western civilization or Greek history and advising her to be a classics major. Coates smiles as she recalls the moment. “Twyla meets the Blue Book — a great juxtaposition of worlds.”

Since coming to Yale — first as an undergraduate, now as the artistic director of the World Performance Project and a lecturer in theater studies — Emily Coates has sought to unite these worlds. Twyla and the Blue Book. Performance and academia. Dancing and thinking. In each case, Yale, like other Ivies, has traditionally embraced the second and excluded the first. “I myself, for the record, was at Harvard as an undergrad and then at Columbia as a graduate student,” says Northwestern professor Susan Manning, who is president of the Society of Dance History Scholars. “And certainly the story of dance at the American college and university system largely has bypassed the Ivy League.” Each Ivy boasts a thriving extracurricular dance scene with over a dozen groups and hundreds of students (in Yale’s case, which is on the low end, 15 and about 450 respectively), but only Cornell and Columbia offer a major in dance. Princeton has a certificate program, while Brown, Dartmouth, and Harvard each have a dozen or more classes, of which only a handful count for course credit. Yale is even more lacking. As English and Theater Studies professor Joe Roach points out, “We have the dubious distinction of having the least, except maybe for Penn.”

Emily Coates performs during Joe Roach's performance studies lecture.
Ben Beitler
Emily Coates performs during Joe Roach's performance studies lecture.

But change is in the air, and the place of dance in elite academia is shifting. Brown, Princeton, and Stanford are designing and building multi-million dollar arts centers with performance and practice spaces suitable for dance. In 2005, Harvard unveiled the Harvard Dance Center, which boasts a 4100 square-foot dance studio, and this year it created a “secondary concentration” in dramatic arts, effectively letting students minor in dance. Last year, Duke created a dance major. Some academics are skeptical, such as Mark Franko, who spent years planning a graduate dance studies program at Columbia that never materialized. Many schools, he says, are just “going to build a building and stick a bunch of artists in there on a rotating basis,” rather than changing their curricula. But others view the efforts as seeds of revolution. “Dance studies is still a very, very young discipline,” says Janice Ross, a dance historian at Stanford who points to the changes at Stanford, Harvard, and Duke as signs of change. “I think that this is the moment that it begins to amass a history and a past, and that’s what I think is going to crack things open, along with visionaries and movers who are positioned where they have the freedom and the job security to do this.” Emily Coates, she adds, has the credentials and the intellect to be just that kind of visionary.

At Yale, performance — specifically dance — is being highlighted as never before through the World Performance Project. A Mellon grant-funded initiative founded by performance studies expert Joe Roach and directed in part by Emily Coates, the WPP facilitates performance events and an introductory course in performance studies, which examines cultural events of all kinds and draws on fields as diverse as dance, linguistics, and sociology. In 2006, Coates taught a yearlong course in dance theater featuring ballet, modern, and postmodern dance; this year, the number of dance classes has grown to four and includes THST 335: Contemporary Dance of African Expression and THST 319: Project O, which will combine dance and theater for a new take on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Dance historians such as Janice Ross call Joe Roach a visionary, but Roach is quick to emphasize that Coates has been the greater catalyst for change. “As a matter of putting dance in the curriculum and on the agenda of Yale as a great university, someone like Emily is really essential,” he says. “A dancer, thinker…” He trails off, but the meaning of his words is clear. A bridge between dancing and thinking. Between Twyla Tharp and the Blue Book.

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As Coates puts it, her two great passions have always been reading and books and ideas, and dancing. “My whole life has been about trying to have both in my life at a very high level and not wanting to sacrifice one for the other,” she says. Coates began taking ballet lessons when she was five, and soon she was “good at it,” taking second place at national competitions. Growing up in Pittsburgh, she continued ballet through middle school, and she attended a summer program at the School of American Ballet in New York City and realized that New York was where she wanted to be. “I begged my parents to let me move there when I was a sophomore in high school,” she says, “so when I was 16 I shot out of the house and landed in Lincoln Center.”

After two years at the School of American Ballet, Coates began dancing professionally with the New York City Ballet. Six years later, a modern dance choreographer did a project with the company, and as Coates puts it, “It absolutely changed my life.” She left ballet to explore modern dance and was unemployed and taking modern dance classes when she contacted Mikhail Baryshnikov to ask about transitioning from ballet to modern, a shift he had made when he founded the White Oak Dance Project in 1990 after a lengthy ballet career. A woman called her saying that “Misha” wanted her to call him. It turned out that he knew her dancing and was a fan, having seen her in the New York City Ballet, and he invited her to join his company. “At 25 I was dancing duets with Mikhail Baryshnikov all over the world and sort of barely able to believe how wonderful my life was,” she says. When Baryshnikov disbanded his company in 2001, Coates began dancing with modern choreographer Twyla Tharp, and two years later she was sitting in a dressing room at the Joyce Theater, introducing Tharp to the Blue Book.

Coates came to Yale in 2003 and became an English major. She took a break from dancing and delved into writing classes, but in her second year she took it up again. “In returning to my art form I became very interested in looking at scholarship that dealt with performance and dance,” she says, and as she voiced her curiosity to professors, most of them told her to seek out Joe Roach. She sent him an email, and they met at Book Trader Cafe over spring break. “In his email, he said, ‘I’ll see you by the dance books,’” she recalls. They spoke about her dance career and her decision to come to Yale, and about graduate work and performance studies, and afterward Coates asked if he would be willing to work with her that fall on an independent study of performance studies readings. Because the next semester would be her last before graduating, (her degree, between Fordham and Yale, took 13 years), he said yes.

That September, Coates climbed to the fourth floor of Linsley-Chittenden Hall and presented Roach with a syllabus. “He pushed it back across the table,” she remembers, “and said, ‘This is great. We will read. We will write. This is what we do. But we need to tie this to a creative practice.” He shook his fists. “It was as if the universe opened up,” says Coates. “A professor at Yale was giving me permission to think on my feet. Up until that point I had found Yale to be a place that was wonderfully cultivating of the mind — in a very still fashion.” In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Coates teamed up with fellow dancer Bronwen MacArthur to create “Memory Suite,” a performance based on Roach’s book Cities of the Dead, which explores the cultural landscape of a pre-Katrina New Orleans. Uniting dance and academics as always — after all, how many dance pieces are directly inspired by a book? — Coates used the piece to explore Roach’s concepts of surrogation and kinesthetic imagination, and she asked Roach to step in as a performer. He obliged.

In December, before the performance, Joe Roach went to his mailbox and found he had been awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — a three-year grant to promote the humanities. It was worth $1.5 million. “I’m not a religious person,” says Roach, “but it did seem providential that a very large sum of money did come our way just when we were trying to figure out what to do next about dance at Yale.” A performance Coates describes as “deeply meaningful” sealed the deal. “We had shared this sort of performance studies high, and then with the arrival of funding, I came in for one of the last [independent study] meetings that I had and Joe Roach said, ‘Do you want to stay on at Yale and work with me and help me develop this performance studies project?’” Coates didn’t think long before saying yes. The World Performance Project was born.

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Since Coates’s arrival, the presence of even a few dance classes in the Yale Theater Studies department has generated what Theater Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies Toni Dorfman calls “euphoric, ecstatic buzz.” Coates’s dance theater class, contrary to popular student belief, is not the first dance class ever offered for Yale course credit (a dancer named Barbara Feldman taught a college seminar on modern dance some 14 times between 1981 and the late nineties), but it is the first to be taught through an academic department and the first to spur widespread anticipation of a Yale dance program. “I think there’s a lot of excitement on campus about dance,” says Eliza Kelly-Swift ’09, co-president of campus group Yaledancers and a former apprentice with the Cincinnati Ballet. “The number of people who are involved in dance both through the groups and the classes is significant, and there’s a growing feeling that Yale is going to have a dance program, that this is coming.”

According to students who took the class, last year between 45 and 75 students tried out for Coates’s dance theater seminar, of whom 14 were admitted. Former dance theater student Tasha Eccles ’07 adds that about 50 pre-frosh visited the class during Bulldog Days. “I’ve never been to a class that had more than two [visitors] there,” she says. “There’s clearly as much interest from the outside as there is from the inside.” The excitement has carried over to this year, with students praising “Contemporary Dance of African Expression,” taught by West African dancer Lacina Coulibaly. As Theater Studies professor Dorfman puts it, “Students come in and they are blushing and leaping off the floor and they say, ‘Oh my god, this is the morning I get to go to Professor Coulibaly’s class!’ And I say, ‘Are you excited about it?’ And they say, ‘I live for it!’”

The only students who might be disappointed are those who seek technique-focused, conservatory-style dance training. “Yale won’t offer it straight-up,” maintains Ayesha Faines ’08, who has trained with the New Jersey Ballet and the Dance Theater of Harlem. “Advanced ballet — Yale would never do that.” But that is precisely the point. As both Coates and Dorfman make clear, dance courses at Yale seek to unite practice and theory: the goal is to make dance part of an Ivy League liberal arts education, not to train professional dancers. “In my class, we are considering the socio-historical context in which these works were created as it impacts the physicality of the technique,” says Coates, who requires each student to read several books a term and write between 28 and 34 pages over the course of the year, in addition to watching videos, creating short movement studies, and choreographing and presenting a final project using dancers from the class. “We are learning excerpts of choreography, of seminal works by canonical artists, and the doing of the choreography informs our readings, and the students’ understanding deepens from having considered the work from multiple angles.”

Coates’s former student Jacob Liberman ’10, who is now choreographing pieces for Yale student groups Yaledancers and A Different Drum, agrees. “You’d be reading about a piece one day and dancing it the next morning,” he says, “and you’d get to really see the theory in practice in a way you normally wouldn’t be able to.” He also notes that Coates’s work with choreographers like Twyla Tharp and Yvonne Rainer — both of whom the class studies — gives her firsthand experience that most teachers lack. “She would say, ‘When I danced this piece with X, Y, and Z, she’d say this image was supposed to be like pulling off a sweater, and this one is supposed to be like throwing rose petals on the floor,’ and we’d be like, ‘oh…’ None of that was in the book.”

Like Coates, most Ivy League dance program directors — including Barnard’s Emily Cochran, Brown’s Julie Strandberg, and Harvard’s Elizabeth Bergmann — embrace a model of teaching that unites theory and practice, a tendency that helps dance fit into the context of Ivy League academics. Indeed, nearly everyone from dance historians to Yale students believes that the struggle to include dance in the Ivies is primarily a struggle to prove its academic legitimacy. Yale students were reminded of this last March, when Charles Long, deputy provost of the university, commented in the Yale Daily News on the presence of dance classes in the Yale curriculum. “It’s wonderful to do or to have, but it isn’t really part of an intellectual education,” he said. “You could imagine having a couple credits in things that are sheer performance, but how much is too much?” Following criticism of his remarks in a letter to the News and a reference to them in a New York Times article, Long denies having made them. “It’s certainly not something I believe or have ever said,” he says. “I love dance. I like ballet more than I like opera. I would love to have more dance.”

Students and professors offer many theories as to why the Ivy League has resisted dance in the curriculum, ranging from an ingrained conservatism that values classics over modern and interdisciplinary fields to the historical division between the university and the conservatory. But dance historians and experts in performance studies point to two main factors: dance’s status as a traditionally female pursuit, and more importantly, how dance, as an art form rooted in the body, is at odds with a Cartesian mind-body dualism that privileges mental activity as the basis of academia. With a history as all-male institutions that value intellect, the Ivies have been naturally inhospitable to dance, whose peculiar bodily nature sets it apart from other art forms. As Roach notes, “Where you have a text as in drama or music, where you have a printed artifact, it’s easier to see how it can fit in with subjects such as French literature and history.”

When dance programs arose in American higher education, they positioned dance not as an intellectual or artistic pursuit, but rather as a non-masculine form of physical education. Stanford’s Janice Ross notes that elite male universities historically encouraged physical activity and competitive sports because they were thought to prepare men for leadership roles beyond college. “When dance entered the academy in 1917,” she says, “it was for women and it had to be positioned as doing precisely the opposite of all those things, and I think that’s one of the most pernicious legacies that still shadows the Emily Coates – Joe Roach initiative at Yale.” As a case in point, Ross, the president-elect of the Society of Dance History Scholars, notes that her office is located in Stanford’s women’s gymnasium.

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In 1917, Margaret H’Doubler, a former basketball coach, taught the nation’s first curricular dance class at the University of Wisconsin, which in 1925 created the country’s first dance major. “It was not about dance as art,” says Ross, who has written a book on H’Doubler’s impact on dance in higher education. “It was about dance as a path to self-discovery and physical well-being. It was definitely not competitive. It was not for an audience. You can go down the line and look at everything that men’s sports were doing and they said ‘Women’s physical education will not do this.’” While dance programs throughout the US also grew out of a second model — that of small liberal arts colleges such as Bennington College, which harbored modern dance pioneers like Martha Graham beginning in the thirties — H’Doubler’s influence has been profound. Dance began moving into arts and drama programs in the late sixties, but it is telling that this semester Yale is offering 14 dance classes in Payne Whitney Gymnasium and two in its classrooms.

While other Ivies are building arts centers, or, in Harvard’s case, have opened a dance center, the gym remains the home of dance at Yale. Of the five dance studios with sprung floors available to Yale’s undergraduate dance groups, two are located on the fifth floor of Payne Whitney. (Sprung floors, which are cushioned by springs or rubber, are critical for the health of high-impact dancers, who develop sprains and joint conditions if they dance on normal wood.) Student dancers call the studios small, and just one of them has a Marley surface, a non-slippery vinyl mat necessary for dancers who use pointe shoes, the flat-toed ballerina slippers. On the ninth floor of the gym is a studio that Anna Goddu ’09, the president of student group A Different Drum, calls “an absolute last resort”: the place Yale’s dancers go if a production is near and they can’t find anywhere else to practice. The floor — not sprung, slippery, and covered with splinters — is scratched as if people have been dragging furniture around the room for years. Off-white paint is peeling from the walls, and a two-foot brown splotch blooms on the right side of the leaky ceiling, above a rusty radiator and a couple three-inch nails. In the room’s center hangs a punching bag whose unraveling top reveals black and purple felt.

Outside the gym, student dancers practice in studios in the Trumbull and Silliman basements and in the Off Broadway Theater near the Yale Bookstore, and curricular dance classes meet in the theater studies ballroom at 220 York Street, but the mere fact that a studio of “absolute last resort” exists demonstrates Yale’s shortage of dance facilities. Emily Coates and Joe Roach consider a dance curriculum their primary focus, but establishing dance studios and performance spaces for both classes and the 450 members of Yale’s student dance groups is also important. Coates notes that although the Theater Studies ballroom is satisfactory, it isn’t ideal. “An actor’s studio is different from a dance studio,” she says. “We can dance there, we can move, but it’s not a dance studio. A dance studio is larger. It does not have couches and furniture regularly pulled into its center.” It has a Marley floor, mirrors, a barre, and high ceilings so you don’t jump and hit your head on a chandelier, like one of Coates’s students did last year.

Coates has been active in bringing dance to Yale, but equally important have been the efforts of students, particularly with regard to facilities. As Stanford’s Janice Ross notes, the Ivies, despite poor dance offerings, still attract students with strong dance backgrounds, and in many ways they are the force for change. At Yale, students have lobbied the administration under the auspices of the Alliance for Dance at Yale (ADAY), a coalition of the college’s 15 extracurricular dance groups. Last February, for example, Yale banned student dancers from numerous practice spaces without the appropriate sprung floor — including the Off Broadway Theater — after a student dancer sued the university, alleging she had been injured. Working with ADAY, A Different Drum president Anna Goddu started a letter-writing campaign to urge Yale to renovate the Off Broadway Theater, as well as to consider goals like dance courses in the curriculum and more dance facilities. She collected about 400 letters from students, faculty, and alumnae, and met with Yale College deputy provost Lloyd Suttle. The university preempted the campaign by announcing plans to renovate the theater, and the letters were never presented, but since then Goddu has continued her activism, forming the Committee for Dance and Performance Studies with Emily Coates and Joe Roach to discuss the role of performance at Yale. Following her campaign, the university has made plans to renovate space on Chapel Street to create new dance studios.

Like Anna Goddu, Coates admits that she views her efforts to bring dance to Yale as arts activism. So does Joe Roach. “You could think of it as re-actionary,” he asserts. “I’m trying to get back to the Greeks. Even Plato, who banned a lot of the arts from the Republic, was going to allow dance.” As the World Performance Project continues through this year and the next — after which the Mellon grant will be exhausted — Coates and Roach are mapping new plans. “Right now the focus is on enabling a dance focus within the Theater Studies major,” says Coates. “Ideally, a tenured professor line would need to be created as a next step.” A separate Dance Studies program, she notes, is much further down the road.

Roach says the WPP has budgeted for a “dancer – scholar – thinker” to come to Yale next year as a visiting artist, which will show what it’s like to feature someone who does first-rate choreography and has several books. But he knows his grant will fund dance courses only for the next three semesters, and then it will be up to Yale’s faculty, administration, and students to determine if dance will continue in the curriculum. “I feel that there are sympathetic ears,” he says, “but the issue is in doubt. I don’t know if we’ll be funded beyond next year.” Coates is more optimistic. “There have been very hopeful, positive, promising conversations,” she says. Most importantly, she notes that “on one basic level, our impact has been to get people talking.” As she puts it, “I think we have started conversations. There is revolution in conversations.”

For now, however, Coates will continue pushing for dance at Yale, and she will continue to teach her dance theater class, which is why on a recent Monday she sat silently with ten of her students by the windows of the Theater Studies ballroom, watching a girl in a t-shirt and sweatpants perform a movement study. The girl moved slowly under the chandelier, and the only sounds were the squeak of socks on hardwood floor, the crack of a joint, the soft hum of ventilation in the background. When she finished, Coates asked her to do it again, and she put on sneakers, noting that it felt unnatural without them. “We usually look at it twice,” said Coates, “and then talk about it and look at it again. As you’re watching this for the second time, think about two key questions. What do you see from the work that we’ve studied? And two, what strong points stand out?”

After the second round came the discussion. One girl noted that the dancer’s averted gaze recalled Yvonne Rainer’s “Trio A,” and another said the movements resembled the work of Merce Cunningham. Coates agreed. “There were moments when the arms were seemingly operating independently from the legs in a way that’s very Cunningham,” she said, and with that she launched into an explanation of how the dancer’s use of sneakers the second time around recalled the birth of postmodernism, and her words, as always, revealed that thought is inseparable from dance.

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