While dance currently is an accepted form of both recreation and study — a dance minor began in the fall of 2010, and this past fall a dance major was added — for many years Messiah College, as a part of its founding Brethren in Christ denomination, took a firm standpoint against it. “The major source for opposition to dancing over the years basically came from the denomination, which was opposed to a number of ‘worldly’ activities, including dancing, playing cards, attending movies,” said Morris Sider, a member of the College’s faculty from 1963 to 2009.
“Increasingly as we became recognized as a liberal arts college, something of a cloud hung over our heads, which, simply stated, was doubt about our claim of being a liberal-arts college when we didn’t even allow dancing,” said Sider. “I recall that when newspapers wrote about the College, even when in a favorable light, one of their descriptors for the College was ‘at Messiah, they don’t allow dancing.’” Because of relaxed feelings by the Brethren in Christ denomination, increasing pressure from students, and the decisions of other colleges similar to Messiah allowing dance, discussions to change the rule against dancing began in 1982. That year, on-campus square and folk dancing was permitted, but it wasn’t until 1994 when the first official dance sponsored by the Student Activities Board (SAB) finally occurred. A hit among students, the dance featured music from the ’30s to the present, and guests included then-president Rodney Sawatsky and his wife.
Fast forward to 2010: The Centennial Ball, the student body’s signature event designed to celebrate the College’s Centennial year, was held that May. “Dancing Through the Decades” became the event’s theme, highlighting styles from four decades. “The four corners of Hitchcock Arena were transformed into venues depicting various decades: a 1920s salsa club, a 1950s sock hop, a 1980s hip-hop set and a modern-day lounge area,” said Sherri Hoffman, co-chair of the event and project and research coordinator in Messiah’s Marketing and Public Relations Office. Dance lessons were offered to students, encouraging participation in the evening, which included a performance of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance by nearly 1,000 students. “Beyond the ‘evolution of dance,’ we tried to capture the idea that dance is embedded in the overall culture of both time and place,” said Kristin Zummo, co-chair of the Ball and former director of annual giving at the College. “And, just as we embrace the music and food of our history, embracing dance, its various forms, can also be a lot of fun as well!”
In terms of Messiah’s curriculum, beginning in the mid-1990s, musical theatre became an integral part of the College’s offerings, and many performances now rely on strong dancing skills for shows such as “Godspell” and “Carousel.” “The theatre department added dance to the curriculum as a way for students to get more experience as performers and add to the actor training, originally,” said Tymberley Whitesel, chair of the new Department of Theatre and Dance. Because of the interest from current and future students, the program expanded, and, currently, students majoring in dance have the opportunity to study many differing disciplines, from ballet and modern dance to jazz and tap, as well as choreography, improvisation and dance ministry.
And for many, ministry is the main objective. “When I visited my daughter in Africa last year, it would have been unthinkable for the choirs in her church to sing without dance; in fact, people danced as they brought forward their offerings,” said Richard Roberson, dean of the School of the Arts. “I want our program to train professional-quality dancers who offer their dance back to God.”
For Elise Pure ’13, a dance minor and psychology major, dance has been a passion for as long as she can remember — and something she hopes to use after graduation to better the lives of others. “When I was two, I used to dance in the back of church during worship services,” said the Bloomsburg, Pa., native. Since just after her third birthday, Pure has trained in ballet, jazz and tap, among other dance disciplines. “I’d like to continue taking dance classes after college for my own pleasure, but above that I would also like to do some work with dance therapy in a mental-health rehabilitation setting,” she said. “Dancing has always been my personal therapy, and I think that music and movement are very emotional, and emotionally releasing. It’s very therapeutic.”
Beyond formal, structured classes, dance ministry teams such as Da Blazin’ Footprints, God’s Kingdom Steppers and Spirit Force offer new experiences to students of any major, allowing them to travel and perform at regional churches and youth events. The swing-dance club, Acclamation — the College’s first worship dance troupe, which began in 1995 and performs styles from ballet to modern dance — and the new dance performance ensemble, which is audition-based, round out the options for those hoping to experience the dance discipline outside the classroom.
With the opening of the campus’ new Calvin and Janet High Center for Worship and Performing Arts in January 2013, rooms in Climenhaga Fine Arts Center will also be receiving a facelift, benefiting those studying this field. “We hope to install a dance floor, bar and mirrors next winter,” said Roberson. “The room is next door to the new Black Box Theatre, so the dressing rooms for the Black Box can also service the dance studio. We hope that the new dance studio may also become a venue for small performances. In addition, the new construction will free up the schedule in Miller Auditorium, allowing dance to use it as a venue for performances.”
There’s no question: Dance at Messiah has certainly come a long way, although experiencing it as a form of worship remains key. “From my own perspective, dance — which I would define as movement in response to music — is one of the most natural and universal forms of human expression,” said Roberson. “This form of expression should be offered to God as much as any other.”
Story by Noreen Livoti `02 first appeared in the Winter 2012 Bridge magazine.