By Jennifer Sadler

Dance is a universal phenomenon. People all over the world love to dance. Dance crosses cultural divides with a power to express emotion that goes beyond language. As dance traditions have passed down through countless generations, it has helped to preserve pieces of our diverse human history that may otherwise have been lost.

No one knows for sure why people first danced, but humans seem to have an innate desire for expression through movement. As children, we learn movement patterns as readily as we learn language. Children naturally love dance. Think about how often you’ve seen small children dancing with complete joy and abandon to music.

The physical benefits of dance are widely accepted. More recently, studies have discovered that dance can benefit students’ ability to learn in everyday classrooms by stimulating mental alertness therefore aiding in concentration, memorization and absorbing information. A springboard for creativity, dance also encourages modeling, self-awareness, cooperation, art appreciation and more. The use of low-impact movement and dance therapy can also improve the gait and balance of elderly people, lowering the risks of falling and injury.

In addition to cultural traditions and expressions, some dance for the sheer joy of it; while others dedicate their lives to dance—through teaching, practicing or performing.

Columbus has a legendary history of dance. Institutions like BalletMet Columbus and The Ohio State University Department of Dance have provided artistic excellence and dance education for decades. Columbus is also dotted with smaller professional and amateur dance companies, studios and schools such as Columbus Dance Theatre, Feverhead, Kristina Isabelle Dance Company, Thiossane West African Dance Institute, a statewide organization that  inclusively supports the art and practice of dance called the OhioDance and many more. There are several folk dance companies and also a vibrant hip-hop dance scene with many who started out in youth programs like TRANSIT ARTS, whose home is at Central Community House, one of the many settlement houses located throughout the city.

Columbus is also fortunate to have the Wexner Center for the Arts, which has brought us experiences the likes of the world-premiere of Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour. The tour was the last chance for audiences to experience the superb dancers that Cunningham personally trained. Cunningham was internationally known for his lifelong contribution to the evolution of contemporary dance. More recently, in collaboration with the exhibition Bebe Miller: Tracing History at OSU Urban Arts Space, the Wexner Center premiered Bebe Miller’s latest dance theatre work, A History. Miller is internationally acclaimed as one of the leading choreographers of her generation and currently is a professor in the Department of Dance at OSU.

With a world-class arts center, a tremendous university dance program and impressive contemporary dance history, it’s no surprise that Columbus could attract the caliber of an artist like Miller. From the late 1970s to the early ’90s, choreographers, performers and world-class educators made Columbus a Mecca for modern dance and the legacy of this era is still felt today. A chronicle of this creative time was recently published with the book, Columbus Moves: A Brief History of Contemporary Dance, written by Jenai Cutcher West.

GCAC recently spoke with Susan Van Pelt Petry, chair of The Ohio State University’s Department of Dance and one of the pioneers of the “golden era” of modern dance in Columbus. We also spoke with acclaimed dancer and choreographer, Coco Loupe, a member of They Might Be Dancers, and co-founder of Feverhead, a creative space for people of all ages and levels of interest and experience in dance.

Susan Van Pelt Petry

Susan Van Pelt Petry has had a twenty year career choreographing, performing and teaching dance internationally. She has received six Ohio Arts Council Choreography Fellowships, grants and commissions for her work including The Repertory Project, Wellspring Dance Collective and numerous university dance programs and solo artists. She was artistic director of the Van Pelt Dance Ensemble for seven years based in Columbus and toured a solo show internationally. Petry is active in advocacy for dance and dance education, was president of OhioDance, and is on the Programming Committee for Martin Luther King Jr., Center, and the Community Arts Fund panel at the Columbus Foundation.

Petry came to Columbus in the early ‘80s to work as a visiting artist at OSU. What she discovered here was a community of like-minded, independent dancers who were doing great work and an environment that was rich with opportunites. She decided to stay on at OSU to do her graduate work and received her MA in 1985.

Petry said that during that time period when she was here studying and working with her company, Van Pelt Dance Ensemble, founded in ’85, there were elements in place in Columbus that allowed dancers to thrive and create.

“BalletMet was always there providing their civic responsibility as an institution,” said Petry. “As BalleMet has continued to grow, evolve and adapt, it always remained a smart guide for local dancers.”

According to the recently released book, Columbus Moves, Petry along with Vicki Blaine, John Giffin, Susan Hadley, David Krohn, Stuart Pimsler and choreographer and dancer Maggie Patton were bright stars who created and presented new works.

The dance community was infused with a strong independent and entrepreneurial spirit.

“Dancers could create and perform their work – with no dependence on an artistic director. There wasn’t that structure and dependence like you’d have in a larger institution,” said Petry. “There were so many talented dancers who were coming and going at that time and bringing in their experience energy – depending life changes, finance changes, access to grants or based on their perseverance, their independence or will to stay put. We had that wonderful ‘indie’ spirit – though we didn’t have a word for it back then.”

There are many dancers and choreographers in Columbus today who are bringing their own expertise and approaches and are helping to keep alive our city’s reputation for fostering a dynamic environment for dance performance and education. Petry says she has seen resurgence in the past several years with artists creating new work, developing a new community.

“I applaud the way the Columbus dance community is organizing and creating new ways to engage audiences,” said Petry. “Part of the success comes from the fact that Columbus is receptive to experimental art. And also that these artists understand the necessity in exploring new ways to get audiences engaged.” Petry cite the recent 200Columbus site-specific dance project, Locality, as a great example.

Though Petry is excited about what she’s seeing, she’s still concerned about the bigger picture of arts education.

“We need more structural support all around and the educational institution—that really has to come first. We need more funding/external funding for schools. We need a commitment from the Department of Education to hire more dance educators—even full-time.”

It’s no wonder that Petry has been drawn to academia. And The Ohio State University Department of Dance is focused on providing students, not only world-class instruction in performance and choreography, but also the skills students will need to get jobs—whether they go on as professional dancers, administrators, running a studio, academics, etc. Petry and the Department of Dance aim to provide students with the information they need to be and to inspire an entrepreneurial attitude.

“We are training our students to collaborate with artists of other disciplines that they might work with later – like theatre and opera,” said Petry. “We are teaching them to be communicators. There’s a strong emphasis on writing and presenting, of articulating and analyzing the creative process—to be smart and thoughtful critics. We need better skilled and educated writers who can delve into the context of contemporary arts and dance; to engage in a more critical dialogue about dance. It can only help to educate audiences and encourage performers to work harder towards excellence.”

There’s also a sophisticated technology aspect to the dance program at OSU.

“We want students to be tech savvy so they learn about video editing, blogging and more. They need to adapt to the new work environments out there.”

Petry hopes that OSU will soon be able to do even more for their students with the opening of the new multi-disciplinary Lawrence and Isabel Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise in the fall of 2013.

“We hope the Barnett Center will offer a mechanism to get our students and alumni connecting with business people in the city—more town and gown work,” said Petry.

Coco Loupe

Coco Loupe, local dance with the troupe They Might Be Dancers and the co-founder of Feverhead, is another driving force in the dance community. Freeform might be a good word to describe how she approaches her work in performing and teaching dance.

Feverhead started out as a personal creative work space for Loupe and the members of the dance collective, They Might Be Dancers. Without much of a plan other than a space that serves as an incubator of creativity, Loupe realized that the space was costing money and they had to do something. Feverhead ended up organically morphing into a studio space that also offers anyone at any level of experience to engage in movement classes, workshops, performances and other art events.

“We’re a large group of independent dancers with years of experience. We didn’t know what to expect—we thought we were going to attract more professional dancers—but we’ve been able to turn this into a great and safe place for people of all ages who are just beginning to explore dance,” said Loupe.

Loupe says that people who come to the workshops are often nervous at first. But the lifetime of experience in dance of many of the instructors and their casual approach to teaching can be disarming for new students.

“I don’t know what the alchemy is, but we’ve somehow created an energy here that makes people feel great and safe. The environment gives them permission to move their bodies, to do what feels right. I can show them techniques, but I tell them ‘don’t dance like me. Dance like you. Come and go as you please. The transformation in people is amazing.”

Loupe says that dancing is a very personal experience, and everyone who comes into their workshops is coming in from different perspectives. And Loupe says that she teaches from her heart and sees it as a chance to offer her experience and it resonates with people.

“In terms of what we offer, it’s intuitive and organic. The beauty of it is that anyone is welcome. We do a lot of improvisation; we even improvise in the ballet classes,” said Loupe. “We adapt and modify for our students. We hope they find that adding movement to their lives helps them to discover a sense of well-being and to find a joy in it that they can incorporate into how they engage in life and to gain a deeper appreciation of the arts.”

Some of students (aka “”Feverheaders” and “They Might Be Dancers, Too”) have performed live for audiences. The most recent was for a 45-minute performance called From One Foot to the Other for Locality 2012. Locality, was an initiative of the 200Columbus Bicentennial celebration, featured public performances designed to highlight beautiful spaces of Columbus neighborhoods through the lens of dance and ran from May through October.

“We had three Feverheaders featured in the piece. All who explore creative practices in their own lives. Sharon Udoh (aka Counterfeit Madison)—pianist composer, web developer and member of the local band The Dewdroppers; Zachariah Baird –a playwright producer; and Eve Hermann—a mom who teaches her kids at home, a raiki therapist, writer, yogi, flamenco dancer,” said Loupe. “They worked so hard. And their willingness to express through movement, to be an integral part of the process of creating the dances and the music…it was captivating.”

Loupe has been drawn to Columbus for what she calls its unique and creative energy.

“There’s a progressive and accepting atmosphere in this town that’s really beneficial for creative people. We don’t have to fight so many barriers. There are always challenges, but the Columbus community is one of the best places I’ve found.”

To learn more about opportunities in dance for beginners and professionals, or to find out about dance performances here is a list of resources:

Columbus Dances Fellowship: Columbus Dance Theatre, in partnership with GCAC, presents these fellowship awards that are designed to support local choreographers in their efforts to create new dance in the Columbus community.

Access Dance Network
BalleMet Columbus
Columbus Dance Theatre
Dance Artists in Columbus
I am D.A.N.C.E. at TEDx Columbus
The Ohio State University Department of Dance

Image: Tom Ballieul's work Port Columbus: Gateway to the Arts

Columbus International Festival
Presented by Columbus International Festival
November 3-4, 2012

Presented by BalletMet Columbus
Through November 3, 2012

Annual Art Studio Sale
Presented by the Cultural Arts Center
November 9 & 10, 2012

200Columbus Song Concert
Presented by Promowest Live
November 20, 2012

Port Columbus Gateway to the Arts
Presented by Ohio Art League
Through December 6, 2012

Chime Compositions: Finding Time
Presented by Columbus Public Art 2012
Through December 31, 2012

TGIF/AM Adult Ballet Classes
Presented by FEVERHEAD
Through January 4, 2013

Merry & Bright: Holidays at the Conservatory
Presented by Franklin Park Conservatory
November 17, 2012 - January 6, 2013

Holiday Lights Parade
Presented by Gahanna Convention & Vistors Bureau
November 23, 2012