Dance Steps Up
By Sarah Tuff Article published October 31, 2006
Paul Besaw, assistant professor of music, knows a thing or two about threatened creatures. Several years ago, as part of Blue Skid Dance, an adult dance company that toured for children, he played a wolf, polar bear, panda bear and possum in a single production. “The piece was on endangered animals,” he says. “The possum wasn’t endangered, by the way.”
This fall, Besaw is giving new life to a different species: dance at UVM.
The roots of dance at UVM trace back to the 1960s, when Maggi Hayes pioneered a variety of courses and initiatives. Across four decades, Hayes would continue to nurture the dance program, then based in the physical education department within the College of Education and Social Services. In addition to teaching or overseeing instruction in a variety of credit courses from ballet to ballroom to folk dancing, Hayes founded the Orchesis Dance Company and helped create the dance studio still used today in Patrick Gymnasium. Her retirement in 2005 left a gap on campus, with administrators and students seeking a place for dance.
“I was really surprised to not find a formal class when I arrived,” says Leila Benabid, a sophomore who grew up practicing ballet. Fellow sophomore Erica Morris managed to discover the Catamount Dance Team. “But the team is based off of hip hop,” says Morris. “I wanted something more traditional.”
Dancing for credit
Enter Eleanor Miller, who became the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences last year and immediately took steps toward enlivening the arts on campus, including turning dance into an academic program with a full-time assistant professor. Working with Hayes and the music department, she shifted the program into CAS and tracked down Besaw. “Paul was a good fit because he understood well how to make dance an intimate part of a liberal arts education,” says Miller. “He understood that CAS (wanted) to offer a program whose courses dealt with not only technique, but also with the history, aesthetics and cultural context of dance.”
So, from stage left — Sacramento, where he’d been teaching dance at California State for four years — arrived Besaw. “We’re still getting used to the cold, and all these clouds!” says Besaw of his wife and infant daughter.
While the sky outside Patrick Gymnasium might be gun-metal gray on a recent Thursday morning, the atmosphere inside the dance studio seems as bright as a bluebird day as 11 women prepare for Besaw’s Modern Dance 1 technique class. Graphic blocks of lavender, peach and baby blue splash against the wall while skylights, mirrors and windows make the space seem even larger than it is.
“It’s a beautiful dance studio — you couldn’t really ask for anything better,” says Besaw, adding that ideally, schools that offer a dance major have two or three studios, along with a separate performance space.
Starting this year, UVM students may minor in dance. “Dance could be offered as a major one day if it looks like there is sufficient student interest,” says Miller. “What I’ve begun to hear from prospective students and parents suggests there is.”
To start off the technique class, junior Gabe Millman begins to play a pair of tabla hand drums while Besaw, wearing loose black pants, an orange-and-steel-colored Starter jacket and bare feet, practices the simple art of walking with his students. “Energize through the center,” he says, “feel the beat through the floor.”
Right place, right time
As a choreographer and dancer, Besaw has also worked with the Jan Van Dyke Dance Group and the John Gamble Dance Theatre and is a founding member of the Misa Table, a performance collective that focuses on original work. Among his current inspiring forces are German choreographer Pina Bausch, the late Anna Sokolow — and Lake Champlain. While Besaw says he’s thrilled by the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and the city’s cultural beat, outside offers just as much drama. “What I love about Burlington right now is walking outside near the lake,” says Besaw, who grew up in New Hampshire. “It’s great to be in a town where the natural beauty is so readily available.”
Inside the dance studio, Besaw begins to clap his hands as the pace of the drums and the dancers picks up. Some of the students giggle as they fumble their steps, but Besaw doesn’t miss a beat. “We’re working on clarity now,” he says. “Spatial patterns and focus of direction.”
Just before this class, sophomores Morris and Benabid have agreed that the word they’d use to describe Besaw is “experimental.” As they glide across the hardwood floors, it’s quickly apparent that the experiment of renewing dance is yielding results.