Dance program takes leap into future

The Western Oregon University Dance program has

graduated hundreds of students into careers such as studio owner, dance instructor, professional dancer and choreographer. Starting with the 2019-20 academic year, however, students in the program will have two new emphases to consider, each with its own important path to a job in dance.

“We always had an emphasis on choreography and dance, so now we’ve added a dance education and studio management track and a dance film and technology track,” explained Professor Darryl Thomas.

The WOU Dance program’s previous focus on performance or choreography always contained the option for dance education and business components, which helped dance majors prepare for any eventuality that a career in dance might take them. Indeed, several alums own dance studios in Monmouth, Dallas and Salem, and the majority of their days are spent teaching dance to students of all ages. Choreographers, who usually work on contract, could learn in WOU business courses how to manage their own small-scale enterprise. The new dance education and studio management track formalizes the interdisciplinary approach and yields dance graduates equipped with a practical skill set.

The dance film and technology track, meanwhile, is decidedly future-looking. “We want our students, as artists, to be able to push the field, to learn how they can create an experience for audiences that was not possible in live concert dance even five years ago,” said Thomas. “Technology is driving innovation in dance, and we want to position ourselves at the vanguard of this movement. There’s nothing like this in Oregon.”

Thomas has led the charge in melding dance and technology at WOU for about six years. His iLumiDance program visits schools and teaches children how to use computer coding to make a stick figure dance. Children learn that coding has all kinds of fun applications and that, if they continue to gain coding skills, they will be better equipped to succeed in the workplace of the future.

His vision has expanded further, however, to explore dance in combination with mixed reality, in which what people see in front of them is augmented by additional visual images.

“Using computer-generated images along with projection mapping, dance artists can create a mixed reality experience for viewers where the dance is both physically on stage and simultaneously in a virtual world,” Thomas explained. Think of a dancer on a stage, and as he moves, computer-generated sparks fly from his fingertips and swirl into the sky like embers. Or picture a woman dancing with a ball that only exists in virtual space.

The dance film element of the track will rely largely on the expertise of a faculty member who will begin teaching in the fall. Though the combination of dance and film may seem foreign to many, Thomas said it is a popular way for artists to share their work.

“It’s a really popular thing right now with everyone having access to phones and things like that,” he said. “Making dance films is really easy, and it’s much more cost effective than the old-school way of self-producing by booking performances at theaters. Now, you simply post the film on YouTube or Vimeo. There are film festivals all over the world specifically for dance, where you can send films to be adjudicated. It’s essentially the equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival for dance choreographers.”

The dance department faculty created the new tracks to WOU’s program to expand the options for dance majors, who often have to convince skeptical parents that their choice is a practical one. It also helps that the dance film and technology track is unique among public universities in the Pacific Northwest.

“The dance film and technology track will set Western apart,” Thomas said. “Everyone involved is really excited about the opportunities to establish a new path in dance education.”

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