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W&M Dancers Transcend Rhythms and Cultural Boundaries at International Conference

Performing Most people can kick up their heels to the steady beats of hip-hop or techno, but the dancers of "Transcending Rhythms," a piece choreographed by Professor Leah Glenn and originally performed at Orchesis's DANCEVENT in November, 2008, had to adapt to an entirely new style of rhythm. Well, two in fact.

The music of "Transcending Rhythms" combines the polyrhythmic beats of Africa with the steady 2/4 heartbeat of Native American music, requiring that each performer learn the grounded, angular movements of a traditional African dance while incorporating elements of the reserved yet dynamic style of the Native Americans. Envisioning an original, modern dance work that celebrates both cultures, W&M Dance Professor Leah Glenn worked with African percussionist Orimolade Ogunjimi and three members of Youghtanund, a group of Native American singers and musicians, to endow the piece with the "strength, beauty, joy, turmoil, pride, and grace that is communicated through African and Native American dance forms and music."

William & Mary students Jordan Gehley '09, Hannah Goldberg '10, Pamela Keeling '08, Christie Langlois '10, and Camille Mireku '11, who, along with Professor Glenn and Danielle Bradby comprised the cast of "Transcending Rhythms," described the dance as physically and mentally demanding. Not only did the piece require them to embrace new and unfamiliar movement styles, but they also had to focus on telling a story, conveying historical themes while paying homage to the represented cultures.

"The clash of the African musician and the Native American musician" they were on different planes, and when they combined, it was hard to keep up" said Camille Mireku '11. "It's really a stamina-building piece"you're constantly working harder and harder every time you do it."

Performing with live drummers - YoughtanundDespite the rigorous demands of the piece, the cast's hard work paid off; owing to the multicultural aspects of the dance and the high performance quality, "Transcending Rhythms" was selected for presentation last January at the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference. With a grant from the Reves Center for International Studies, Glenn and six of her students were able to travel to Denver over winter break to attend and perform at the IABD conference.

"It's amazing that we made it there," said Glenn. "The IABD does not accept a lot of schools that only have minors, so that it and of itself was a pretty big accomplishment."

Though sharing the stage with professional companies and schools with programs specifically designed to train dancers for the professional world, the W&M performers nevertheless held their own.

"All those other dancers were in school for dance. Being from W&M, we always have to juggle chemistry, history, and other interests that we're trying to pursue" remarked Mireku. Christie Langlois '10 agreed, adding "when the other performers found out that we took two classes a week, they were shocked. I think they were pretty surprised we could actually dance."

While in Denver, the students were able to take master classes, meet professional company members, network with instructors from some of the best BFA Dance programs in the United States, and receive feedback from others in their field.

"We were performing for mostly dancers," said Pamela Keeling '08, "which is a great opportunity because you're getting a different kind of feedback than you would be from people that don't dance. So, it was really helpful for us because they're giving us slightly more technical observations."

Beyond the master classes and the experience of performing with and for the best (i.e. sharing a program and a dressing room with Philadanco) the conference influenced the way the students felt about their future goals.

"I think most of what I took out of the conference isn't dance movements" but the whole experience of being there really changed my perspective on my life as a dancer," said Langlois.

Mireku agreed, stating that the conference made her seriously consider her own potential in dance.

"It just made me tell myself that W&M should not be the last place where I dance. I want to continue on and take what Professor Glenn has brought to us"giving us that opportunity to go somewhere and see what we can do"to just take that and run with it."