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Vassar Students ‘Dance to Connect’ with High School Students

Photos Yesmina Townsley '23

One of the best ways to make meaningful connections with people you don’t know is to dance with them. That’s the theory behind a worldwide program run by a New York City dance company that brought students from Vassar and Poughkeepsie High School, some of whom had never danced publicly before, together for a pair of performances on stage. Both shows were held December 9, one at the high school and the other at the Frances Daly Fergusson Dance Theater in Kenyon Hall.

The idea for the two shows was hatched by Lecturer and Chair of Dance Miriam Mahdaviani and members of Battery Dance, a New York-based company that runs a program called “Dancing to Connect” in city schools and 70 countries. “Battery Dance had been doing this kind of work, bringing teens together by teaching them to create dance together, for years,” Mahdaviani said. “About two years ago, the director, Jonathan Hollander, asked if we’d be interested in doing this program in Poughkeepsie.”

Five women on a stage leaning on each other's backs in a line
Vassar students (left to right) Alex Spitzer, Cecelia Kitross, Robin Bleicher, Mariame Toure, and Maelia Chanu.

Vassar secured a CEIH (Community-Engaged Intensives in the Humanities) grant from the Mellon Foundation to bring a teaching artist and dancer from Battery Dance, Robin Cantrell, to Vassar last fall. Cantrell worked with students in the Dancing to Connect intensive class Mahdaviani was teaching, and in the final month of the class, the students used the skills Cantrell had taught them to help students at Poughkeepsie High School prepare for their performance. “In our classes, Robin provided dance improvisation prompts that encouraged the students to generate choreography based on self-expression,” Mahdaviani said. After exploring possible themes for their performances, the Vassar students chose sisterhood, and the high school students chose loss—the emotions stirred by the death of a loved one.

Seven women on a stage holding one of them in a dance position
Poughkeepsie High School students (left to right):  Ivana Waite, Danna Pacheco, Nevaeh Barrington, Dayiana Moore, Shandrela Williams, Janelle Seals, Andrea Martinez-Lopez.

Cantrell said she was inspired by the performances that grew out of these discussions and subsequent rehearsals. “It wasn’t always an easy process,” she said. “Teens don’t inherently trust random adults, and it takes a while to start the creative process and put yourself on display. But it was great to see the bridging of the two communities at the performances at the high school and at Vassar.”

John Bradley, Director of the Vassar Education Collaboration, which supports Vassar students who take part in tutoring and mentoring programs in the city schools, said he and others who attended the performances were truly impressed by what they saw. “Most of what we do in the community centers on academics, but this program took our collaboration with the Poughkeepsie schools to a different level,” Bradley said.

The dancers also gave the program rave reviews. “Robin Cantrell helped us understand that we all truly belonged in that space—everybody is a dancer,” said Robin Bleicher ’23, a psychological science major from Northampton, MA. “I’d never had the opportunity in any of my other classes here to connect with my community. The experience was truly rewarding.”

Maëlia Chanu ’23, a political science major from Nantes, France, said she’d never taken a dance class in her life, but Cantrell made her realize that such skills weren’t necessary. “I didn’t know what to bring to the class from a technical standpoint, but it’s the emotion you impart that’s important,” Chanu said. “This was a highlight of my Vassar experience.”

Poughkeepsie High School ninth-grader Danna Pacheco said she’d been dreaming of dancing on stage for most of her life. “In the beginning of rehearsals, I was kind of nervous and I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out,” Pacheco said. “But in the final week, it came together, and the show was amazing. I felt the energy running through my body—the feeling was just happiness.”

Mahdaviani said she hopes to offer the intensive course again to provide opportunities for more Vassar students to learn how to teach dance. “A primary reason I decided to offer this intensive is because it taught Vassar students the Dancing to Connect methodology so that if they choose to do so after graduation, they could run a program like this one to bring people together in their communities,” she said.

February 2, 2023
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