Dance students make graceful transition to new dance center

by V. Paul

Its soaring structure and leaping lines symbolize the movement of the University dance program: upward, onward and skyward.
To the earthbound dance students doing their own leaping and soaring, the building’s floors symbolize more ease on their knees.
The $4.3 million Barbara Barker Dance Center is the new home for University dance students. This quarter students moved in, filling the three expansive studios, the classrooms and the wide lobby area with their music and movements.
For more than 70 years, dance students pirouetted and demi-pliÇd on the wooden floors of Norris Hall, which also substituted for a basketball court.
They carved their little niches out of the nooks and crannies of that building, sitting, stretching or working on choreography in any free space they could find. Now, some feel spoiled by the clean quarters of the new dance center.
“It was really scary,” said Andrea Zimmerman, a College of Liberal Arts senior and dance minor. “You leave a comfortable place that you’ve lived forever, and then you’re thrown so quickly in this super, grandiose, beautiful building. There’s a lot of pressure to live up to the building. You wonder if you’ll ever be able to do everything the same.”
In some aspects, dancing in the new facilities for these students will never be the same.
The combination wood-foam-vinyl floors in the studios are specifically designed for dance, reducing the jarring impact on dancers’ knees and feet when they jump. The primary studio acts as a 125-seat theater, while the other two studios boast 2,000 square feet for fancy footwork.
“They’re just nice floors, they give a little bit more,” said Jennifer Roehl, a sophomore majoring in dance. “There’s lots of space, the ceilings are high, it’s brighter. It’s nice to have breathing space to move and stretch out — be big, dance big.”
The equipment, floors, white walls and clear windows still bear much of that “brand-new car smell,” intimidating the dance students a little. The empty lobby will soon be filled with furniture so that students will be able to lounge comfortably between classes.
Students worry about leaving marks on the floors and the walls, as if they could tarnish what has been dubbed the “Weisman of the West Bank.”
The growth of the dance program is now reflected in its facilities — from its beginnings as part of the women’s physical education department to its current, nationally recognized standing as a source of talented and creative dancers. The University is one of very few institutions in the United States with a building dedicated to its dance program.
“I came up here (from Mankato) to be in this arts community,” Roehl said. “This building will bring together the people in this arts community, people that just really love dance.”
The dancers’ future in the new building will include rebuilding the sense of personal history they have embedded in Norris Hall, said Diane Aldis, a University dance professor who attended classes 25 years ago at Norris Hall.
The relationships the dancers make with the new building mimic the relationship the dance program hopes to have with the community around it.
“I think the dancers here are extraordinary,” said Stuart Pimsler of the Ohio-based Stuart Pimsler Dance and Theater Company. “The kind of training the students receive here makes for a very diverse, open kind of individual. They’re smart, willing to take risks. They’re enthusiastic and passionate.”
With the new sound and lighting equipment going into the performance theater, dance students will get more training in the production aspects of dance.
“To me, growing in this program has been a lot about students and creativity,” Zimmerman said. “We can now show it with lights and the whole deal. With these tools we can learn more about production because we have the tools here.”
The dance students hosted an open house and gala event to mark the official opening of the building April 30 and May 1. Another open house is scheduled for May 9.