Mills College dance program at risk of being downsized

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Jordan Wanderer tossed her long brown hair as she swayed to the beat of clarinet and drum music with her fellow dance students. The sky was grey and dew soaked their shoes as they danced in front of the Student Union at Mills College. Students with large signs that read “Save Art,” “I’m Happiest When I’m Dancing,” and “No Cuts” cheered on the dancers as they approached the steps of the building. Many chanted, “The students united can never be defeated!”

The students were preparing to be a part of an open forum with members of the Mills administration to talk about possible curriculum cuts. The dance major made the list of programs in danger of downsizing. Mills’ dance program is one of the oldest continuously running dance programs in the U.S. and its elimination would mean the loss of a department with historical significance. “I came to Mills so I wouldn’t have to choose between dance and science,” said Wanderer, a third year double major in dance and biology, as her classmates put their arms around one another, preparing to enter the hall on Wednesday. “This proposal is absurd on numerous levels.”

On October 19, Mills president Alecia DeCoudreaux announced in a school-wide email that the American studies major and minor, the book art undergraduate minor and graduate program, and the dance undergraduate major were under consideration to be phased out over the next five years. Other programs, like the African & African Diaspora Studies major and minor and some foreign languages could be downscaled to concentrations or minors only.

These proposals come after administrators at Mills decided there was a need to re-evaluate the current curriculum. “Having a 21st century curriculum for students of the future that is delivered in flexible ways that meet students’ needs requires that we refresh our curriculum and the way we deliver it, and manage our costs as responsibly as possible,” DeCoudreaux wrote in the email.

Though DeCoudreaux was not available for comment, Interim Provost Sharon Washington sent a statement to Oakland North about their considerations. “It is standard for colleges to regularly re-examine their curriculum and Mills is no exception,” Washington wrote in the email. “We are still in the process of collaborating with faculty and students about the best way to build a contemporary liberal arts education with flexible programs and curriculum that will distinguish us as a college and serve our students well into the next century.”

The president’s message came as an unwelcome surprise to many students, especially to those in the dance program. Founded in 1938, the Mills dance program was one of the first of its kind in the U.S. According to the Mills website, the institution was among the first liberal arts colleges to offer a modern dance degree. At the time, most student dancers flocked to New York City to train, but when a modern dance degree was established in the Mills program in 1941, students had the option to get a rigorous dance education on either coast.

The program has gone on to produce notable alumni who have greatly influenced the modern dance scene. Molissa Fenley, an eleven-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Choreography Fellowship and winner of a Bessie Award for Choreography, received her B.A. in dance at Mills in 1975. She is known for physically demanding dance pieces that call for high levels of endurance, and her style has been influential in creating an aesthetic of athletic dance. Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and 1991 MacArthur Foundation “genius” Trisha Brown also got her B.A. in dance at Mills in 1958. She was one of the first modern dance choreographers to use rope and harnesses to portray gravity-defying scenes. She eventually went on to choreograph for classical music and operas, and inspired influential modern dancers like Diane Madden and Stephen Petronio.

“I came to Mills because the dance program is so rigorous,” Wanderer said as she watched her classmates form a circle and clap as the students chanted, “The students united can never be defeated!” “It’s known not for just producing great technical dancers, but great scholarly minds that can influence the dance world and how dance can be viewed.”

Erik Lee, a graduate student in dance, displayed a sticker on his shirt that read “Mills needs dance” as he prepared to enter the forum, where he would later speak. “I found my passion for dance in my undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley and for it to be phased out for Mills students is terrible,” Lee said. “We need dance. We need art in the community. It’s truly what enables us to live a better life.”

So far, unhappy students have created a petition on change.org titled “Save Mills Dance Major” that nearly 4,000 people have signed. The petition asks “Mills College to not simply recognize but actively support dance as a field that enables critical thinking and thoughtful change at the level of embodied practice, through a decision to retain the Dance Department’s Dance Major.”

Students from Mills launched a Tumblr account called “Mills Needs Dance” after DeCoudreaux made her email announcement. It features testimonials, pictures and open letters from students who are against the phasing out of the major. Even concerned alumni have lent their voices to the account. “The Mills Dance Program is a radically inclusive environment that honors the diversity of the human form, and the creative and intellectual potential of all of its students, not just an elite few,” Katie Faulkner, an M.F.A. dance performance and choreography alumnus wrote in an open letter to DeCoudreaux on the Tumblr site. “That the college finds the Dance Program somehow lacking and the major somehow dispensable, despite decades of historic, creative output, and all while simultaneously eroding its funding and resources is a logic I can’t comprehend.” 

Unease among dance students and faculty has only been heightened by recent downsizing at a neighboring college, San Francisco State University. According to an article from November 2014 in the San Francisco Chronicle, the school’s dance program lost studio space due to budgetary changes on the university’s campus after already having been downsized from an entire department to a program.

“It’s always dance in every university that is being put at the backburner,” said Sonya Delwaide, a professor of dance at Mills, as she got ready to join the dancers on the lawn before the forum. “The thought that the major could be taken away has brought the community together in an amazing way. Throughout the United States we have been receiving a really strong statement of support. It’s very touching how important dance is for so many people. People are writing saying, ‘Why is dance always the most vulnerable art form?’”

At the forum, which was attended by Washington, Dean of Students Chicora Martin, and Assistant Provost Chinyere Oparah, dance, book arts and foreign language students expressed many of these concerns. Many raised questions about the allocation of school funds and asked whether certain administrators, including DeCoudreaux, were being overpaid. Some students said that they felt members of the administration should take a pay cut to help pay faculty in programs under consideration for being phased out. “People come to Mills for the accomplished faculty and there should be no cuts in that form,” said Jasmine Marani, Associated Students of Mills College senator-at-large. Marani went on to state that she had “declared a minor in French studies in solidarity” with the language departments that are at risk of being downsized.

Washington declined to comment on the individual salaries of any members of the administration, but said “The majority of the cost of programs come instructional cost, and so the other pieces are about the infrastructure of the college.”

According to Mills’ student-run newspaper, The Campanil, the college’s 990 income tax form from 2012 states that the President has a salary of $401,539 with additional compensation of $100,717.

Bhumi Patel, a graduate student in dance, was open about her dismay that administrators of a liberal arts school would consider phasing out the undergraduate dance major. “Cultivating a 21st Century education includes movement, dance, and all of these things that we do in the dance department,” Patel said, perspiration on her forehead still visible after the collective practice on the lawn. “We’re not just learning how to move our bodies—we’re learning how to communicate, how to work hard, discipline, and how to be affective functioning members of society. What is a society if not with art?”

Though many students are anxious about administrators’ upcoming decision, there is no guarantee that the major will be phased out. Washington says the administration is taking concerns about the programs seriously as they decide which changes will be made to Mills’ courses. They have held open forums over the last two weeks, and the next two forums will take place on November 9 and November 12. There is no set date for a decision yet, as administrators continue collecting feedback from the students and faculty. 

Wednesday’s forum ended with an address from student body president Rachel Patterson. She urged students to continue to ask questions. “The administration does not want to see programs get cut and neither do students, so let’s do something about it,” Patterson said into the microphone as many students began to applaud.

Wanderer and her peers had collected in the corner of the hall and were silently dancing in protest. They spread out the chairs and twisted their bodies slowly, holding each other’s limbs and stretching their arms towards the sky. Their motions were soundless, their actions were fluid, and their facial expressions were serious.

Then they moved out of the hall to make an artistic statement, once again, on the lawn. Lee leapt through the air to the sound of a tambourine as clouds parted in the sky. Patel and Wanderer wrapped themselves around different dance partners, as if exploring one another’s ideas of motion. Other dancer fell to the ground and rose to their feet over and over again. The dancers gathered in a circle and began to hum and move together. The hum quickly broke into a chant: “Mills needs dance!”

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