UW dance pivots toward a more accessible, diverse curriculum

Read the full article by Marci Sillman on Crosscut. Start reading below…

The department is deprioritizing Eurocentric dance forms and opening courses to a wider array of students — no experience necessary.

It’s easy to overlook the University of Washington dance department. Unlike the UW’s music, drama and fine arts programs — each with its own impressive stand-alone building — dance is tucked away on the second floor of the small annex behind Meany Hall for the Performing Arts. If you didn’t know it was there, you might walk past the unassuming sign directing you up the stairs.

And compared to the other arts programs, the dance department is small, with only five full-time teaching faculty and approximately 70 undergraduate students. Despite its size, the program is in the vanguard of a national movement to open academia’s ivory towers to both a broader range of coursework and a wider diversity of students. 

Starting this past fall quarter, UW’s dance department is offering a revamped list of course offerings and a new set of requirements for aspiring dance majors — one that deprioritizes Western and European dance forms. The department also has opened its doors to any undergraduate who wants to learn how to dance, no experience necessary. 

That’s rare in an arena where credentials are king, and in an era when STEM programming is often prioritized over liberal arts initiatives.

“I think the thing we’ve done that’s really different is bring in this idea that anyone can be a dance major,” says Associate Professor Rachael Lincoln, one of the departmental forces behind the overhaul. “We want the kid who grew up dancing with his mom in the kitchen, we want the kid who saw a dance show and was blown away.”

A modern collegiate dance program, as Lincoln envisions it, should offer equal space for hip-hop and folk dancers as well as leotard-clad ballerinas.

“I’d like to think we’re leading something, you know, but that could just be me wanting to be proud of our department,” says Sunardi. “Where we’re really being kind of radical is in not insisting on the levels in technique classes, not requiring that students get to a certain level in technique in order to get the BA.”

The dance department’s curriculum update might have seemed radical to campus members outside the program, but some local dancers don’t believe it goes far enough.

Seattle-based choreographer and dance scholar Nia-Amina Minor, who studied at both Stanford and UC-Irvine, acknowledges that changing degree requirements is notable, but sees more room for improvement.

“I think it’s crucial that young dancers are immersed in movement languages that reflect the world we live in. The global majority is not white/European,” Minor wrote in an email. “But how is this shift reflected not just in coursework but also in the culture of the department? Where are the students and teachers whose voices have been historically exploited and underrepresented?”

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