UNL dancers find roots to modern dance

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By Amanda Woita, News Net Nebraska

In a line, dance students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln swayed their upper bodies in circles, letting their chest lead them. The dancers continued to reach toward the ground with their arms before gracefully lifting them up to the sky, almost like a breath.

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These exercises were part of a dance class held by The Isadora Duncan Dance Company. The company was in Lincoln to participate in the Interdisciplinary Arts Symposium sponsored by the Hixon-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts.

This year’s theme is the Ancient World Through Modern Eyes.

In addition to Thursday’s dance class, Lori Belilove, the artistic director of the dance company, held a lecture on Tuesday to give a brief history of Isadora Duncan. And on Wednesday evening, Belilove and her dancers performed at the Lied Center.

In her lecture, Belilove, who is also a scholar on Duncan’s life, said Duncan is the mother of modern dance. She was the first person to break away from the typical ballet style and dress in the Victorian era.

“She had a vision of dance,” Belilove said. “She dreamed a different dance.”

According to Belilove, Duncan didn’t like the restrictions of ballet. It was too rigid. Belilove said that Duncan didn’t like when her dance masters poked her legs and arms with sticks to get them in the proper position.

Duncan’s style of dance is more free-spirited, according to Belilove. She added that Duncan took her inspiration from nature and the movements implied in Ancient Greek sculpture and art.

After their warm up, the dancers from the dance company, dressed in Duncan-style tunics, led the UNL dancers in the basic moves of the Duncan technique. As opposed to ballet, where the limbs move but the torso stays straight, this style of modern dance is lead by the solar plexus, or chest. Belilove said the idea of Duncan’s form of modern dance is one movement leading into another, and that movement is born from the lift of one’s breath. This makes their movements more fluid.

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The dancers ran lightly across the dance floor on their toes. While their bodies moved forward, their faces looked back and their trailing arms swept in an arch above their head, like they were beckoning the dancers following them. Their goal was to make their sweeping gesture last the length of the dance floor.

“I loved it,” said Toni Longoria, a senior dance major. “It was different from other modern classes.”

While UNL’s dance program is mostly based on modern dancing, there is no class that teaches Duncan’s technique. Noelle Bohaty, a lecturer of dance at UNL, said students learn about Duncan through dance history classes, but there are so few people who practice this style of dance and even fewer can teach it.

In fact, Belilove has a direct dance lineage to Isadora Duncan. Because Duncan refused to be recorded on video, the only way for Belilove to learn her technique was through dancers who learned the moves from Duncan herself, Belilove said in her lecture.

James Aunkst, a senior dance major, saw the dance company perform at the Lied center and decided to come to Thursday’s class.

“The performance was an inspiration,” Aunkst said. “It’s nice to get back to the roots of modern dance.”

After the first exercises, the dancers worked in pairs. They would run toward each other, grab hands, run forward and spin before drifting apart. Cherlyn Smith, the associate artistic director of The Isadora Dance Company, led the class and emphasized the importance of eye contact in partner dancing.

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“Never hold hands with someone who refuses to look you in the eyes,” Smith said to the dancers.

Even though modern dance does not hold the same stigma as it did in the early 1900’s, Amy Ossian, the associate director of the Interdisciplinary Arts Symposium, said that it’s important to see where we were and where we’re going. Plus, she added that the work Belilove and her dance company do fit the theme for this year’s symposium.

“It was a perfect fit for us,” Ossian said.

Belilove said Duncan faced many challenges when she first started her own dance form. She danced to classical musicians like Beethoven, Bach and Chopin. And this upset many people – that music was for listening only. Plus, her style of dressing in tunics, which revealed her true shape, pushed against the standards of a small waist and large hips of the Victorian era.  Her abstract idea of dancing made others think she was loony, according to Belilove.

In her lecture, Belilove quoted Duncan as saying her dance was the “form of woman in her greatest and purest expression.”

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