Social movement

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If you walked by the Reese~Shackelford Common in mid-November, you would have seen the light dusting of snow still on the ground from the first snow of the year. If you walked by on a particular Thursday around lunchtime, though, you would have been distracted by the crowd of people wearing blue ponchos on the snowy grass.

At noon that day, 86 students and faculty gathered to perform Walzer, an historic German “movement choir” that was reconstructed and danced for the first time since 1933. The project was coordinated by Gill Wright Miller ’74, associate professor of dance, with the guidance of Vail guest artist Mara Penrose and help from two of Miller’s directed study students, Kristen Locey ’15 and Rachel Halteman ’15.

Locey, Halteman, and the seven students in Miller’s movement analysis class each recruited about 10 friends and taught them their parts in the dance, which has been preserved for the past 80 years using labanotation, a written system for recording human movement. The full group practiced together only twice before the performance.

So … what is a movement choir? Pioneered in 1930s Germany, it is perhaps the direct ancestor of the contemporary flash mob, and as with many flash mobs, the focus was on fostering a sense of community and belonging among the participants. This was the emphasis with Walzer, an event in which many participants were not students of dance. “It was magic,” Miller says. “For me, it really demonstrated the power that community dance holds. Everyone — regardless of ability — can dance, and that dancing provides a common platform for relationships. Besides which, the students and faculty really had a ball.”

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Earlier this semester, Sandra Mathern-Smith, professor of dance, added an element of social activism and service learning to the idea of a movement choir with her first-year seminar class, Can Movement Change the World? Mathern-Smith’s FYS 102 class created its own dance and divided into four teams, each of which worked with a different group from the local community: cognitively disabled adults from SPARK; disadvantaged teenagers from the YES Club in Newark; dancers from the Granville Dance Academy; and “village elders,” retired Granville residents. Once each group knew its part, they came together to perform the movement choir together on the Fine Arts Quad. “I think in a way it really did work,” says Mathern-Smith. “It was a really great experience to have this very diverse group come together and dance together.”

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