Stepping Stone

When dancing high school seniors consider their postgraduation options, they often overlook community colleges. But the dance department at Glendale Community College in Glendale, Arizona, is one place where they can take their next steps in dance.

“We’re like a stepping stone into the professional world or the university world,” explains program director Lenna DeMarco, who has been with GCC since the dance department’s inception in 1989. “We take them from high schools or private studios and start to impose the discipline it takes to become a professional dancer.” The school, which offers a two-year Associate of Fine Arts degree, is now known as one of the top programs of its kind in the state.

Growing Pains

Things weren’t always this way. DeMarco’s dance courses were initially listed under the physical education department and there wasn’t an official dance major. Classes were considered “activity” courses that met for 50 minutes, twice a week. Since joining the performing arts department in 1997, dance has gained its own set of course listings and classes have been expanded to an hour and 15 minutes or longer.

“We have really grown,” says DeMarco of the nearly 400 students she serves, approximately 25 of whom pursue dance as a major. Courses offered include traditional technique classes in ballet, modern and jazz, plus other forms like world dance, flamenco and folklorico, depending on teacher availability. DeMarco is the only full-time professor, although there are currently four adjunct professors, a number that varies each semester.

Dance history, intro to dance and career guidance are also available under the Dance Humanities listings. “I love taking the history classes because they expand on each other and upon all the different styles,” says second-year student Caitlin Rodriguez. A dancer since age 3, Rodriguez considered attending other schools in the area but wanted a more developed program. “I saw the variety of classes they offer, and that’s what really moved me to choose GCC.”

Students typically take at least three hours of technique per day, in addition to rehearsals and academic courses. Depending on scheduling, some classes are billed as “intensives” and last two hours or longer. “The technique classes are fabulous. I love having so much more time to be able to dance,” says Rodriguez.

Since GCC is a community college, all are welcome to enroll in dance courses, which sometimes makes maintaining a high standard of dance a challenge for DeMarco. But she insists that while a university may be more selective, she still sets a high bar—and succeeds in making students reach for it. “Even though it’s a challenge, I like that I can take people who haven’t had much training—or not very good training—and really improve them. I give them a taste of what it takes to dance at a more intense and more demanding level,” she says. “It’s been very positive for me.”

Stage Time

GCC provides its majors numerous outlets to showcase their talent. In all, majors generally have four or five performance opportunities per semester, while many larger institutions offer half that number. Concerts are held in the fall and spring, with work by faculty and guest choreographers from across the country. Recently, students worked with choreographer Melissa Rolnick, and other past guest artists have included the esteemed Jacques D’Amboise, Mikhail Baryshnikov and the White Oak Project, former Bill T. Jones Dance Company member Germaul Barnes and many others. “We also do lots of reconstruction of historical modern dance,” adds DeMarco.

Majors can also audition for the student dance company, PHYSICAL GRAFFITI. “Lenna’s always told us that when you’re trying out, you’re devoting your time to the company,” says recent graduate Danielle Donaldson. “It’s not just a Tuesday/Thursday class. Always expect to have outside rehearsals on the weekends.” Students keep as busy as if they were in a professional company by performing with local groups. Last October, they performed at the Arizona Dance Festival and with Center Dance Ensemble. They are also members of the American College Dance Festival Association. (GCC is one of just a few community schools out of the group’s 347 members.)

A Step Toward the Future

While some graduates go on directly to professional dance companies, cruise ship jobs or Disney shows, the majority decide to pursue a four-year degree after receiving their AFA. Rodriguez, for example, is considering The University at Buffalo after she graduates in May 2009. She was inspired to apply for the program after GCC hosted a master class with UB’s Thomas Ralabate, an associate professor of dance at UB.

For those looking to stay close to home, GCC’s program has recently formed a new relationship with Ottawa University in Phoenix that allows students pursuing a BA in dance education to transfer their AFA credits—an option that makes attending the college more affordable. GCC faculty members also teach there, and dancers continue to take technique classes at the community college.

Donaldson is taking advantage of the easy transition to Ottawa. “A lot of the classes I’m going to be taking are based on dance education,” she says. The remaining credits toward the BA degree include pedagogy and kinesiology.

A Community Inside and Out

“One of the things I like about being at a community college is that the faculty is not bogged down by the need to research and publish. We do more teaching and our contact with students is greater,” says DeMarco, who is retiring after this school year, but plans to continue teaching a few classes at GCC and staying active in promoting regional dance in Arizona. The school will begin a national search for her successor in January, when they’ll receive federal funding for the year. DeMarco says she’ll miss her relationship with the students most of all. Because the nature of the school is small, she says, “we are very close and you really can see your own personal impact on students. You see them grow and develop not just as dancers, but as people.”

The students benefit from the close-knit environment as well. “The teachers are always there for you if you get stressed out between rehearsals and classes,” says Rodriguez. Adds Donaldson, “You come in all by yourself, and you come out missing your second family. Lenna makes it very family-oriented and always finds a way for us to click.”

As for DeMarco, she’s proud of what the department has achieved. “I think we’ve done a lot of good for a lot of people,” she says. “It makes me happy to see them out there and
succeeding.” DT

Taylor Gordon, a freelance dancer and writer in New York City, is pursuing a master’s in publishing at Pace University.

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