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By Eric Weld   Date: 11/12/10 Bookmark and Share

After 35 Years, Smith Dance Reaching Far and Wide

The MFA Program will celebrate with a dance concert Nov. 18-20

It was in a moment earlier this semester, during auditions for the Five College Dance Department, when Susan Waltner, professor of dance at Smith, glanced around at other educators who had brought dancers to audition, and it dawned on her how far Smith’s masters of fine arts (MFA) in dance program had come.

35 Years of Dance

“I was sitting there all of a sudden just surrounded by MFA grads,” she said recently, recalling her eyes brimming with tears as she brushed shoulders with her former students who now had students of their own. “All these wonderfully talented and successful dancers. I just felt so happy.”

Waltner, who launched the college’s renowned MFA in dance program in 1976, in partnership with the late Rosalind deMille, professor emerita of dance, will likely experience a similar rush of emotion later this month when alumnae return to campus to celebrate the program’s 35th anniversary.

To help celebrate, the college will host a special dance concert, with shows November 18 through 20, featuring choreography and performances by nine MFA in dance alumnae (view complete program and ticket information). Performances will take place at 8 p.m. each night in Theatre 14, Mendenhall Center.

“This program has been an evolution over several decades,” said Waltner, who has served 42 years on the Smith faculty. “Its success comes from people who are passionate about what they are doing.”

The list of graduates from Smith’s MFA program in dance choreography and performance illustrates the degree’s breadth and multidimensionality. Numerous MFA graduates occupy college and secondary teaching positions in the United States and well beyond. Others are performing and choreographing with dance companies exploring the parameters of the art.

Brenda Divelbliss MFA’99, who teaches dance at the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School and at the Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company, appreciated the room for individuality in Smith’s program.

“The Smith faculty was very interested in drawing out the unique artistic visions and interests of each student,” said Divelbliss, who will present her original choreography, Misplaced, during the 35th-anniversary concert. “They provided the space, time and feedback critical to exploration and growth.”

Part of what has made Smith’s MFA in dance so strong is its intimate size, notes Rodger Blum, professor of dance. No more than four MFA candidates are admitted to the two-year program each year, so that only eight are enrolled at a time—considerably fewer than most graduate dance programs.

“They get a lot of time with faculty in this program,” said Blum, who joined the Smith dance faculty in 1993. “We spend a lot of hours here, and the faculty-student ratio is excellent.”

Also, unlike in most other graduate dance programs, Smith’s MFA candidates enter as teaching fellows expected to participate in the education of undergraduate dancers in studio classes. As such, Smith’s graduate dance students receive tuition waivers and are paid a stipend for their teaching duties—an opportunity offered by only one other dance program (the University of Iowa) in the nation, said Blum.

But importantly, it’s the commitment to the art, the range of expression encouraged at Smith and the exposure to other dancers that give the program its cache, says Blum.

“There’s a level of dialogue that we [faculty] have with the graduates here that you don’t see in many other programs,” said Blum.

Also, with the Five Colleges, each with its own undergraduate dance program, as well as an abundance of cultural and artistic activity in the local area, Smith is an attractive place in which to study and teach dance.

Back in 1976, Smith’s fledgling MFA program grew from modest beginnings, Waltner remembers. After starting as a subsidiary of the college’s physical education department, the degree was shared between the theater and physical education departments before becoming its own program. In addition to the staples of ballet, jazz and modern styles, Smith’s program is adaptable enough to have accommodated specialties in Japanese, Chinese and tap dance, as well as Flamenco and even Yoga for Dancers.

After 35 years, Smith’s MFA in dance has outpaced Waltner’s original vision of what it would become. “This program has far exceeded expectations,” she said. “It’s become a remarkable program. I feel so proud of the students.”

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