Watching the American College Dance Festival Association change and grow

During her self-critical teenage years, Gerri Houlihan suffered under an unnecessarily mean Russian ballet teacher and felt the effects. “When she layered her negative energy on top of mine,” she says, “I just needed to go home.” Now a professor at Florida State University and a faculty favorite at regional American College Dance Festivals, Houlihan has vowed to make sure her students feel supported in class. “If you fall down and make a mistake,” she says, “I will applaud you for the risk you took.”

The American College Dance Festival Association’s mission of cultivating college dance talent dovetails nicely with Houlihan’s teaching philosophy. Every year, the organization holds three- to five-day festivals in 12 regions, where colleges present student, faculty and guest artist choreography. Exemplary dance pieces are chosen for the end-of-festival gala concert, and the finest of those are chosen for presentation in ACDFA’s biennial national festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. In her time as an adjudicator at various ACDFs, Houlihan has been part of a team of three, giving detailed and constructive feedback to choreographers. Her decade-long connection to ACDFA—now celebrating its 40th anniversary—has given her the unique opportunity to watch the organization evolve.

This year, Houlihan will be an adjudicator at the north-central ACDFA conference, March 14–18, at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

The goal of ACDFA adjudication: “At first there was some confusion about what the adjudicators were really expected to do. Were we putting together a well-balanced program? Now, the objective is to identify the most striking, most creative, most interesting works. And if they happen to be all ballet, they can be all ballet.”

Her own adjudication style: “I go through what I see, so that the choreographers can see their pieces again through my eyes. I often talk about the things that seem particularly strong or provocative—I want to make sure they’re really aware of that. Sometimes the three of us completely disagree, and those are the more interesting conversations. If we all say the same thing, there’s not as much information to be gleaned for the choreographers and the dancers.”

What not to do at an adjudication: “I once adjudicated with Daniel Nagrin [modern dance choreographer and author, now deceased]. He was an incredibly feisty, opinionated, strong-willed man. In a feedback session, he was not happy with this one piece. He said, ‘Who’s the choreographer of that piece? I want to talk to that choreographer!’ I reminded him that we’re not allowed to give feedback to the choreographer specifically. He said he didn’t care. We had to calm him down. That was a tricky one.” DT

 Education: studied at Juilliard under Antony Tudor;BFA, Virginia Commonwealth University; MFA, Hollins University/American Dance Festival

Career: danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company; directed Houlihan and Dancers (1991–1999)

Teaching credits: professor at Florida State University; first adjudicated for American College Dance Festival Association in 2002

Photo by Grant Halverson, courtesy of Gerri Houlihan

Photo by Tim Trumble, courtesy of Arizona State University

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