We see the music, but do we hear the dance?

Dance is music, made tangible

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(Collegian file photo)

By Hannah Lieberman, Collegian Columnist

“See the music, hear the dance,” was the motto of George Balanchine, the father of American ballet. He demanded that his dancers be acutely musical. He believed that dance should be visual music, accentuating its every nuance to force audiences to hear it differently.

Throughout my own dance training, I have strived to become a physical manifestation of music. I am the daughter of two musicians and a student of music myself, so to me, dance and music are two inseparable and intertwining forces of nature that speak without words. I am a freshman dance major at the University of Massachusetts, and one factor in my search for a college dance program was that the school also have a well-regarded music department — bonus points if the two art forms were unified under one department. The department of music and dance at UMass presents itself as such a system, but within the first weeks here, I have noticed a substantial divide between the two branches of the department.

During the first week of school, all music and dance students received an invitation to the department’s welcome concert and reception at the Bezanson Recital Hall in the Fine Arts Center. Freshmen dance majors were required to attend, per our faculty’s request. There we were, a gaggle of new college dancers eager to see what our department — our home for the next four years — had to offer. When we opened our programs, there was a collective feeling of confusion and disappointment. The event consisted of eight music performances and just one dance performance. We felt overlooked, to say the least. This was our welcome concert just as much as it was the music students’, yet our division of the department was overshadowed by music. We left the FAC feeling like we hadn’t really been welcomed; instead, we felt like outsiders.

The FAC boasts the Bezanson Recital Hall and the main Concert Hall, which seats 2,000 audience members. Knowing this, anyone would be shocked to find out that the annual UMass faculty dance concert has not once been held in the FAC as a featured performance. There are currently 14 music concerts listed under the department of music and dance on the FAC website for this semester alone, but the dance department has never had its own evening on our school’s main stage. This year will be the first that UMass dancers will have that opportunity.

Not only has UMass Dance been excluded from the FAC’s performance space, it’s also pushed to the outskirts of campus, in the Totman Gymnasium. If you’ve ever been to Totman, you know that it’s not exactly the most up-to-date building on campus. Last week, there was a cockroach on the floor of one of our classrooms, which has a cement floor and uneven tables and chairs rather than desks. There are no windows, and the classroom has one small, rolling whiteboard and a bookcase ready to tip at a sideways glance.

The dance office is one room with an administration desk and rows of cubicles for our professors, who joke that their “doors are always open.” While we’re fortunate to have the vinyl Marley floors that dancers need, barres for ballet class and a studio space that can double as a stage. This studio space is in a former basketball gym, and the side that has not been transformed still resembles a high school field house.

The department of music and dance is included in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. HFA’s main building, South College, underwent a $65 million renovation that ended in January 2017, but the department does not have space in this building. It seems a little odd to me that during this huge endeavor no one thought to include some new dance studios.

In our society, we are saturated with music. It’s in TV commercials, grocery stores, malls and parties. We are exposed to it without trying. Dance, in contrast, is largely a live experience. You can’t get the same effect from watching a taped piece that you would from going to the theatre. With music, you can pop in some headphones and take it with you everywhere. This is a wonderful thing, but perhaps it’s the fact that dance does not have this same level of availability that makes it fall secondary to music in the art world. But the world needs dance right now. It provides an escape from reality, it forces us to think and it makes the world a more beautiful place.

Music and dance will always go hand in hand – one can’t exist without the other. So if the UMass department of music and dance is going to boast about its reputation for excellence and great resources, it needs to include the dance department and give it equal access to performance opportunities and facilities.

Dance is music, made tangible.

Hannah Lieberman is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]