After more than six hours of master classes and workshops, hundreds of college students file into the theater for an evening concert. Though clearly tired, when intermission rolls around, one student grabs a boom box and leads the crowd to the lobby for an impromptu dance party. This is typical for an American College Dance Festival conference, this passion held by college dancers. Inspired by this enthusiasm, the organization has supported and encouraged college and university dance programs for nearly 40 years.
American College Dance Festival Association Executive Director Diane DeFries, who first experienced the festival in the mid-’90s with her SUNY Potsdam students, has noticed real growth over the years, especially in the adjudication process. “There has been a great effort and success at gearing the feedback toward constructive criticism,” she says, “and there’s been very thoughtful choosing of adjudicators who are able to give feedback that’s educational.”
Peter DiMuro, director of Dance/MetroDC, adjudicated at the University of Arizona conference this past March. He agrees with DeFries. “In the earlier years, I remember the stories of adjudicators getting very passionate and critical with the students. I think that’s toned down as we’ve learned how to critique work,” he says. “There’s a real artistry to giving response. It allows the choreographer to understand that this is how an audience is going to see the work.’”
The ACDFA holds 10 regional conferences and a biennial national festival May 27–29 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Regional events began in early February at Boston University, and the final one, at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, takes place this month.
On each day of the four-day conference, student groups perform and adjudicators give feedback. They select about 10 dances for a gala concert on the conference’s final day. After the show, a panel of three adjudicators chooses two or three schools to move on to the national event.
During their 12 minutes onstage, students have few limits: They can use live or recorded music, student or teacher choreography, multimedia effects or sparse lighting. While most schools choose contemporary modern choreography, styles range from ballet to hip hop to world dance. “Performances at the festival really reflect what’s going on at universities,” says DeFries. And more and more schools are signing up to be represented. When the ACDFA was established in 1973, there were 13 member institutions. It now has over 300 colleges and universities.
While regional conferences are all about the learning and adjudication process, the national festival focuses on performance. About 30 schools present their work at three performance galas. There are only two prizes given out; ACDFA/Dance Magazine Awards go to one student for Outstanding Student Choreography and one for Outstanding Student Performer.
“As an organization, we really stress coming together and sharing,” DeFries says. “Many college programs are isolated, but coming here really broadens perspectives. It’s an incredible artistic exchange.” DT
Photo of Washington University in St. Louis students performing Cecil Slaughter’s Grid, by David Marchanet, courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis.