Dance program poised to be revived at UK

Susan Thiel leads 50 students in an Introduction to Dance class at Barker Hall on the University of Kentucky campus. (c) Herald-Leader photos by Rich Copley.

Susie Thiel stands with her hands on her knees, ­taking a breather after leading 50 ­students through some ancient social dances in her introduction to dance class.

“When you can join hands with a stranger and move together in dance, that’s a powerful thing,” Thiel says to the class at the University of Kentucky. “And that’s what we did today.”

Susie Thiel

Thiel and many people in UK’s College of Fine Arts hope that dance will become a powerful force for enhancing established programs in the college and attracting more students to UK.

It was a little more than a year ago that dance ended at UK. It was a minor in the kinesiology department, but the program closed when longtime teacher Rayma Beale retired in spring 2010.

When the university ­announced UK Core, a new general-studies curriculum required of all students, the theater department’s chairwoman, Nancy Jones, saw a chance to bring dance back into the College of Fine Arts.

“One of the components of the core is arts and creativity,” says Michael Tick, dean of the college. “Funding was available if units proposed courses to be part of the UK Core.”

Jones and Tick say that in the past several decades, dance programs across the country have made moves from education to fine arts colleges.

Dance is studied at many ­universities, including the University of Michigan, where Thiel just earned a master’s degree in the art form, but it is not as prominent as music and drama programs because most people who pursue dance careers go to dance conservatories or join companies, Tick says.

He says that at Louisiana State University, where he chaired the theater department before coming to UK last year, he saw that offering a dance ­minor became attractive to students in and outside of the college of fine arts.

“You would have students who maybe danced when they were younger but didn’t want to major in dance, or their parents wouldn’t let them major in dance, but they wanted to make that part of their studies,” Tick said. “We found dance tipped the scales for a lot of students who were also looking at schools like Alabama and Ole Miss.”

His hope is that UK will see similar results once a dance minor is ­approved. Re-establishing a dance minor is ­awaiting a final OK, but Tick is ­confident it will happen.

Thiel is excited about the opportunity to create a program.

“I was always interested in starting something,” says Thiel, who worked professionally in New York for eight years after earning a bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University.

UK officials were attracted to Thiel because she had taught general education dance classes at the University of Michigan.

Her professional experiences as a director, dancer, teacher and ­choreographer took her from Alaska to Istanbul, Turkey. After eight years, Thiel decided she was ­interested in getting a graduate degree and ­enhancing her background in dance history and philosophy. When Tick and Jones went looking for a lecturer to launch UK’s dance ­program, they called the University of Michigan because of its status as an ­outstanding dance program. They were ­immediately impressed with Thiel because of her scholarship and ­professional experience, and because she was teaching general education dance courses at Michigan.

“She knows the world of dance,” said Jones, who herself has a strong dance and movement background. “With her enthusiasm, energy and ­positive spirit, things have started ­moving very quickly.”

Their hunch that dance would be an attractive UK Core class was ­affirmed when two introduction to dance classes this semester quickly filled with 100 students. In addition to Thiel, ­Lexington native and Broadway veteran Lyndy Franklin Smith is an adjunct faculty member in the program. Thiel also is working with UK Opera Theatre productions, and in the spring ­semester she will choreograph the theater ­department’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Jones says that when the show was scheduled, they didn’t know Thiel would be on board, “but it turned out to be a happy coincidence.”

Dance will be highlighted in a ­concert in January, featuring UK students performing choreography by Thiel, Smith and visiting artist Blake Pearson.

Thiel also plans to work in the Lexington dance community, having scheduled a pair of master classes with Contemporary Dance Collective director Stephanie Harris on Sept. 17 and 24.

Jones and Thiel can’t help but imagine a day when dance becomes a major at the commonwealth’s flagship university. For now, though, they are taking dance at UK one step at a time.

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