Growing Dance Program Plans ‘Second First Year’
By Jennifer Willis
Start-ups are never easy, as GCU’s director of dance, Susannah Keita, has discovered. Building a dance program from the ground up has been difficult, and yet already there have been rewards.
What a difference a year can make.
This time last year, Keita had just been hired to head the newly formed dance program in the re-formed College of Fine Arts and Production. At the start of the academic year, she had five students; by the end of the year, she had 12.
This year, she has about 40 students for the fall, including freshmen and transfer students from Scottsdale and Glendale community colleges, the University of Arizona and schools in California and Washington.
Keita has big plans for this year, too.
“I’m kind of thinking of it as a second first year,” she says. “We’re still ramping things up, but I know things will catch up with us eventually. We’ve just got to make sure we maintain visibility on campus and in the community.”
She’s working as hard as she can to do just that. She has been speaking with the Arizona Dance Education Organization, which includes 200 high school dance instructors, as well as judging high school dance festivals and sending out emails to alumni.
“I just want to make sure that as a department, we are at as many events as possible,” Keita says.
That includes applying for official membership for a GCU chapter of the National Dance Education Organization and then taking steps to be part of the National Honors Society for Dance Arts. Those will create leadership opportunities for student dancers.
“This year, we have a good group of students and some outstanding instructors coming in,” Keita says. “We’ll really be able to see what we can do.”
Candidates being considered for the instructor positions include Zari Le’on, who conducted an extremely popular artist-in-residence week last spring and has had her own troupe in northern California.
“We’re extremely excited to try to bring Zari back to teach with us,” Keita says. “She’ll be bringing with her a well-rounded dancing background and will really be able to push the returning students from last year in the upper-level jazz classes.”
Also under consideration are Jessica Rajko and Sonja Mitrovic.
Rajko would come to GCU as a member of Conder Dance Company in Tempe. She has experience using dance in conjunction with video and technology and would teach intermediate modern classes. Mitrovic has extensive classical ballet training and professional dance experience in Europe. She guest-taught last year and would return to teach ballet classes.
This year’s dance students will include several scholarship recipients, who will perform service hours benefiting various community organizations. The hours help the students build their resumes, but the service also is another way to increase the program’s visibility.
There also will be two student-run concerts added to the schedule of winter and spring concerts. These concerts will be held in the Student Recreation Center and will showcase student choreography. Non-dance majors will be welcome to participate.
“We want to get more people involved in the dance program,” Keita says. “We want to expand dance education to the rest of campus.”
Keita also is planning an elementary school dance tour, with students and faculty collaborating on a production to be performed at select elementary schools in the area. The purpose, she says, is to spread the word about the dance program and to raise self-esteem in youth.
Contact Jennifer Willis at 639.7383 or [email protected].