It has taken a village to bring dance back to the University of Arkansas. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it started with one dedicated dancer -- and the support of University Theatre.
Since joining the UA faculty in 2018, Michelle Marie LeBlanc has been the only one teaching dance at the UA. But "due to the increase in student enrollment this year, the Department of Theatre was able to add two additional instructors to cover dance technique and dance appreciation courses," she explains. "Currently, there is no dance program at the UA, but we are working towards adding a dance minor. The dance courses are offered through the Department of Theatre, and they have been staunch supporters of the growth of dance at UA."
"Over the past five years, the interest and growth in dance has been incredible," Theatre Department Chairman Michael Riha added in a conversation about the theater season. "We have doubled the number of seats in dance courses and hope to continue exploring ways to provide dance opportunities for the students here at the UA."
The dance concerts set for Dec. 2-4 will be the first on campus in more than 30 years, Riha says, and according to LeBlanc, they benefit not just the dancers.
"One of the most amazing outcomes is the new opportunities this is providing for our theater students," LeBlanc says. "Students interested in lighting design have had to travel out of town in order to light a dance concert. Now there is an opportunity right here on campus. Costume design students have not had the ability to design costumes for dance and now, they can! A current theater student, Jade Randall, under the guidance of theater faculty member Joe Millett, will be stage managing, and costume design student Mercy Embree, under the guidance of associate professor Helene Siebrits, is serving as the costume designer.
"I hope that people come out and get to see the art of concert dance with artists creating lighting, choreography, music, and costuming to highlight the story the dancers tell!"
LeBlanc says she can't remember a time when she wasn't dancing.
"I come from a loud, rambunctious Cajun family, and some of my earliest memories are of dancing in the kitchen while my grandmother cooked," she says. "I am the shyest of the family and often got tripped up on my words, but [I] found early on that many things I was trying to express flowed out of me when I danced."
A first-generation college student, LeBlanc got a scholarship to Louisiana State University -- which did not have a dance program.
"I gave up my dream and majored in English education," she picks up the story. "After I graduated, I began teaching and started showing symptoms of depression. I found my way back to a dance studio, took a couple of years to retrain, left teaching, and began a professional dance career. I was in a regional pick-up jazz dance company and toured Egypt and Europe with the USO. It was thrilling.
"Being admitted to NYU to further my education in dance was a dream come true. It changed my life and expanded my view of dance in so many ways."
LeBlanc moved to Fayetteville before her studies at New York University and returned afterward.
"I come across so many students here at the UA who have had to stop dancing because of the lack of options on campus," she says. "I see myself in them and recognize the sadness. ... I think I got tired of waiting for dance to be recognized and decided I'd just do it myself."
LeBlanc created a registered student organization and says close to 100 students showed interest.
"Because of the lack of space -- there are no dance studios specifically dedicated to dance on the UA campus -- it was hard to keep up with offering classes and finding space," she continues. "This fall, space in the Global Theater became available and, with the Department of Theatre's support, the RSO decided to open auditions for a company of dancers. Thirty-five students showed up, and we now have a strong company of 14 trained dancers. We have been rehearsing in Global Theater since September! The Movement company is now becoming a departmental organization, and we are hopeful that dedicated space and possibly a degree will be in our future."
For their groundbreaking concerts, LeBlanc solicited the work of four choreographers.
"Frank Vega was brought in from Houston to set an '80s jazz piece; Lyle Oberman, a New Yorker who has relocated to our area, set a dream-based contemporary piece; Stephanie Thibeault, who was the head of the ULAR dance program (which is in its last year of existence) came up from Little Rock to set a beautiful nostalgic piece to country and bluegrass music; and I set a piece about the weight of grief," she elaborates. "In addition, we have invited students from Arkansas Arts Academy to bring one piece; a local Butoh teacher, Lela Besom, is setting a Butoh piece; and Karen Castleman, who is currently teaching at the UA, set a piece on both the beginning modern and ballet classes.
"We hope many people will come out to see the fine work of these dance artists. We guarantee it will be worth your while!"
An Evening of Dance’
WHEN — 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2-3 and 2 p.m. Dec. 4
WHERE — University Theatre on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville
COST — $5-$20
INFO — uark.universitytickets.com