Belhaven College’s Bold Moves in the World of Dance

DANCE FACULTY: (Left to Right) Krista Bower, Cynthia Newland, Emily Wright, Britta Wynne, Caleb Mitchell, Stephen Wynne, Amanda Parsons Browning, Laura Morton, Erin Scheiwe Rockwell, Ravenna Tucker

DANCE FACULTY: (Left to Right) Krista Bower, Cynthia Newland, Emily Wright, Britta Wynne, Caleb Mitchell, Stephen Wynne, Amanda Parsons Browning, Laura Morton, Erin Scheiwe Rockwell, Ravenna Tucker

By the time a dance major graduates from Belhaven College, he or she has averaged 3,000 hours of dancing, spent 1,280 hours with dance faculty, gone through at least 40 pairs of Pointe shoes, and performed in up to 60 major dance performances. Pursuing a dance degree at Belhaven is not something you should try at home. In fact, anyone who knows a Belhaven dancer could tell you that graduating in dance takes the endurance of a long-distance runner, the time management of an event planner, and the determination of a mountain climber.

Even with these challenges—perhaps because of these challenges—dance has become the second largest major at Belhaven, and this just ten short years since the first dance degree was granted. With over 100 dance majors making up 10% of the student body, dance is not just a part-time hobby for these students—it’s a life calling. All of this begs
the question: why do students come from 44 states and 4 foreign countries to study dance
at Belhaven?

For one, Belhaven is the only Christian evangelical college to offer both a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance. That status alone makes Belhaven stand out amidst a sea of secular institutions, but Belhaven’s dancers come for more than just its status of Christian college—they are drawn to the experienced, high caliber faculty, state-of-the-art facilities, and the unapologetically Christian curriculum.

HIGH CALIBER FACULTY

Cynthia Newland, chair of the dance department, took the helm of the program because, “Belhaven takes seriously the call of Christ on the lives
of the students.” In her six years here, the program has more than doubled in size, and last spring she won the prestigious Mississippi Alliance of Arts Education 2009 Higher Education Award for her engagement in the classroom and the community. Newland’s passion
for excellence has also helped the
school obtain coveted accreditation
by the National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD).

Working with Newland are four full-time dance faculty, two specialty instructors, and three adjunct instructors, all representing a wide array of professional experience. In fact, if they were all gathered in one room, their combined dance careers would represent more than 100 years of experience and span nine countries. Their backgrounds include dancing with the prestigious American Ballet Theater (NYC), Joffrey Ballet Company (NYC), Houston Ballet Academy, Pacific Northwest Ballet (Seattle), Pennsylvania Ballet, Milwaukee School of Ballet, the Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet (England), Rotterdam State Academy of Dance (Holland), Tanz-Forum of the Metropolitan Opera House (Germany), The State Theater (Switzerland), Centre De Danse International (France), Stagione Lyrica (Italy), Dance Society (Malaysia), and DC Dance Company (Singapore).

The dance faculty have come to Belhaven for a number of reasons, but their desire to develop the next generation of excellent Christian artists is the common thread that unites them. Stephen Wynne, Associate Professor of Dance, became aware of Belhaven’s vision for the arts when his Philadelphia dance company worked with several Belhaven dance graduates. He says, “I felt that God was nudging me to investigate Belhaven. It took a few years, but I deeply felt I was supposed to offer my insights to help develop a new generation of choreographers who incorporate their faith and art in a way that addresses real life issues in today’s anti-faith culture. It became apparent that Belhaven would be the best place to begin this process.”

Ravenna Tucker, Associate Professor of Dance, was drawn to Belhaven from a successful international career, including seventeen years as a principal dancer for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet companies. She says her desire to work for a “Christian institution” brought her to Belhaven. For some instructors, working with other Christian dance professors at Belhaven is a dream come true. Erin Rockwell, Specialty Instructor of Dance, says, “The chance to work, in collaboration with a united Christian faculty, with a large number of skilled dance students who have a heart for Christ and a passion for dance, is a dream—or calling—come true.”

STATE OF THE ART FACILITIES

In 2006, Belhaven’s growth in the arts demanded more space, and the addition came in the form of the beautiful 42, 756 square-foot Bitsy Irby Visual Arts and Dance Center. Dance classes take place in four spacious, well-lit studios, and performances occur in the flexible dance performance theatre. Faculty offices, lockers, and full bathrooms provide dancers with the amenities they need. This new space has allowed the dance program to further expand and offers some of the best practice and performance space available anywhere.

CHRISTIAN CURRICULUM

“When you are a Christian and you dance in the world, you can’t be lukewarm, watered down, or wavering,” states Caleb Mitchell, Assistant Professor of Dance. Mitchell and the other faculty members build upon the foundation of the Worldview Curriculum, Belhaven’s innovative Christian core curriculum, to offer students a way to stand against the pressures of the secular dance world. Mitchell, who danced with a secular company for nine years, says he and other faculty use their own experiences as Christians in the professional dance world to teach students how to hold to their convictions in the face of adversity. One way they do this in Mitchell’s class is Scripture memory. He says, “The Belhaven staff firmly stands by the hiding the word of Christ in the hearts of their students. So when the students face struggles in their profession, the word of God is easily accessible to help them persevere.”

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Word about Belhaven is getting out, and alumni are perhaps the greatest advocates for the dance program. Over 90% of the dance alumni are working in the field of dance in some capacity—from dancing in a professional company—to teaching—to using arts on the mission field. Katy Hagelin ’08, Keith Williamson ’05, and Elizabeth “Deder” Gordon (plans to graduate in 2010) are all using their gifts for dance in unique ways across the country.

Katy Hagelin, a Seattle native, had at first planned to attend a secular school that the dance world would applaud. When she decided her commitment to the Lord was more important, she was thrilled to find Belhaven, a school that doesn’t compromise standards or its Christian focus. She says, “Belhaven was a place where excellence was the standard—both in dance techniques and in service to the Lord. God has blessed this accredited dance program with amazing faculty and facilities. Through the Belhaven dance department, He has equipped me to enter the secular dance world and make an eternal impact.”

Katy is back in the Seattle area making an impact through freelancing opportunities to teach and choreograph, and she has also started her own non-profit dance company, the Katy Hagelin Dance Project (katyhagelin.com). She says the vision for her dance company was inspired by her time at Belhaven: “I believe I would not be the confident and gifted choreographer and dancer that I am without my life there. I will always continue to strive for even more excellence, because I will always remember what my instructors taught me while I was at Belhaven.”

Keith Williamson, who hails from Clayton, New Jersey, quickly discovered Belhaven when he narrowed down his college criteria to include only an “evangelical school with a dance program.” Belhaven was the only one that he found with a dance major!

Keith is working as a freelance theater technician based out of Atlanta, and he credits Belhaven with giving him a passion for behind-the-scenes technical work. He says, “I went to Belhaven as a performance major and left a technician.” During his freshman and sophomore years, he watched dance performers pour their hearts out on stage without seeing the same efforts take place backstage. It was then that he realized his heart and calling was in setting the stage for each performance to come to life.

Today, Keith is on the Board of Directors for Refuge Dance Company, a small company that he and several friends formed together. As the Technical Director, he says, “When Refuge performs, the only thing the dancers have to worry about is glorifying God with their movements. By allowing them to do that I bring glory to Him—that is how Belhaven has prepared me for today.”

Elizabeth “Deder” Gordon grew up in Shizuoka, Japan and is now living in San Antonio, Texas, where she dances professionally with Ballet San Antonio. She says that her time at Belhaven helped prepare her for the transition from college to career: “The faculty did a tremendous job of maintaining a Christ-centered atmosphere in which nothing we did was separate from our faith. We never stepped out of our Christianity to become dancers. We were always encouraged to first and foremost be Christ-lovers, and to dance, or do whatever we did, on top of this foundation.”

The faculty’s influence and continued friendship still astounds Deder: “What an amazing gift to have teachers with very little obligation other than to teach you to dance who continue to be dear friends and advisers long after their requirement to you has been fulfilled.”

As the dance program continues to expand and more alumni spread the name of Belhaven across the country (and world), the essence of the dance program is still the same: the pursuit of excellence in a Christ-centered environment. Cynthia Newland sums up her hopes for each student in a simple prayer “that each student would hear God’s calling for their lives. Our hope is that each student will be an intentional voice both in the market place and in God’s kingdom.” If the words and lives of Katy, Keith, and Deder are any indication, it appears that the Belhaven Dance department is achieving its goal—creating a new generation of Christian dancers who, as Deder puts it, “never step out of our Christianity
to become dancers.”—MP

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