Tyler Weisberg '22
This year, Mary Ann Lanier, the Performing Arts Department Head, decided to make adjustments to the dance program in response to student feedback. These changes include new leadership, an emphasis on student choreography, and more opportunities for students to interact with professional artists.
Nicole Harris has been working with Groton’s theater department since 2015 as a choreographer and director. She is now instructing the dance program in order to, in the words of Ms. Lanier, “supplement the great things that were already happening in dance.” Previously, Maria Morrell was the sole teacher, and she would often bring in guest choreographers. The program continues to perform pieces choreographed by Maria and outside teachers, but Nicole has brought a new approach to class. Dance captain, Chip Pontifell ’19 stated, “It has been quite the transition for returning Groton dancers, they are getting to explore dance in a completely different way compared to previous years.”
Nicole said, “My two goals as an educator are to emphasize the individual voices of my students and to help provide opportunities to students to develop skills to reach their goals.” She has placed a specific emphasis on inviting student choreography. “While I myself am a modern dancer, I am not looking to create modern dancers or choreographers. choreography is an art form independent of any dance style,” she said.
This focus on student collaboration was apparent at the fall dance recital with creative, original pieces choreographed by Neha Agarwal ’20, Dashy Rodriguez ’19, and Janice Zhai ’21. Janice’s piece, for example, was set to the song ‘All We Do’ with recorded voices of Groton students edited over parts of the music. She used the piece to make a statement about life at Groton, explaining, “A lot of the time at Groton, we get really caught up in the hectic schedule, from maintaining our academic lives to athletics and even our social lives, that it feels kind of monotonous, and that’s what this dance was about.”
A program newly introduced to Groton this year is the step Faculty Sponsored Activity (FSA) this fall. Carolyn Chica, the faculty sponsor, was very excited to take on this new challenge because as a high schooler she was also a part of a step team. Ms. Chica choreographed most of the initial pieces the group worked on, but explained, “As the term has progressed, the students have started to take more initiative and create their own dance routines.” Since Ms. Chica is a part of the Admission team at Groton, she travels a lot, which has made it difficult for her to run rehearsals consistently. The FSA students split their time between step-specific rehearsals and participating in the regular afternoon dance activity. The step team, known as Essence, performed at a recent Open Mic, the Parents’ Weekend concert, and the fall dance recital. They also recently held a dance class for the community called “Step like Beyonce,” that had a turnout of about twenty people. The FSA class looks forward to St. Mark’s day roll call where they plan to perform a new step routine.
Another new program this year is the introduction of private dance lessons. Julien Alam ’19 is currently taking lessons with Nicole. Previously, Groton students have only taken private lessons for musical instruments. Julien, however, came up with this new idea wanting to improve his dance skills outside of the theater program, and Ms. Lanier welcomed the new idea with enthusiasm.
One other new initiative is the addition of weekend dance workshops called “Musings” presented by the non-profit company Monkeyhouse twice a term. Nicole was one of the founding members of Monkeyhouse in 2000 and describes it as “an incubator for choreographers. Our mission as an organization is to connect communities to choreography.” Ms. Lanier said these opportunities for student dancers to collaborate with professionals outside of the regular afternoon activity can also open up the program to “someone who does not want to commit to the afternoon program but who is interested in trying dance.”
Despite the changes made and new activities added, some students feel as though there should be more changes continuing forward. Janice thinks that “there needs to be more creativity in the program … a lot of the people in the dance program don’t get to actually express themselves and build/be a part of something that they are really passionate about.” Dance captain Neha hopes that “as this transition period in dance ends, we can attract more students and regain the size of the dance program as it has been in previous years.” This fall, only four people were signed up for dance as an afternoon activity, though the addition of the step FSA and Julien’s dance lesson did bring the number of performers at the fall dance recital to nine students. For the fall of 2017 there were ten sign-ups and 2016 had seven.
Change will always come with challenges, and only time will tell if these adjustments will benefit the community of dancers at Groton. In Chip’s words, dance is not just a class for athletes or pure dancers, but it can also be “an inspiring place for all different kinds of people from theater to step, and even those new to dance to come together, connect over the art form, and develop their proficiency.”