Skip to main content

Dance Program: ‘Small, but mighty’

March 11, 2009 By Gwen Evans

There’s no telling where a dancer may land. Rahm Emmanuel, President Obama’s point man, turned down a scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School. Maya Angelou, poet, writer, journalist and activist, began her career on stage as a dancer.

[photo] Practice at dance class.

Undergraduate student Brittany Wittman balances rigorous classwork and studio instruction. Here she practices during a modern dance class, taught by Dance Program professor Li Chiao-Ping.

Photo: Jeff Miller

In turnabout, some people step into dance from unexpected places, such as Margaret H’Doubler. A Wisconsin alumna with degrees in biology and philosophy, she founded the Dance Program at Wisconsin in 1926, the first university in the nation to grant degrees in dance. Drive, passion, focus and creativity, it seems, are assets good for any calling.

But it wasn’t just the administrative endorsement from the University of Wisconsin that was groundbreaking: H’Doubler championed the “thinking dancer,” a revolutionary approach to dance instruction that teaches dance as a means of expression and intellectual exploration rather than just an imitative theatrical art. It’s been 83 years since the program began, so H’Doubler was clearly on to something.

Word spreads, dancers listen

Over the decades, H’Doubler’s former students and protégés spread the word, founding their own dance companies, dancing professionally and also teaching. They and H’Doubler helped transform the world of dance education in the United States.

Wisconsin’s reputation and tradition are powerful magnets. The university’s quality instruction and innovation attracted countless students as well as faculty. Among them is Professor Emerita Mary “Buff” Brennan, co-editor of “Margaret H’Doubler: The Legacy of America’s Dance Education Pioneer.”

Brennan came to Madison in 1959 to earn her master’s degree and then her doctorate in dance. She later joined the faculty. “Before H’Doubler, dance instruction in my background was follow-the-teacher. There was nothing creative about it. Here I took science, body mechanics, physiology, movement fundamentals and analysis, as well as improvisation and creative work,” says Brennan. “I got to study with Margaret H’Doubler in summer workshops. It was an inspiration. She was so motivating, it rubbed off on me.”

Brennan has been here, either dancing or teaching, for 47 years. She currently helps out on faculty committees, works with students on their honors projects and advises independent study students.

[photo] Li Chiao-Ping

Dance Program professor Li Chiao-Ping teaches a modern dance class in Lathrop Hall.

Photo: Jeff Miller

Another drawn to Madison because of H’Doubler’s legacy is Jin-Wen Yu, a professor in the program and current program chair. Yu did not begin dancing seriously until college. “It had always been an interest of mine, and I joined dance clubs. But one thing led to another and I really found myself in dance. H’Doubler had a profound and significant impact on dance education,” says Yu.

Contrary to a conservatory model of instruction, Yu saw that dance could be enlivened by the environment of a large, public research university and the caliber of students it admits. “UW-Madison has huge possibilities for research and teaching, and that excites me. The academic rigor that our students must meet will enhance whatever they decide to do,” says Yu.

The program did fall on some hard times in the 1980s. It stopped granting undergraduate degrees for a short period, and advanced degrees are no longer available. But Yu and Brennan believe things have turned about. A BFA and BS in dance are available, along with a dance minor and certificates in dance movement and dance/movement therapy, which was added to the curriculum last fall. New faculty are on board, adding fresh enthusiasm and ideas to the program.

Demands, challenges and successes

Degree students audition for admission to the program and must fulfill intensive dance requirements such as modern, ballet, technique, composition, music and improvisation, along with general education, humanities, social studies and science requirements, including human anatomy in the cadaver lab.

Contrary to a conservatory model of instruction, Yu saw that dance could be enlivened by the environment of a large, public research university and the caliber of students it admits.

The challenges are not for the timid. The students are high achievers in the studio and in the classroom: Many are on the dean’s list and are pursuing dual majors. It is common for them to receive academic scholarships and summer awards. In addition to its current 45 dance majors, the program serves some 700 students taking dance classes for certificate programs or electives.

Compared to some other programs, the numbers may be small, but that doesn’t bother Brennan. “We are really moving up on the map. We are small, but we are mighty,” she says with a smile.

Like Yu, junior dance major Brittany Wittmann never intended to study dance. She arrived on campus with her sights set on becoming an elementary school teacher. But dance, in limited fashion, had always been a part of her life. Growing up in Menomonee Falls, Wis., there weren’t a lot of dance opportunities, so she took community dance classes, repeating them over and over because that’s all that was available. She also danced on her high school dance squad. She admits those experiences didn’t give her a chance to develop as a dancer as she would have liked.

To keep her toe in the dance world, she auditioned for the dance team on the spirit squad her freshman year in Madison, but didn’t make the roster. Hungry to dance, she found her way to Lathrop Hall, home to the Dance Program. Classes in modern, African and ballroom dance changed her outlook, and life. “I was devastated when I didn’t make the squad, but I am so thankful I didn’t,” says Wittmann. “This [dance education] was all new information to me, and my modern teacher was so inspirational. Before, I had no window into what dance really could be. The program is hyper-intellectual. I am right where I should be.”

She didn’t abandon her goal of elementary education. She is working on dual degrees in dance and education, which pleases her parents. “I’d like to be a professional dancer for as long as I can, and maybe have my own company that would include kids and adults. And if or when I use my education degree in a classroom, I would use dance to inspire my students to learn and be creative. It’s important to have movement in your life,” says Wittmann.

Wittmann and her fellow students also benefit from the program’s emphasis on looking outward to get other perspectives. Guest artists in residence are a staple, giving students the chance to learn from leading choreographers and dancers. Wittmann was part of a group of students and faculty that traveled to New York last summer to participate in the National College Dance Festival. The connections she made there resulted in an internship with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company during winter break. “The dance world is small, but people know about this place because of the Wisconsin Idea. Dance education here is known everywhere you go,” says Wittmann.

This summer, the Dance Program will expand its reach to Taiwan when 14 students, ranging from freshmen to graduating seniors, along with faculty, will participate in classes and give performances at the Taipei National University of the Arts. Then, students and faculty from that school will do the same in Madison. “We’ll go and work for them and then they’ll come here and work for us,” laughs Yu. “We used to think of how we might connect the Wisconsin dance world to New York. Now we’re thinking of the whole world.

Yu is determined to give his students every possible opportunity to learn and grow. “There’s a new energy here. It’s our job to enhance the students’ experiences and to find the uniqueness in each one, inspiring them to do more work,” says Yu. “Dancers are doers, not talkers. For them, the body is the pallet, the instrument that embodies the theory and expresses the inexpressible.”

A day in the life

Student life can be hectic. Then there’s 20-credits-a-semester Brittany Wittmann, a junior pursuing dual degrees in dance and elementary education. She ranks in the top 15 percent of her class, has been consistently on the dean’s list and has been awarded numerous dance scholarships.

All of this comes from a lot of hard work, taking advantage of opportunities and staying organized. “I leave the house early for 7:45 a.m. classes and don’t get home until after 9 p.m. I pack my lunch — and dinner. I sometimes wonder how it will all get done, but it does. I am never bored. I love everything I do,” says Wittmann. “At times it’s a little stressful. If I lost my planner, my life wouldn’t work.”

If you think you are busy, here’s a recent page from Wittmann’s planner:

  • Work on a solo dance piece she choreographed.
  • Rehearse a duet she performed at the recent Spring Student Dance Concert.
  • Fine-tune a quartet she choreographed for the American College Dance Festival in Minneapolis later this month.
  • Meet with a fellow student to choreograph a wedding dance for a couple needing help with the big moment at their reception. “It has to be easy and still look good,” says Wittmann.
  • Meet with faculty to discuss her senior honors project.
  • Meet with her adviser to discuss her undergraduate research project.
  • Time for lunch.
  • Attend class in modern dance technique.
  • Rehearse her role in a faculty-choreographed dance.
  • Attend weekly Friday Forum, that day a sampler on international dance.
  • Rehearse her dance with the quartet.
  • Go home, study and do homework.
  • Early to bed to get up to teach the next morning.