Since she was hired in 2006 to create a dance program at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, Jenefer Davies has operated as, essentially, a one-woman show. She’s the only full-time faculty member (with regular adjunct support). Over the last 13 years, she has created a thriving program along with a performance company—at a school with fewer than 2,500 students—by drawing on her admittedly rare strength: aerial dance.
Many of Davies’ students who’ve come to Washington & Lee to study academics such as economics and political science have never taken a dance class. “They’ve been schooled in a very classical way,” she says. “They’re accustomed to attending lectures, taking tests and writing papers. They thrive in a world where there’s an answer that’s either right or wrong. The arts don’t necessarily fit within those parameters.”
She meets that challenge head-on by introducing them to aerial, which appeals to a wide range of people. The skills that one develops in an aerial class have little to do with previous dance training, and thus it levels the field in a way she describes as “incredibly democratic.”
“It’s that sense of egalitarianism that has allowed the program to flourish,” she says. “Aerial dance really draws from across the campus. I see men and athletes and people who are classics and science majors coming together.”
From the ground to the sky
Davies vividly remembers her own discovery of aerial dance and the possibilities it opened for her. “I started exploring it because I’d been studying dance—at that point, for 30 years—only exploring space from six feet down,” she says. “The idea of studying space from six feet all the way up to the tallest building was this unexplored territory.” Now, she watches her students make that same discovery.
“I’ve had students who have never had one day of dance training who are just incredibly gorgeous,” she says. “I’ve seen a lot of dancers who aren’t sure if their body is aligned unless they can see themselves in a mirror. With aerial, you have to develop this internal intelligence that allows you to know what your body looks like in space as you’re using it. The idea of how to manipulate your body that way is fascinating and challenging in a different way.”
At W&L, students can train in rope and harness, silks and bungee. Two years ago, Davies published a book about her research: Aerial Dance: A Guide to Dance With Rope and Harness. “It’s really a textbook,” she says, “since it follows a class I would teach and the exercises and why and how we do stuff. It’s endlessly fascinating to me, because you’re defying gravity, in some ways. There’s all this space that’s not utilized in traditional dance.”
Giving technology its due
Another way Davies levels the playing field for her students is by using motion-capture technology as a classroom tool. Her approach to composition is admiringly 21st-century: Students must use video-editing software to try out choreographic ideas. “In this world of complexity, it’s nice to have an element of comfort,” says Davies. “Everybody has technology, and everybody knows how to use it. I’ll video a student doing a phrase they’ve created and then assign them the task of using video-editing software to demonstrate something that I’m trying to teach. It’s compositional structure.”
Her students might, for example, cut the phrase apart, slow it down, speed it up, reverse it, put it in a new order, relearn the phrase and then perform the new version they’ve created. “It gives them an understanding of shape and structure,” she says. “These sorts of tools help them transition from having this stock view of the world to becoming a questioner or explorer of the world.”
Now that her program is well-established, Davies refuses to rest on her laurels with the curriculum and syllabi she has created. She gets a thrill from revising her classes. “I don’t like it when things plod along the same every year,” she says. “I end up reinventing courses and changing them to keep up with the curricular needs and challenge the students in new ways from year to year. I find that exciting as an educator.”
One way she introduces new challenges is to bring 15 to 20 dance minors and company members to New York City each year to perform. “I think that’s a valuable experience for them, to perform in other venues,” says Davies. “We rent a theater, maybe the Center for Performance Research or the Ailey Citigroup Theater, and bring an entire concert of just our works. It’s so much fun, and it broadens the students in a way that reading a textbook never could.” The dancers have to adapt to a new space and work with new designers, she says—adjusting from what they know, another valuable skill. “And, of course,” she says, “while we’re there, they see a lot of awesome dance.” The trip also exposes students to other instructors and classes in other styles: “I’m the only full-time tenure-track faculty member,” she says. “It helps to decenter the privilege embedded in the field and my very specific training and experience and knowledge.”
Pooling her resources
Davies is particularly excited about a grant she just received to create a dance program consortium with five other universities from the Associated Colleges of the South. The model is similar to that of the Five College Dance Department in Massachusetts. The six programs involved will share resources, teach master classes and visit each other’s campuses. “It’s an effort to provide my students with more than what I can offer them,” says Davies. “I think that all of us involved in this grant feel like we’re going to open ourselves up to more students, diversify our programs and hopefully bring in underrepresented populations. It’ll be a fellowship.”
And it’ll have the same idea that all Davies’ curricular underpinnings share: to push students to think differently, to think creatively. “An arts student has to learn that there isn’t a definitive answer waiting at the end of the path,” she says. “As a teacher, you can feel when that shift happens. I love that.”