Karlanna Lewis LAW ’15 knew that academics came first when she was considering her plans for graduate study. However, something else impacted her decision to attend Yale Law School as well: Yale’s dance program.
“What I love about Yale’s dance program is the student-led charge as opposed to something faculty-led. It means that there’s something for everyone,” she said.
Dance at Yale is on the upward trend. It’s growing and flourishing, with the Alliance for Dance at Yale now including more than 20 groups in its catalogue. Dance Studies is now a visible part of the Theater Studies curriculum, and a new studio space has just opened on Sachem Street.
However, while students expressed their excitement about the growing dance opportunities on campus, the rapid growth led to a number of problems. Groups find themselves struggling for space, and the money to fund ambitious routines and exciting new projects seems to be in short supply.
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Nicole Feng ’15 is co-president of Rhythmic Blue (RB), Yale’s first and only contemporary and hip-hop dance troupe, established in 1991. Feng said that the group’s options are often limited, simply because of inadequate funding.
This past year, RB traveled to a dance competition at Stony Brook University. It was the first time the group had competed, and they were the only group representing the state of Connecticut. After struggling to find sufficient funding through Yale, the group turned to an online campaign. They managed to raise double the necessary funds.
Although the online campaign was successful among students, Feng said that dance groups don’t benefit from the same alumni backing as a cappella and theater organizations. As a result, the group has to be cautious when considering their most basic expenses for the year.
Feng expressed her disappointment that there are no local studios in New Haven offering hip-hop classes that her dancers could attend. Instead, like many other dance groups, RB brings in professionals for master classes. Individual members of the group must pay for these classes out of their own pockets.
While there is University funding available, some groups have encountered problems in adhering to the funding guidelines. Groups have three main options: the Undergraduate Organizations Committee, the Arts Discretionary Fund and the Creative and Performing Arts Award (CPA).
The CPA, administered by the Council of Masters, only offers funding to groups that agree to provide free admission to all their performances. But Rhythmic Blue and A Different Drum (ADD), another dance group on campus, both need the money made from their performances to survive — this rules out CPA as a source of funding.
With the CPA award out of the picture, the UOC is usually the primary source of funding for RB. Feng noted that, although this is helpful to them, the committee tends to favor newer dance groups in order to help them find their footing.
“It’s understandable that UOC wants to support new groups, but as one of the older groups, it doesn’t always help us,” she added.
Tina Yuan ’16, chair of UOC, said that the committee does provide equal funding opportunities for all types of student organizations on campus. “There is no specific policy towards dance groups on campus, and we try to meet the funding requests of any organization that has demonstrated financial need,” she said.
However, UOC and the groups themselves have differing understandings of what “demonstrated need” means. Hannah Leo ’15, president of A Different Drum, said that this semester the group would be primarily self-funded, following the rejections of their funding applications. The reason why? The lack of appropriate performance spaces has forced the group to look for alternatives off-campus, and yet rent for these spaces is not considered demonstrated need.
“Performance-wise, there really is no dance theater. A lot of the spaces in the colleges are not good for dance at all. They’re small, sight-lines aren’t great, and they’re very limited in terms of tech,” Leo said, explaining why their group needs alternative spaces.
Zoe Reich-Aviles ’16, ADD’s artistic director, said that the group’s desire to use off-campus performance spaces has caused funding difficulties. The Educational Center of the Arts, a local performing arts high school, has a stage that meets the needs of the group. However, even though its location is, according to Reich-Aviles, a “hop, skip and a jump away from TD,” its off-campus status prevents the group from receiving funding to cover a more expensive rent.
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These two groups aren’t the only ones dissatisfied with on-campus performance and rehearsal spaces. Broadway Rehearsal Lofts is a Yale-owned rehearsal studio that a number of groups profited from in the past. Gracie White ’16, member of YaleDancers, described it as “the perfect rehearsal space” because it exceeded the size of any residential college space. However, the lofts are above the New Haven branch of Trailblazer, and continued noise complaints led to the closure of BRL during store hours.
Evelina Zaragoza Medina ’17, co-president of RB, said that the closure of this space led to more tension in booking rehearsal spaces. The groups all look to rehearse in the same places: Most of these places are residential college basements. Medina noted that it is difficult to reserve these areas in competition with so many other groups, and that rehearsing in those spaces is like rehearsing in a box.
“The spaces just aren’t ideal for groups of more than 25 people, which limits us as artists in our choreography and our rehearsal. In these spaces, it is difficult to understand what it is to move, dance big and eat up space,” Feng added.
In response, Associate Dean of the Arts Susan Cahan spoke of a new space on Sachem Street that is about to open. She said that it’s just as well-equipped as BRL, and in many ways, superior to the lofts. “It’s a really inspiring space,” she said, “which is very open and provides a lot of light for the dancers to work with.” Cahan hopes to put up a photography installation there showcasing the history and progression of dance at Yale. She thinks the installation will inspire any students using the space.
White, for one, is excited to explore the Sachem Street location this semester, but expressed a similar upset about the closure of BRL, since the space had a more convenient location.
“When BRL was open, I could choreograph in my spare time, because BRL is so close to JE, and now I have to walk that little bit further to find the best space,” she said.
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This Wednesday, Cahan received an update: Trailblazer has coordinated with the University administration, allowing the co-curricular initiative, Yale Dance Theater, to return and use the space.
“This is an exciting and important development that will take pressure off the other spaces and allow them to be widely available for other groups,” Cahan said. “It is a result of a variety of different offices working together: the Provost’s Office, Undergraduate Productions, Elm City Properties, the Dean’s Office, the Theater Studies Departments and President Salovey.”
For students who worry that the administration ignores Yale’s dance culture, this is a major development that should alleviate stress and lessen competition between groups.
The return to Broadway Rehearsal Lofts also allows YDT to continue growing. Emily Coates, YDT’s faculty director, described the program as one merging artistic practice with intellectual thought through the resource of professional choreographers.
“It gives students the opportunity to interact with great works of choreography, staged by professional artists during a rigorous, intensive rehearsal process,” she explained.
Professional dancers and choreographers come to Yale from New York and other major cities to share pieces of famous dance repertoire with students.
Cahan said that the initiative came about shortly after she arrived at Yale. At that time, groups primarily performed their own choreography.
“It was incredible to watch, but for me, it was analogous to watching a symphony orchestra playing only student-written pieces,” she said.
In a collaboration with Coates, who has performed with some of New York’s top dance companies, Cahan set up this unique, collaborative program.
Reich-Aviles said the Yale Dance Theater experience offers unparalleled training.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to unite theory and practice,” she said, but she also expressed her concern that the opportunity is not widely enough known. “Yale’s just not a place where you pursue dance. People will go somewhere else to do that.”
Lewis, the Law student, agrees. Lewis studied her undergraduate degree at Florida State University, known for its professional dance program. The program’s national recognition allows for purpose-built facilities and a lot more available funding.
So, is Yale suffering without a professional dance major? Lewis assures that it is not, because it allows for a range of groups to flourish, attracting dancers of all abilities. She spoke of how each group on campus has its own voice and character, instead of the top-down approach she experienced at FSU. She believes that anyone looking for a high-quality dance experience at Yale is capable of finding it. Lewis is part of YaleDancers, Yale Dance Theater and Yale Ballet Company and feels more than satisfied with her experience.
Reich-Aviles agrees with her, and admits that while there are some great problems with the opportunities for dance at Yale, there is nothing else she would rather do.
“Dance is such a source of joy for me, and ‘A Different Drum’ is one of the things that makes me feel at home here.”