Raising the Barre: Princeton’s Program in Dance

May 28th, 2013 / Advancement

danceOne sunny day in 1970, accompanied by conga drums and a rock and roll band, Princeton’s first dance students presented their inaugural performance. They called it “To Dance Is to Live!”

Today, somewhere on campus, a Princeton student will reaffirm those words -- en pointe or in a backspin, in a choreography class or a tap-dance troupe.

Dance entered the curriculum when women undergraduates entered Princeton in 1969. Ze’eva Cohen, professor of dance emeritus and the dance program’s founder, wrote in an online essay in 2010 that “dance was one of the ‘special needs’ anticipated by the administration for the incoming women, along with shorter beds, kitchen facilities, and secure locks on dormitory doors.” Even so, she wrote, 50 of her first 60 students were men.

Cohen introduced her students to the theory and practice of modern dance, a comprehensive approach well suited to what she called their “hunger for physical expression in an artistic context.” She was adamant that dance was for everyone, and four decades later, the dance program she built still attracts young men and women from an array of disciplines -- including architecture, engineering, physics, and psychology -- who bring, or discover, their “hunger” for dance.

A Major Leap for the Arts

DanceDance joined the academic Program in Theater and Dance in 1975. After a long and creative partnership, the Program in Dance became an independent, certificate-granting program in 2009, and is now led by dancer, choreographer, and MacArthur Foundation “genius” award winner Susan Marshall.

With the creation of the Lewis Center for the Arts in 2007 and concurrent implementation of a campus-wide arts initiative, the dance faculty has expanded, courses have multiplied, and student enrollment has dramatically increased. But one element has not changed: at Princeton, dance is for everyone -- a springboard to creativity for aspiring professionals as well as students who just love to dance.

  • Today students can choose from among 15 courses in classical and contemporary ballet, world dance, choreography, dance history, and performance, and from among more than 20 extracurricular dance groups for classical, contemporary, folk, hip-hop, and experimental dance.
  • All students, not just dance concentrators, learn from professional artists, including some of the most prominent dancers and choreographers in the world -- such as Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Lunkina; former New York Ballet principal dancer Robert La Fosse; Tony Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones; and choreographer William Forsythe, whose many accolades include the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement.
  • Engineering Professor Naomi Leonard’s research on the ways animals move together in groups inspired Susan Marshall to replicate these patterns of movement using dancers. Their collaboration became Flock Logic, in which a crowd of students, professional dancers, and members of the campus community swirled around the atrium of the Carl Icahn Laboratory, mimicking the complex patterns of a school of fish or flock of birds. The performance looked choreographed but was guided by natural rules of collective motion. For Leonard, the Edwin S. Wilsey Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, it embodied her theory on the ways in which individuals in a group sense and respond to each other.

Flock Logic

  • Dancers have enlivened exhibitions in the Princeton University Art Museum. Ballet dancers recreated an opera-ballet that premiered at Versailles in 1721 against a backdrop of gilt-framed European paintings in the museum’s main gallery; their stage set included two masterpieces commissioned by King Louis XV. The friendship between two great contemporary artists was illustrated by dancers performing excerpts from the works of choreographer Merce Cunningham for an exhibition of prints and drawings by Robert Rauschenberg.

Dance in Art Museum

  • While some students come to Princeton as accomplished dancers, others discover a passion for dance after they arrive. Silas Riener ’06 took his first dance class as a freshman, landed lead roles in campus productions, and went on to join the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He is now “one of the superlative performers of our day,” according to the New York Times. In 2013 he came full circle, returning to Princeton as a guest lecturer in the dance program.

A New Home for Dance

As dance has grown and evolved at Princeton, so have its performance spaces. At the first formal dance performance in 1970, Poe Field served as a stage; over time, dancers found other venues around campus. Since 1986, the Patricia and Ward Hagan ’48 Dance Studio has provided a fully equipped studio and showcase for teaching, rehearsals, and guest artist workshops. Today, dance events are so popular that the Hagan Studio can’t always accommodate the crowds, and latecomers have to sit on the floor.

A solution is in sight -- the University has broken ground for an arts complex that will provide new dance studios and a professional dance theater, as well as facilities for the departments of music and theater and offices for the Lewis Center for the Arts. When the buildings are completed in 2017, Princeton’s dancers -- faculty and student, academic and extracurricular -- will have inspiring new venues for their explorations of the art of motion.

Visit the Program in Dance for more information. To learn more about the arts complex, visit the University’s Arts and Transit Project.