Academic Stories

New ways to study and practice in the Dance Program

Through courses, workshops and visiting instructors, UChicago offers opportunities for dancers across all experience levels

In the University of Chicago Dance Program, learning happens through movement. In courses now expanded to provide multi-disciplinary learning opportunities, students investigate the cultural history of different movement-based art forms while embodying the practice themselves. More than ever, students are turning to dance as an interdisciplinary partner to their studies and as a way to connect with the College community.

In recent years, Julia Rhoads, Committee on Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS) lecturer and long-time instructor of the course Dance Composition, recognized an increasing demand for dance within the UChicago community. In 2018, Rhoads became the director of dance within the TAPS program, launching an array of dance courses and co-curricular technique classes to enrich the academic study of dance and support performing groups on campus.

Rhoads brings with her years of formal experience as a dancer, instructor and Artistic Director of the MacArthur Award-winning dance company, Lucky Plush Productions. She began her career as a classically-trained dancer in the San Francisco Ballet, and then went on to pursue more contemporary forms of dance, theater and performance while at Northwestern University and the School of the Art Institute Chicago.

That’s why Rhoads was excited to introduce a new course called Contemporary Dance Techniques last year. The class looks at a variety of current dance practices that span modern dance, hip-hop, contact improvisation, social dance forms and more. In each class, students participate in a guided discussion, then get on their feet to practice different movements. Videos and readings emphasize the historical and cultural contexts of various forms of dance. On occasion, professional guest artists are invited to demonstrate their individual styles of dance to the class. 

These courses are designed to appeal to lifelong dancers and newbies alike.

“What’s been so surprising and delightful from a pedagogical perspective is that I’ve had so many students with no previous dance experience,” Rhoads said. “Last quarter, I had something like eight football players⁠ in my Dance Composition class, and they were all so invested in the work. Two of them in their final journals said that they learned how to fall and recover in a different way on the football field.” 

Students from many different degree programs take the courses, enjoying both the practice and the academic study of dance.

“There was already a massive amount of dance-based activity on campus, but students had very few opportunities to study dance within their coursework,” Rhoads said. “Movement knowledge is intertwined with other kinds of cultural knowledge and is an important disciplinary partner to many fields of study beyond the performing arts.” 

In addition to academic courses in dance, Rhoads has introduced several co-curricular offerings. There are three 10-week technique classes and six unique workshops that are open to all UChicago students on a first-come, first-served basis. These non-credit classes focus on dance practice and offer a space for students to learn distinct types of dance and improve their form.

The Dance Program has also partnered with local dance companies and UChicago partners, such as the Logan Center, UChicago Presents and Court Theater, exposing students to professional dance companies, international artists and guest instructors. Most recently, the Dance Program and Logan Center co-hosted Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Professional Training Program through lectures, panel discussions and site-specific performances at the Logan Center.

Second-year Natalie Chapin, assistant to the TAPS Dance Program and a member of the registered student organization Groove Theory, is able to bring what she’s learned in classes to her outside dance groups. 

“My class and workshop experiences have lent themselves very well to my independent work in my dance groups,” said Chapin, referencing a TAPS-hosted workshop with visiting instructor Bravemonk as a crucial experience that taught her about hip hop culture. “Groove Theory is a freestyle hip hop group, so any new thing I learn informs how I move my body in the cypher.”

In the next academic year, TAPS will introduce a dance course that will satisfy the arts core requirement. This new offering will be a mix of an introductory level course of studio practice and, in usual UChicago Socratic style, a theoretical seminar. 

Meanwhile, remote learning is in full swing in the Dance Program. Partnering with its company-in-residence Lucky Plush, the Virtual Dance Lab is offering more than two dozen weekly online classes in multiple styles of dance—including contemporary, breaking, salsa, ballet, house, among others—as well as yoga, improvisation and classes for kids.

“In this time of social isolation, it’s more important than ever to connect with community in an embodied way,” Rhoads said. “With classes throughout the day, Virtual Dance Lab offers people of all ages and levels the opportunity to move together, breathe together and share in a joyful, physical experience.”

The program aims to support instructors and administrative staff, all of whom are artists whose work has been affected by COVID-19. The classes are free to UChicago students, faculty and staff.