Dance Pro Through the Ages

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The entirely student-run and -choreographed Dance Production is known for including students from all areas of the Occidental community.From different years, majors and experience levels, they come together to exhibit an amalgam of different dance styles. Although styles change with the times, the community feel of Dance Production persists through the years. It brings alumni back to campus and leaves a lasting impression on the people who produce it and the people who attend the show year in and year out.

Dance Production 2015

Last weekend, the lights dimmed, the crowd cheered and Dance Production co-Presidents Deon Summerville (junior) and Annie Yang (senior) stepped onto the stage to give a few introductory remarks. Then, following a short video, the 67th annual show began.

The show kicked off with choreographer Flynn Aldrich’s (first-year) hip-hop piece, “Shakin’ it in the USA.” The piece was light-hearted and fun, with moments of sass. It featured songs such as “Lemonade,” by Danity Kane, “Party in the U.S.A,” by Miley Cyrus and—when the moves got slower and sexier—“Can I,” by Tank.

The show also featured a number of slower, modern and lyrical contemporary pieces, such as Samantha Sommer’s (senior) “Outlaws,” Tess Arrighi’s (sophomore) “Howl,” Leah Nomkin (junior) and Melody Dahlgren’s (junior) piece, “The Wild Things” and Laurel Howard’s (senior) “Consumption.”

Despite the variety of genres and styles present in the show, all of the choreographers and participants shared a common goal: to show the audience a good time. Dancers clad in sparkly gold costumes tapped across the stage, holding hands in “Happy Tap,” choreographed by Maya Herzig (junior). Others channeled the high energy and excitement of the Broadway stage in Summerville and Jessie Luna Fontana-Maisel’s, “Broadway Babies,” with choreography guided by snippets of music from “Chicago,” “Book of Mormon,” “Spring Awakening” and “Glee.” Cassie Young (senior) and Brandon Gonzalez (senior) mixed hip-hop and pop dancing in their joint-choreographed piece, “Pop Culture.”

“Cassie, another long-time Dance Pro enthusiast, shared the same love of onstage glamour and energy, so choreographing with her was a dream,” Gonzalez said. “We both wanted to put our ideas out there, so our dancers could shine in the limelight, and they did.”

Other dances evoked a sensuality through provocative costumes and moves. Julianne Butt (sophomore) brought last year’s sexy K-pop style back with her piece “RED,” while Yang’s piece, “Show Me How you Burlesque,” used chairs, fishnets and corsets to seduce the audience. Some choreographers hoped to test the limits of Dance Pro’s family-friendly image with these sexier dances.

“I was inspired by the movie ‘Burlesque,’” Yang said of her piece. “I really like the energy, and they are all really sexy. I was pushing the limit of what can be put on a Dance Pro stage since it’s still a family show.”

“Stereo Pyaar,” choreographed by Shaila Ramachandran (senior), added a contemporary twist to an ancient classical art form from South India. Emma Gerch (senior) channeled her spirit and love of Irish dancing through her piece, “Rince,” and Tommy Smith (senior) celebrated Hawaiian culture with his hula piece, “Nā Mamo ‘o Hawai‘i.”

“We have had samoan dancing, belly dancing, we have hip-hop, we have modern, we have contemporary,” Smith said. “We have a lot of people who bring a lot of different cultures and a lot of different styles into Dance Pro, and we are very fortunate for that.”

First-time choreographer Onyekachi Nwabueze (sophomore) wanted to emphasize the importance of self-confidence with her piece. “BO$$OLOGY” dominated the stage with fast-paced steps and a confident set of dancers.

“I wanted it to be very empowering,” Nwabueze said. “The theme of it, or the title of it was BO$$OLOGY: so basically going out and doing your thing, owning yourself, not really worrying about what you can’t do, or not having any fears of failure, and being confident.”

With the same daring energy, choreographer duo Declan Meagher (junior) and Clare Shuey (junior) recreated a street dance battle with their piece, “The Block Party.” Scott Lew (sophomore) presented his spin on dance competition with his piece, “All-Styles Battle,” the style of which ranged from popping and breaking to tutting and krumping. The audience was moved to cheers—some even got out of their seats—by these hip-hop pieces.

“My favorite dance was the block party,” audience member Erin London (first-year) said. “I felt like it had an interesting story to tell. It was like a play that was expressed through dance.”

The show culminated with a modern twist on classical belly dancing in Maisy Bolgatz’s (senior) piece, “Shakira, Shakira.” Adorned in bright red tops and flowing skirts, the dancers on the crowded stage flexed their stomachs to the music as the crowd roared.

“It was lots of work but I loved it,” Bolgatz said. “But I really couldn’t have done it without my dancers. They’re the reason it was as good as it was.”

For the finale, the 300-plus dancers emerged in their light purple “Dance Production 2015” shirts, designed by choreographer Young. They covered the stage and flocked the aisles of Thorne Hall to perform the e-board-choreographed finale piece to send the audience off.

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Dance Production through the years

Despite its popularity today, Dance Production was not always the most popular club on campus. For the first few decades, it was not a club at all. What is now known as Dance Production developed from a one-unit Physical Education class in the 1940s and remained so until it was changed to Dance Production in the 1970s.

During Warrington “Warry” MacElroy ‘60 and his wife Donna’s ‘60 time at Occidental, they participated in the class and recalled that the end-of-the-year showcase was called “Dance Concert.” The performance took place in today’s Tiger Cooler, which was then the women’s gym. There were 13 dances choreographed by nine students, usually featuring one to six students per dance. This year’s production, in contrast, boasted more than 300 student participants in 17 dances—some of which featured almost 40 student performers.
According to Warry and Donna, who both attended the Saturday matinée, the atmosphere was completely different in their time at Occidental. In contrast to the plethora of upbeat and hip-hop style dances this year, during the early years the choreographers focused instead on sparsely populated lyrical or modern pieces, with an occasional jazzier style thrown in.

“I was amazed at all the people who learned to tap dance,” Donna said. “Tap dancing is not easy!”

Some of the 1960 performances told stories, such as the piece “The Morning Glory Climbs Above My Head,” which was inspired by a tale from a Chinese book of poetry. Others displayed colorful depictions of circuses (in a piece choreographed by Donna) or classic scenes from Charlie Brown (pictured, lower left).

Additionally, according to Warry and Donna, the earlier performances also included a great deal of diversity, including Scottish and lyrical -themed pieces (pictured, lower left).

The six-page program from 1960 looks especially slim when compared to the 26 pages of this year’s program. Donna estimated that around 150 people, usually friends and parents, showed up to watch the performances. When asked why participation among the student body was so low in the past, Warry shrugged and suggested that it is indicative of the evolution of dance in society at large.

“Dancing just wasn’t popular back then,” he said.

Although dance styles and techniques have gone in and out of fashion since students performed in the end-of-year “Dance Concert” half a century ago, the sense of community fostered by the program has remained a core aspect of the Dance Pro experience.

“It wasn’t just about having to audition, or being good, or being in front or anything like that,” Judy Lam ‘87 reflected on her time in Dance Production. “It was just about making a nice dance that created a community.”

In her four years at Occidental during the 1980s, Lam said that she participated in Dance Production and choreographed dances every year.

“I was not somebody who grew up having dance training, so I took some dance classes, I took some hula,” she said. “But I wasn’t built like a dancer, I don’t even think I was that good. But I liked it. And I surrounded myself with people who liked it. So we created something every year. And that is the beauty of a place like Oxy, where you can do that.”

Yet, compared to the show this weekend, she noted that there were far more people, especially men, that participated in Dance Production since her years in the club.

Dance Production in the 1980s focused more on rhythmic pieces that allowed the students to put on a more serious production, according to Lam. She remembers more of these numbers that were performed in her years at Occidental, with background music like Paul Hardcastle’s “Rainforest,” Lee Ritenour’s “The Sauce” and Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.”

Ippolita Rostagno ‘86 and Anna Stump ‘86 were two students who Lam remembers experimented with more somber dance styles, as they attempted to integrate their performance with poetry (pictured, top right). They formed Rime, A Company of Poetry and Dance, which also performed at Los Angeles venues apart from Occidental College.

“[Rostagno and Stump] were really ahead of their time and they pushed the boundary, intending to expand your view of dance and the usual expectations,” Lam said via email. “They took risks and were true artists.”

Yet, after seeing how much the current Occidental students enjoyed themselves in their Saturday night final showing, Lam realized that Dance Production has grown in its own way since her time in the program.

“I see that Dance Pro has, I think, matured. So people can create something and enjoy it and display it,” Lam said. “Like they want people to love it, but they are also focused on having a great time and showing that it is sort of spontaneous and very human.”

Dance Production Today

Summerville and Yang are immensely proud of the contemporary project, as well as the amount of student participation that the club boasts today.

“It’s become the largest club on campus, with over 10 percent of the student population participating,” Summerville said. “We’ve grown in diversity of styles, and we’ve brought new ones to the show every year.”

Yang said that the main goal of Dance Production is inclusivity for all students. The club itself became known as Dance Production in the late ‘70s. Every student who comes to the workshop at the beginning of fall semester is eligible to participate in two to three dances, depending on class standing, and all students are guaranteed placement in at least one dance.

Smith said that it is the students who participate in Dance Production that set it apart from similar dance shows.

“The type of personalities and talents, the determinations that the student body brings is really what makes dance pro what it is,” Smith said. “I think that is what makes this year’s show. We have a group of students and they are all wonderful people and they are all amazing and so dedicated.”

He noted that it is difficult to compare one year to any other year because the styles are constantly changing.

As a senior, Smith has seen just how well this club thrives and brings people together from all over campus.

“We like to accept all types of styles,” Smith said. “All types of experiences of dancers and choreographers are welcome. We have a lot of first-year choreographers, we have a lot of veteran choreographers. When it comes to styles, it is [determined by] whoever auditions. But we have been really lucky in the past. Every year so far we have had people come from all over.”

This has led Smith to appreciate choreographing, which he has done for the past three years. Choreographers Herzig, Howard and Fontana-Maisel all agreed that choreographing this year was a positive and fulfilling experience.

“Choreographing was a really great way to branch out of my comfort zone,” Fontana-Maisel said. “I’ve been dancing since I was three, but I’ve always been taught by other people.”

Herzig said that she decided to choreograph because last year the production did not have a tap dancing piece. She has been tapping since she was in the second grade, and she was excited to share her knowledge with her dancers.

Howard said that while choreographing can be slightly more stressful than only being a dancer because of time commitments and the inherent difficulty of communicating with so many people, she was extremely proud of the initiative that her dancers took to improve their skills both in and out of practice.

“I have a lot of dancers that have never danced before and it’s been really fun to be the person that helps them get started and to watch their confidence grow,” she said. “They’ve dedicated themselves to coming to extra rehearsals that they’ve asked for. They really respect our time.”

Herzig, Howard and Fontana-Maisel all agreed that they were able to form stronger bonds with other students through choreographing their dances and encouraging students to make the leap to choreograph for future shows.

Maddy Farkas (junior) is one of the many dancers who feels that she has built friendships and confidence by participating in Dance Production. Although she had no prior dance experience before she joined last year, she said that the choreographers made it easy to pick up the dance moves and that she had no trouble integrating herself with other, more experienced dancers.

“It appealed to me because it’s something so big and so powerful on campus,” Farkas said.

Unlike Farkas, Lily Moffet (sophomore) has been dancing for almost 15 years. However, she was still excited to try her hand at some new styles of dance. This year, Moffet performed in both “Show Me How You Burlesque” and “Broadway Baby.”

“All your friends [from Occidental] that have known you for a while get to see you on stage,” she said. “It’s a thrill.”

Whether one is a dancer, choreographer, e-board member, alumnus/alumna or just watching from the audience, Dance Production in all its polymorphous forms is an experience that has brought together members of the Occidental community since 1948. What started with a small group of dedicated students dancing in the Tiger Cooler has grown to involve 300-plus enthusiastic dancers on the stage in Thorne Hall.

For those who want to dance or choreograph for next year’s show but might be nervous about getting up on stage, Fontana-Maisel has an encouraging piece of advice:

“Reach for the stars. Follow your heart,” she said. “And you can quote me on that.”

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