Joining in the Dance

by Selby Frame

Photos by James Marshall

Professor of Dance June Vail

In the years since she arrived on campus to help Bowdoin begin a dance program in the early days of co-education, Professor of Dance June Vail has built one of the most inclusive, welcoming, and vibrant dance programs around.

The audience at Bowdoin's December Dance Concert was already cranked up by the belly dancers. Then the student dance club VAGUE mounted a dueling jazz joust set to the music of Aerosmith. When dancer Roger Burleigh '06 back-flipped across the stage, the audience went berserk.

The mood shifted to quiet wonder as dancers from Dance 212 passed large red exercise balls between them, dissolving into a sinewy exploration of form and force. The show ended with six women, six boxes of Kleenex, and a tightly-choreographed comic ode to heartache - '50s style.

It's hard to explain how a semi-annual dance event - set smack-dab in the middle of finals - can consistently draw huge audiences of students, professors, staff members and "townies" for three consecutive nights. Harder still to explain how a college without a dance major is the creative nexus for such lyrical, inventive and energetic choreography, with a cast that regularly exceeds 100 performers.

It all becomes understood, however, if you notice the petite, sandy-haired woman in the back of the theatre, past whom a trail of audience members file paying their post-show respects.

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dance with read balls

This is the house that June Vail built. And tonight, Bowdoin's doyenne of dance is grinning from ear to ear.

"I just think it's inspiring to watch them," she says. "Their attitude toward performing is so generous; it's why people like watching them. They can see themselves dancing even though they may never actually do it. It's very moving."

Director of the Bowdoin Dance Program, Vail wasn't much older than her students when she taught her first modern dance class at the College. It was 1971, the year the microprocessor was introduced, "Dirty Harry" topped the movie charts, and Bowdoin admitted its first class of women.

Ostensibly, it was for these women that Vail was recruited. A fairly recent graduate of Connecticut College, where, among other things, she had studied modern dance, Vail had recently returned from Uganda with her husband, economist David Vail (Bowdoin's Adams-Catlin Professor of Economics). In Africa, Vail had continued her modern dance studies, while exploring native dance traditions, and she leapt (pardon the pun) at the chance to develop dance at Bowdoin.

Her non-credit dance class was offered to augment an athletic program just beginning to stretch its gender boundaries, and Vail and her 30-odd dance devotees often found themselves shuffled between Sargent Gym and a multipurpose room, ousted by sports practices or by students shooting hoops. "We were just expected to leave," says Vail, smiling with trademark composure.

Undaunted, Vail and her dance students - a surprisingly large portion of whom were men - staged dance "happenings" in Moulton Union. They created complex dances through which would-be diners had to pass on their way to the cafeteria. She collaborated with composer Elliott Schwartz on an elevator dance in Coles Tower, set to electronic music.

“She challenged me to move differently, and it was the first time I'd been pushed to talk about what I saw when I watched dance.”

The audience traveled in the elevators, whose doors would open to reveal different dances on each floor. She collaborated with dancers of all walks, trained or otherwise, staged dances on the steps of Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, and joined a Balkan folkdance troupe that toured the state.

"It was very fun," says Vail. "It was the '70s, the golden age of modern dance in America. We had a really great sense of building something. There were Bowdoin students engaged in visual arts, photography, music - and dance was just another avenue to explore. There were all kinds of possibilities. That was what the place needed and wanted then."

It still is.

More than 30 years since Vail brought dance to Bowdoin, dance is an official minor, enrollments have tripled in the past decade, and there is talk of developing dance as an interdisciplinary minor. Several of the region's top choreographers are part-time faculty members, including the theater/dance trio of Gretchen Berg, Gwyneth Jones and Paul Sarvis.

Building a Public for Dance
Professor of Dance June Vail It is with good reason that June Vail is commonly referred to as "an institution" within the Maine dance community. Her sphere of influence was felt for over two decades as the dance critic for the now-defunct Maine Times. In reviews that spanned dance forms as diverse as English country dancing, hip-hop and performance art, Vail introduced Maine audiences to new aesthetics and helped to create a welcoming climate for dance in Maine. "I always saw these reviews as an ongoing education," says Vail. "It was about building a public for something. It was important to capture what was on stage, but also important to present a particular kind of aesthetic or social or other topic that people would remember or relate to." Vail also has fueled Maine's appetite for dance by bringing some of its luminaries to the Bowdoin performance stage, among them, Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris, Savion Glover, and Trisha Brown. As a "fringe" benefit, Bowdoin students often are treated to master classes with company members. In spring 2005, the department hosted a concert by Urban Bush Women, one of the most dynamic Afro-centered dance theater groups performing today. What Maine audiences may not know is that Vail's influence has also been felt abroad. She is a considered a leading authority on dance in Sweden, where her 1997 book Kulturella Koreografier (in English, Cultural Choreographies) is a primary text for dance theory and criticism. Self-taught in Swedish by reading dance reviews, Vail currently is working with Stockholm University to develop a liberal-arts curriculum for students in the university's dance conservatory program.

In 1994, Vail helped to establish Bowdoin's Department of Theater and Dance, which now includes a wide-ranging faculty drawn from professional ranks and a roster of courses in theater and dance performance, theory, criticism, and stagecraft.

Over the years, Vail's students have founded dance clubs - such as VAGUE, the Bowdoin Step Team, Arabesque, Anokha and Obvious - which continue to foster student-driven choreography.

Dance is booming at Bowdoin.

"I give June tremendous credit for building this department," says Paul Sarvis, a Bowdoin lecturer in dance performance. "She's been master architect and chief laborer in building both the dance and theater programs. She really has given her blood, her life energy, to building a very sophisticated and progressive department. She also really awakened my interest in the power that dance has in the liberal arts setting."

Vail has grappled with the role of dance in the liberal arts for many years. While her earliest challenge may have been to establish dance at Bowdoin as a legitimate academic discipline, Vail's true calling has been to create a program of rich multicultural dimensions, strong critical foundations (what Vail calls "dance literacy"), and a passionate commitment to developing student choreography.

"Some people consider dance to be an authentic, really emotional place where you go to get away from the intellectual," says Vail. "I don't see it that way. I see dance and the body and the mind working together always.

"No dance is out of the blue. They're all connected with traditions and particular ways of looking at the world; they're all connected with other arts. If you're going to have an academic department, it's important to bring in history, anthropology and other kinds of contexts for what you're doing. Imagining that you can go in and just work up a sweat is not centrally true to a liberal arts tradition."

At the moment, such thoughts seem to be many miles - or at least many rehearsal hours - away for Nate Underwood '07. It is the final rehearsal before the December Dance Concert, and Underwood is nervously adjusting a coin-spangled belly dancer's scarf tied rakishly around his hips.

A little awkward in his finery, but admirably enthusiastic, the history major says he took Vail's dance class "because it's a liberal arts school and I figured I'd go out on a limb and take something I've never taken before."

"I knew it involved foreign dance," he says, "but when I learned we were going to do a belly dance ... I just kind of laughed to myself. It hasn't been too bad." He considers this a moment before darting a sidelong glance at the empty seats. "I haven't had a crowd of my friends watching yet, though."

He needn't worry. The students of Vail's Dance 101 class, Cultural Choreography, are a big hit all weekend as they shimmy and gyrate to rousing Armenian music.

dance

Cultural Choreography is Vail's secret weapon in making dance as inclusive as possible. The course grounds students in performance fundamentals and cultural contexts for dances from around the world and invites them to move their bodies - and their thinking about movement - in new ways. Students study tap, African dance, ballet, swing, hula, contradance, classical Indian dance, Balkan kolos, contact improvisation, and hip-hop, among other dance forms.

They not only try them - Vail has a regular cadre of guest dancers who come in to teach the various traditions - they study the social, aesthetic and historical contexts for the dances, from which they are expected to develop their own critical judgments. They've written papers and taken field trips. The dance show is the final part of their introduction.

Vail's multicultural approach to dance has provided a springboard for many kinds of projects. Majors as disparate as anthropology and art history frequently use dance to explore topics for independent studies.

Seniors Emily Hricko '05 and Tara Kohn '05, for instance, have spent the better part of a year working on a suite of five dances. "Just watch" is an independent study project that was performed shortly after the December Dance Concert. It's an ambitious work, choreographed for 12 dancers, which examines female gender issues such as body image, relationships, social expectations and self-concepts.

Although Kohn was an experienced dancer before she got to Bowdoin, she says her view of dance was transformed by Vail's Cultural Chorography course: "She challenged me to move differently, and it was the first time I'd been pushed to talk about what I saw when I watched dance," says Kohn, "to talk about the specifics of it and to think about it in terms of culture and other types of dance. Figuring out how to verbalize what I see visually is a really important thing that's helped me throughout my Bowdoin career."

dancing leap

Trisha Bauman '84, an internationally known dancer and choreographer based in Paris, says she was similarly awakened and inspired by Vail's approach to dance and culture, a sensibility she might not have developed in such depth in a dance program that focused more exclusively on technique

Still, she concedes, the lack of technical focus in Bowdoin's dance program at that time put her at a disadvantage when she began to dance professionally. "This gap in my training was a big challenge for me when I started working in dance," she says. "However, June's critical inquiry into the main aesthetic and cultural currents within contemporary dance ... made me appreciate for the first time that my love for this studio art form and my love for political discourse were utterly compatible intellectually and creatively."

"What makes Bowdoin special," Vail says, "is that we are just as interested in developing creative work by students as we are in having them develop great technique. It's not that we don't have standards and advanced people who work, but it's not the goal; it's not the ground where we're starting.

"I think what we can do best, what is most valuable to Bowdoin College, is to make the arts accessible, by making our courses interesting and inspiring and cultivating a kind of collaborative energy. It takes discipline and hard work, but it's not just the province of people taking ballet classes since they were five years old."

Vail spies a lanky ex-student in the audience that is garrulously leaving Pickard Theatre after the show, "That was an awesome show y'all," he says.

"Uh, huh," says Vail, "So, when are you coming back?"

"Next semester, next semester," he grins. "You better believe it."