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HIPs grant brings internationally recognized dance experts to classroom
Associate Professor of Dance Amy VanKirk is bringing a unique experience to students in her DNCE 380 Advanced Jazz class. With help from a High Impact Practices (HIPs) grant, VanKirk was able to add a series of virtual master classes to her course featuring experts in the history of jazz dance.
“In the past, smaller grants would only allow for one guest artist to present because of travel and lodging fees. Now that virtual options are more prevalent, we can fund multiple artists and bring them to class via Zoom,” says VanKirk.
Jazz dance has deep roots in West Africa and is intertwined with the social, cultural, and political aspects of the lived experience of African Americans. While VanKirk has studied and taught the subject for many years, she wanted to be able to offer a more robust experience to her students by allowing them opportunities to learn from experts in their respective styles that will deepen students’ understanding of the often minimized origins of the form.
VanKirk was able to arrange for five different dance professionals to join her students during the spring 2021 semester. They include internationally acclaimed and award-winning performer and choreographer LaTasha Barnes, a tradition-bearer of Black American Social Dance and leader in numerous dance organizations such as the Ladies of Hip Hop Festival, International Lindy Hop Championship, and the Black Lindy Hoppers Fund. Also among the lineup is Maxx Reed, who is trained in styles from classical ballet to hip hop. Reed has performed in productions for Michael Jackson, Beyonce, and Usher, as well as appearing in Broadway musicals and high-profile film projects. Jason Aryeh also joined the class for a master session. An award-winning educator, he is a traditionally trained dancer and historian from the coastal area of Accra- Ghana, born into the Ankrah family of court traditional historians and dancers of the James Town, Ga-Ngleshie people. Naila Ansari, an award-winning choreographer and performing artist who serves as an assistant professor in theatre and Africana studies at SUNY Buffalo State College also gave a master class during the semester, as did Pat Taylor, artistic director for the acclaimed JazzAntiqua Dance and Music Ensemble from Los Angeles.
Professor VanKirk opened up the master classes to other dance majors interested in attending, and word spread quickly, with sessions filling up as soon as they were announced. Space has been limited due to social distancing guidelines, but even that doesn’t prevent students from experiencing the lessons. “The good thing about this setup,” says VanKirk, “is that since guests will be presenting via Zoom, even if the in-person class space fills up, others who want to attend can still log on from a computer and take the class.”
The course is taught in the Peters Hall dance studio where, on select Fridays during the semester, guest artists are projected onto a large white curtain for members of the class to observe. Multiple computers with cameras are set up in the studio so that remote instructors can observe the class and offer feedback and interaction in real time. VanKirk says that this format has been very beneficial and believes that this new model of offering virtual master classes in dance will endure beyond the pandemic. The technical setup of the class offers the added benefit of students being able to watch a fifteen foot tall instructor on a screen, allowing students to observe nuances in movement during demonstrations.
VanKirk says that she is thrilled to be able to offer a series covering the African roots of American Dance with such an exciting lineup of professionals. It is a subject which she is always eager to discuss, having recently given a talk on the complex history of jazz dance for Radford University’s Center for Social and Cultural Research. Building a strong series of master class sessions is something that she has wanted to incorporate into her Advanced Jazz class for a while, but the idea was cost-prohibitive due to travel expenses. Given the popularity of the master class sessions among dance majors, it is likely that this type of experience will be available again for future students in the Department of Dance.