Time to Dance
Dr. Jessica Van Oort will teach a History of Dance sequence beginning in Fall 2013 at St. Gregory’s.
She sits in her office at St. Gregory’s University, her long hair pulled back from her fresh, make-up free face. Although she’s bundled in street clothes, Dr. Jessica Van Oort’s petite frame and ballerina’s posture give her away. She is a dancer, and the studio/classroom that leads to her office is the laboratory where she experiments, designs and, ultimately, contributes to the world by shaping movements to music.
“You know, when it comes to dance and how it affects society, very little has really changed over the years,” she says, smiling. “I was researching dance in 13th century Germany, and I came across these German lyrics where a mother is talking to her daughter saying, ‘Don’t go to the dance, daughter, because if you go there and meet a man and go off with him, bad things could happen.’
“The lyrics imply that if you go to a dance, you’re going to get in trouble. When you think about it, that thought that has stuck around in some circles. At the very least, the general idea that people go to a dance to meet people of the opposite sex and socialize has been around for centuries.”
But if certain notions about dance haven’t changed, dance styles certainly have. Van Oort specializes in identifying and reconstructing these styles. She then shares what she has learned with her students at St. Gregory’s University, where she serves as director of the dance program.
“If you tell the average person you’re going to major in dance, I think they can see that as being limiting,” Van Oort says, “and that isn’t correct. Dance has influenced society since the beginning of time in a number of ways. It’s a much bigger subject than people realize.”
The Spirit and Sole Dance Company performs a variety of dances throughout the year.
The Studio System
Dance history is a passion Van Oort didn’t realize she could have until college. She took her first dance lesson at the age of 6, and like many young girls in the United States, studied ballet, tap and jazz at her hometown studio.
“I think the reason most people only think of ballet, jazz or tap when they think of dance is because at a lot of those local studios, that’s all kids learn,” Van Oort says. “Sometimes, they’re lucky enough to live in a town that offers Irish dance or ballroom dance, but for the most part, it’s ballet and jazz and maybe a little tap on top of that.”
Of the “big three,” it was ballet that stole Van Oort’s heart and prompted her to consider majoring in dance in college. However, the Wisconsin native also harbored a love for writing and for history, and it took a conversation with her academic counselor before she realized her three interests could be combined.
“I went to my advisor, and she said, ‘Well don’t you know someone has to write books about dance, too,’” Van Oort remembers. “I said, ‘Ohhhh!’ So I ended up being a dance major and took a minor in English.”
She also took a number of history classes.
“When I was a little girl, I used to love to watch those Civil War movies, with the women waltzing in the beautiful dresses,” Van Oort says. “So when it came time to pick a graduate course of study in dance, I was pulled to dance history, so that became my special area of concentration.”
Descriptive narrative and drawings are the only instructions that survive for most early dances.
Van Oort believes students get the most out of the learning experience when classroom work, or theory, is combined with the opportunity to perform.
“Now, that’s not how I was taught dance history,” she says. “It was mostly all book work, but that’s not very exciting. I think students relate better to these historic types of dances if they can actually perform them”
When breaking down styles from the early 20th century onward, Van Oort also takes advantage of available film, allowing students to see the dances performed in the context of their eras. However, older dance styles are often referenced only in descriptive narrative and drawings, which can make learning them tricky.
“In the dance history class I taught last year, the biggest eye opener for my students was when we were studying 16th century French dance,” she says. “We just had this book with very few pictures in it. There were musical staffs laid out on one side of the page, and then words in French laid out next to each note, explaining the kinds of steps that were performed to each beat of the music.”
The descriptions were specific, but far from complete. Van Oort says her students were often challenged by “missing pieces,” the connecting movements that got dancers from point A to point B.
“Eventually, the students found out you have to make a few guesses,” Van Oort says. “How do you get from here to there? Well, they don’t really tell you, so you have to invent something, so they did, and they came up with some really interesting dances.”
That experience is something Van Oort hopes to replicate many times over beginning in Fall 2013 in her new History of Dance sequence. The Fall portion of the sequence will focus on pre-20th century dance, including one of Van Oort’s favorite styles, 17th century Baroque, and the Spring 2014 semester will move on to the 20th and 21st centuries, featuring two more of Van Oort’s special favorites, the 1920s Charleston and the 1930s Lindy Hop.
“I love the precision of Baroque and the more patterned, partnered dances like you would see in a royal court,” she says. “Then, dances like the Charleston and Lindy Hop are so carefree, and they represent some of the first times different dance cultures, like white and African American, merged to form new dance styles.
“You see, there’s that thread that connects dance to what’s going on in society again. It’s really obvious throughout history.”
Ironically, Van Oort sees the many varieties of historic dance as representative of the versatility of today's dance professionals. Gone are the days when dancers only had to focus on one style to make a living. Today’s dancers must be well educated and prepared to handle a wide variety of dance styles.
“No, it’s not just about tap, ballet and jazz,” Van Oort says. “You have to be flexible. You have to be versatile.”
That versatility is achieved thanks to instructors like Van Oort, and programs like St. Gregory’s.
“My hope is that our students are prepared to follow wherever their passion leads them—to performance, to teaching, to research,” she says. “The key is to be well-rounded, and there’s no better area to broaden your ideas about dance—and society—than looking at it from a historic perspective.”
For more information about St. Gregory’s dance program and/or becoming a dance major, click here.