What began as a women’s physical education course in the mid-1970s has grown into one of the most prestigious college dance programs in the nation.
The University of Arizona’s School of Dance consistently ranks among the country’s top schools. Zoom Tens, a website that develops top 10 lists in all areas, puts the UA’s dance school fourth, behind three New York-based conservatories, including the world-renowned Juilliard School.
It’s taken some work to get there.
“Nothing happens overnight,” says Melissa Lowe, a dance professor. “You have to plant some seeds, water them and make sure they get sunlight.”
Lowe, along with her husband, Jory Hancock, the dean of fine arts and director of the dance school, came to the university in 1987 with rich experience as professional dancers. At the time, there were 29 majors and dance was a department in the School of Music. Today, it is its own school and the student body is made up of 150 of some of the nation’s best young dance talent.
“When we arrived the program was small, but the curriculum was good,” Hancock says. “We immediately began thinking of what we could do to create a meteoric rise and gain more recognition.”
So in the early 1990s, the school adopted a triple-track program. Alongside strong classical ballet and modern courses, jazz was added as a major, and the disciplines received equal emphasis. At the time, only a handful of dance schools offered a curriculum with all three styles and most leaned heavily toward ballet.
“Rather than trying to catch up with other schools, we decided to create our own brand,” Hancock says. “We looked at what other schools didn’t offer.”
The program caught the attention of students who wanted a diverse dance education. According to Lowe, professional dance companies want dancers with breadth in styles of dance.
“So many dancers nowadays want to train broadly because professional dance has become a blurring of the lines,” Lowe says. “Companies begin with the classics and then expand from there.” Dancers that specialize in more than one style of dance can set themselves ahead of competition for a position in a company.
The dance department was tagged as the UA’s best undergraduate program in 1995, an honor that brought a $75,000 award from the university.
By the early 2000s, the department had a notable faculty, most with extensive experience as professional dancers and choreographers (which continues to hold true today), and had attracted national attention.
The only thing it lacked was a suitable facility.
“The dance program at the time was of national repute, we just needed a building that was as noteworthy as the program,” Lowe says.
The school launched a fundraising effort and in 2003, the $9 million Stevie Eller Dance Theatre was completed and made UA dance even more competitive. The building features a 300-seat theater with a stage that caters specifically to dancers, a full-fly system that allows for the quick changing of scenes, an orchestra pit and spacious second-floor studios for classes and rehearsing. About 40 student performances a year are held there.
Not long after that, it became elevated to its own entity: the UA School of Dance.
Dance students now compete for entrance into the school. About 450 hopefuls travel to the university every year for the rigorous 3½-hour audition process. The school usually accepts around 35 dancers a year.
The majority of the audition is ballet. Exercises performed at the barre give professors a chance to inspect the dancers closely. They look closely at skills such as extension, clarity in footwork and classical line. Combinations away from the barre allow dancers to show where they specialize; for instance, some may be stronger at pirouettes — or turning — while others may be stronger at jumping.
“We have to have them coming with a solid body of knowledge and from there we fine-tune them,” Lowe says. Nine times out of 10 the faculty is in full agreement on which students are selected for the program, says Lowe. The make-up is generally one-third male and two-thirds female.
“This ratio we have is appealing to both the male and female dancers coming into the program,” says professor James Clouser, whose long career has included principal dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, teaching at the Juilliard School, and choreographing for companies around the world.
“Male dancers want to be supported by fellow males and the women want to know they will be partnered,” he says.
Clouser is currently the primary male ballet professor at the school. When he came 15 years ago, the men’s department was sparse. According to Clouser, the school of dance recruits the largest pool of male dancers in the country.
Once the dancers are accepted, they undergo an intense four years of technique refinement. Faculty, thick with dance and choreography experience with such companies as Twyla Tharp Dance, Dayton Ballet and Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet, mold the young dancers both in the classroom and through performance opportunities.
“A steady growth of fine faculty who work well together and share similar visions has been crucial to our program,” Lowe says.
“As teachers we shape and guide, but we put a lot of their experience on their shoulders. Every student is on his or her own specific trajectory.”
“There are a lot of opportunities to perform,” says Renato Gamez, a graduating senior in the dance program. “It teaches us about presenting our art and working on stage with an audience, which is a critical learning experience for when we graduate.”
Some pieces will be fresh works created by the faculty and others are historical masterworks by major names in choreography, such as George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, which students performed in the school’s most recent concert. These are big opportunities for a young dancer, says Lowe.
“These dancers are able to open a history book and say, ‘I did that.’ Some dancers in the program feel as though that alone is enough of a company experience.”
Many dancers within the program will add a major or minor to their dance degree. The holistic opportunity of dance and academia has become an attractive feature for incoming dancers. Higher ranked conservatories do not offer classes beyond dance.
“There is a subtle richness,” Clouser says. “They are provided the intensity of a conservatory as well as academic opportunities.”
After graduation, some students will choose to pursue a masters of fine arts in dance through the school. Those furthering their degree usually intend to become professors of dance.
“I had a really great time learning and growing and taking in all the opportunities the masters program provided,” says Dayna A. De Filippis, who earned her MFA in 2013 and is now the dance director in the University of Nebraska Kearney’s Department of Music.
Her choice to do her graduate work at the UA was an easy one, she says.
“It’s one of the only schools that fully integrates modern, ballet and jazz, and there are opportunities to fully learn. I knew that was something I would need to have.”
Those UA dance grads not pursuing a masters often go on to work in professional dance companies. According to Lowe, the School of Dance has a great success rate with placing students in companies. Among those is Joshua Blake Carter, who dances with Giordano Dance Chicago. “I wouldn’t have had the confidence or courage to pursue (my career) without my UA dance education and support,” says the 2009 grad in an email.
“I still hear my professors’ voices in my head when I’m working on a new piece of choreography, and I find myself continuing to use their concepts and ideas in my own everyday training.”
When Gamez graduates in May, he’ll travel to Europe to dance and study. Then he begins a professional career as a dancer with Royal Caribbean Cruises, a gig that will take him to such faraway places as Australia and New Zealand.
His plans please Lowe.
“We generally encourage our undergraduates to depart and go on a journey, launch off a bit and have professional discoveries,” she says.
When he leaves, Gamez says he’s taking more than dance skills with him.
“We are a family in UA dance, so when we have a bad day, there is always someone to talk to and if you have great news to share there is always someone to cheer you on,” Gamez says. “I’ve learned more about myself in these four years than I ever have before.”