Oh, you can get a dance major at George Mason?
April 29, 2019
“There is definitely a strong relationship between dance and beauty,” I said to myself, looking at all the beautiful dancers, young and old, when I attended the 2019 Mason Dance Company Gala Concert on March 30. It even made me feel that everyone should enroll in a dance class to enhance their own beauty instead of using artificial beauty products. Not only does dance sculpt our bodies, it also sharpens our senses.
What I found really interesting was that the organizers were thoughtful about helping the attendees absorb the meaning and the art behind the dances through an event called The Mason Dance Fête, held two hours prior to the concert. It included a series of student-led presentations and a Q&A session with one of the masterful choreographers. As you attend the presentations and mingle with faculty, students and supporters while enjoying hors d'oeuvres, you become better prepared mentally to fully engage with the performances. Isn’t that brilliant?
On my way to the concert I learned that GMU’s School of Dance is very selective accepting only 20 students. You will hear more about this as you read further and meet School of Dance Director Susan Shields, but first let us attend the Gala.
The Gala included the works of three world-renowned choreographers: “Na Floresta,” (1990) by internationally recognized Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, “Dance 1” from “Dance” (1979) by American postmodern dancer, choreographer and actress Lucinda Child and “Kosmos” (2014) by Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadaski. One word best describes the night: unforgettable. I can still see the dancers from “Dance 1” in my head, ethereal in their white costumes, moving minimally in the same patterns again and again. Just like snowflakes, they disappear as quickly as they appear, making you ask, “Why?”
Finally, at the end of the night, I introduced myself to School of Dance Director Susan Shields and asked her for a photo in her simple, cheerful yellow dress that was a statement in itself, capturing the excitement of the night. We could not talk in depth at that moment, so we had this conversation a few days later over the phone:
So, the first thing I want to know is, why does dance matter?
Shields: Oh man! You start with the biggest question of all!
Shields: Wow, OK. That’s a very profound question. And believe me, I've done a good deal of soul searching to find that answer … I used to, sometimes in my early career, feel like it's a selfish thing to do, and I've changed my opinion on that 100 percent. I think to focus so hard on your instrument, your body, and then to share all of your emotional life and all of your dance talent with an audience and have them have a kinesthetic response, I think that's a gift for people, and they need it. They need it really, really badly. It's something that, well, certainly in my life, is non-negotiable.
How did your interest in dance start?
Shields: Well, I think I was like every little girl. I went to ballet class. And then, when you're one of those students who ... you do get prodded along a little bit when they recognize some dance talent in you, but then, when you hit your teenage years, dancing becomes something different. And you realize that your body is the lens with which you experience the world. And by that I mean you start having an emotional life.
You start growing up and having life experiences. And you process them through your instrument, through your body. And it can be therapeutic, it can be healing, it can be enlivening. And I think as a young person, as a sensitive kind of, almost... I think we're like poets, but we don't use words, we use our body, and I think it's a way of being in the world.
You described yourself as sensitive. Were you shy as a child?
Shields: No, I wasn't shy. As a matter of fact I've always been somewhat of an extrovert, somewhat outgoing. So I wasn't shy. But I'll tell you, honestly I... How can I say this without getting too... I think that there was deep thinking that was going on, and I think sometimes I was perceived as just being a friendly, nice, blonde young lady, you know, and I felt like I had a pretty rich inner life of emotion. It was dancing that let me explore that safely, sensitively and deeply. I ended being a philosophy major. I've always been interested in deep thinking and wasn't always taken as seriously in that way; by sensitive I suppose I mean, always quick to feel things very … you know what I mean.
Yes. I think having a background in philosophy, the first question was perfect for you.
Shields: Thank you. Thank you. And I did a whole lecture on that years ago. And yes, the topic was something like, 'I'm creating another dance, does anybody care?'
Let me ask you about the Mason Dance Company’s 2019 Gala Concert. I learned that it is considered extraordinary that the choreographer attended the performance.
Shields: Yes, and it's a huge honor for us. I can't even express to you, especially some of the choreographers that have joined us... As you know from that evening, Lucinda Child was with with us. I mean, two weekends ago she was being interviewed at the Guggenheim in New York City. She is just a huge part of our dance history. She was not particularly familiar with our program, but had learned through other artists that we were very legitimate and we would honor and take care of her work. And then when I invited her to attend she immediately said yes. She was just thrilled after the show, it was astonishing, and we've had other choreographers too. It's interesting, you know choreographers ... I'm one myself, we like seeing our work. And so sometimes I find that if I simply invite them, they're like, "Yes. Yes, I'll come," especially if we're reviving something that's a bit of an older piece for them. They love to come to see. And then, same with emerging choreographers, they're excited because obviously our Concert Hall is so beautiful and they're seeing it on a big stage. It's something, honestly, I try really hard to make it happen. Because I think, at the School of Dance we don't want to be insular. We want to be relevant. We want to matter to the field of dance, to the art form. And bringing in the choreographers is good for the choreographers, it's good for our students, it's good for our audiences.
I also learned that your program is very selective. Can you tell me more about that?
Shields: That's funny, that's what I was sitting here working on right this second. Yes. So we...luckily, because George Mason is a state school, and so very often things are number driven, we get a lot of students. And we've sort of been granted, they know that we're bringing in such high end students. And part of why we're able to do that is because we're staying small. We have 80 dance majors, and eight full time faculty. We are so in their business, we are so invested in them as mentors, and teachers, it's a bit unheard of. So that we only take 20 per class is kind of amazing. It's enough that was have enough energy in the room, and enough competition. But it's small enough where we are really guiding, and mentoring. Kind of what I was saying to you before earlier, that how these are sensitive people, these are poets, and athletes, and we have to. It's hard to have a life in the arts. It's hard.
Shields: And these young people are looking, their parents don't know how to guide them at a certain point, and they've made this huge decision to come to higher education and study dance. I mean right there, some of them had to go against what their parents had thought was a safer path. And so, once they come to us, we're very selective on how we find them. We look for a lot of specific things. Then when they come to us, we care for them. And that's another thing I think is really very unique about this program, and I think, I hope that shows in the performance. These students, they run deep, they are being worked very, very hard, both physically, emotionally and artistically. Most of our students come from out of state, I'd say. We're, I think, 85 percent out of state. So, these are people coming to Mason, not because they've ever heard of George Mason, like the girls from Montana, and California, but they've heard of the School of Dance. They're coming for the School of Dance.
And almost every student that comes to the School of Dance receives academic money. Dancers are brilliant.
Shields: So yeah, it's neat. We have a neat student body. And I'm working on next year's right now.
So, every year you only choose 20 students graduating from high schools?
Shields: Correct. So, obviously we have our auditions, we audition here several times. We audition in New York. And I travel a bit in the fall as well, going to some of the more prestigious performing arts high schools. But obviously I have to accept more than 20, because not everyone will say yes. As a matter of fact, I lost two to Julliard, and one to NYU this week, which is frustrating me to death. I literally have a list in my hand right now, and I can tell you just every person on there I know. We are, it's kind of like being, like recruiting for a basketball team, or something. It's like I know the good teams across the country, and I know those star juniors. As a matter of fact, I have someone coming next year I met in South Carolina from junior year. It's kind of like that.
Before I ask my last question, I want to know, how do you select the students who perform at the Gala?
Shields: So, that's an excellent question. You're hitting them.
Now, there's plenty of performance opportunity for the students here. So when it comes to the galas, what we do is the stager or the choreographer comes and they select who's going to be performing. So all the students gather; they put on numbers, and they audition. And the faculty doesn't say a word. We don't tell them if they're freshmen, sophomore, junior, seniors. We do nothing.
And we do this on purpose. We do this, one, because it helps us see our students with fresh eyes. I mean there's always a surprise pick, always. And then it also helps us, because we can watch them auditioning. And then we can give them feedback, and say, you know what? You're not auditioning well. Look, this is what's happening. So we can give them that kind of feedback.
And then the real reason though is, you saw it, the big public performance. We're not doing recitals for your mom anymore. These are college aged, they're young professionals; they're on their way. And they have to start learning about the ups, and downs.
And so many times, I'll have a senior back here crying. What did I do wrong? What did I do wrong? And I have to say, no you had a beautiful audition. You just didn't get picked. Period. The end. We have to understand that about this business. And so, we work with them a lot.
And that's some of the mentorship I'm talking about. That's brutal. I had a senior who was in every gala up until this year, and she didn't get chosen for anything her senior year. And she sat, and she clapped for her friends. But let me tell you, she was hurting. I mean, you know. But that's part of what we want them to experience here, is the difficulty of the emotional part of this ride too.
So we definitely play for real with the guest artists. And it generally works out beautifully. Not always fair, but that's our business.
So, what's next?
Shields: I'm interested in getting some funding to let us take, like the show that you saw, and perform it at different universities around the state of Virginia. … We want our dancers out there moving and shaking the dance world. We'd love to get to New York again. We performed in New York before; we'd love to do that again. But I will, so and this is a little cheesy, but I'm going to say it anyway. I really want Fairfax to know what is in their backyard. I can go other places in the country, and they know of the George Mason School of Dance. And I can be in downtown Fairfax, and say that I'm the director of the School of Dance. And they'll say, “Oh you can get a dance major at George Mason?”
And it's funny, because I think sometimes when it's in your own backyard, it never seems national, or sexy, because it's just right there. And I just want Fairfax to be like, “We've got something really good going on here.” This isn't just a student dance recital. You saw; it's fun.