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Va. dance festival offers exchange, workshops for 500 dancers

Wednesday - 3/12/2014, 9:16am  ET

By Heather Brady
WTOP Entertainment Contributor

WASHINGTON -- It's a dance student's dream come true -- a weekend full of workshops and lectures, offered by some of the top names in today's professional dance world.

To dance with, and learn from, the variety of instructors offered at the American College Dance Festival at George Mason University last weekend was a unique opportunity, one that certainly offered students the chance to perfect their skills and gain a competitive edge in their careers.

But the usual air of prestigious hypercompetition that plagues the dance world and those within it was noticeably absent.

As over 500 dancers descended on GMU's Fairfax campus Saturday morning, an open exchange of workshops, feedback and knowledge created an air of refreshing collaboration.

Classes for the students ranged from ballet and modern dance to bollywood and capoeira, and the greater public was invited to see the Joffrey Ballet perform and hear well-known and influential dancers tell stories from their lives and work.

Susan Shields, director of the GMU School of Dance, says the conference's theme, "Imagine…," was meant to inspire the students who attended.

"This is meant to spark the imagination of all of our students, that this could be you," Shields says. "You can have a full, rich life in this field."

The conference is held each year at different colleges across the country. For the first time in a decade, GMU hosted the mid-Atlantic regional conference, with dancers coming from as far as North Carolina and Ohio to attend. The national level of the conference, which will take place in June, will bring students from across the country to perform at the Kennedy Center.

Students were there from both colleges with established dance majors and colleges with hardly any dance program that had scraped funding together. They were given the chance to work with faculty from many universities and to choose which classes they wanted to take.

Judges like Sarah Skaggs and Sylvia Waters, respected leaders who have left their marks on the field of dance, critiqued performance pieces that students prepared before the festival.

Dance giants such as Robert Battle, Kyle Abraham and Elisa Monte spoke to students and to arts leaders in the Fairfax community as part of an uplifting but realistic panel -- a hard juxtaposition to pull off when speaking about a performance-based career field that can rip a person's confidence to pieces.

"It's all about you," Elisa Monte said at the panel presentation. "It's your life. You need to write your story."

Cami Spring, a 20-year-old GMU junior and dancer who was at the festival, says she thought the variety of class offerings and professors prepared students for the reality of a career in dance.

"Even though you're taking a jazz class that you could take here [at GMU] or a modern class that you could take here, everyone has (his) own individual way of teaching and style," she says. "I think it's good to transition that to when you go and audition, because you don't know what style you're going to get in the audition."

Christopher d'Amboise, a GMU faculty member who studied under renowned dancers like George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, says the high level of dance knowledge and skill at the festival was exciting.

"There's a feeling I have here at this campus right now that I've never had before, where it feels like our tentacles are reaching out across the country," he says. "You can tell so much about dancers' potential in a very short amount of time. I'm excited to see who these students are and in a short amount of time push what I call their 'big button,' which makes them like their biggest selves."

That level of dance and quality of both instruction and performance may have been obvious to the dancers at the festival, but Susan Shields, GMU Schools of Dance's director, says the surrounding community in Fairfax isn't necessarily aware of it yet.

"I don't think they quite realize the level that we're playing on," she says. "I think people might say, ‘Oh, the nice local school, they have a good program, I've heard.' But it's more than that."

Shields wants to continue working on a world-class level and hopes the school will be seen as a resource for area residents.

"If people have dance questions, if people want to learn more, they can reach out to us," Shields says. "We want people to love this art form. We want to bring them world-class stuff."

The school's public outreach efforts gives the audience a way to relate to dance while letting its students reach past the snobby inaccessibility of the dance world to the heart of what it is about, echoed in Kyle Abraham's panel presentation Sunday afternoon.

"I just loved movement so much," he said.

Watch Heather Brady's video clips of the dance festival below:

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