Forever Young

Under visionary artistic director Jodi Maxfield, the Brigham Young University dance team opens doors for career-minded dancers.

Director Jodi Maxfield with Brigham Young University dance team the Cougarettes

When Jodi Maxfield first took the field alongside her fellow Brigham Young University Cougarettes in the late 1970s, their style exemplified that of many dance teams during the era. (Think drill team meets vintage Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.) “Lots of jump splits, and military style was really big. Our routines weren’t very technical, but were instead comprised of lots of kicks and simple dance moves,” says Maxfield. “The program was in its infancy compared to where it is right now.”

That may very well be an understatement, judging by the team’s accomplishments in the last 30 years. Under Maxfield’s direction, the Cougarettes have taken home no less than 10 coveted National Dance Alliance National Champion titles and a slew of other top-five berths at the same competition. Along with perennial powers like University of Minnesota and University of Memphis, the BYU Cougarettes have played a pivotal role in bringing artistry and legitimacy to the collegiate dance team world. Fluency in jazz, contemporary, lyrical, Broadway, hip hop, tap and even pointe is not uncommon for these versatile dancers, who receive college credit for their participation.

“We try to be really proficient in all styles of dance,” says Maxfield. “I don’t think we’re a traditional pom school.”

Born to Lead

Like many longtime dance educators, Maxfield believes teaching is in her blood. “I knew I wanted to be a dance teacher when I was a little girl,” Maxfield says. “I’d spend hours in my basement teaching dance to pretend students.”

Utah born and bred, Maxfield trained at two different studios throughout her childhood. It was basically a no-brainer that she would go on to dance in college, yet she couldn’t have anticipated that her stint with the BYU Cougarettes would become much bigger than she’d dreamed. “During that time, our coach was going through some difficulties, so I ended up directing, choreographing and running the team for a couple years,” she says. “I credit that experience with preparing me for where I am right now.”

After getting married just before her senior year, Maxfield took a paid position coaching the drill team at her alma mater, Hillcrest High School, in Midvale, UT. During this time, she began to hone her signature style, eschewing the simple choreography then preferred by the BYU Cougarettes for more technically challenging fare. After seven years at Hillcrest, she opened a dance studio with fellow former Cougarette Lausanne Jensen.

In 1991, Maxfield was tapped to interview for her current job with the Cougarettes, a prospect that would have been promising if she and her husband hadn’t planned to move more than an hour away from the school. “We’d barely begun building our home,” she says. “I wasn’t sure if I could do the commute. I decided I would do it for a year, and here I am 22 years later.”

The Cougarettes in performance

Art or Athletics?

While dance teams at some schools serve as decoration or strictly as spirit boosters, the Cougarettes are the polar opposite. For the first 18 years of Maxfield’s tenure as artistic director, the team was part of the university dance department, which translated into class credit for team members and an annual large-scale concert. “I loved being in the dance department because I felt strongly that they were true dancers who were credible and deserved to be there,” says Maxfield.

Four years ago, the dance department was absorbed into the school’s fine arts division, and the Cougarettes became part of athletics. Maxfield took on a bigger role as spirit coordinator, overseeing the cheerleading squad and mascot program, as well as the dance team. “It was a unique situation because we were in the dance department, but almost everything we did was in support of our athletics department,” she says. “Now, with me overseeing everything, it’s a more cohesive unit.”

One of her conditions for the move was that the Cougarettes maintain their identity as dancers. That meant continuing their traditional annual concert, the driving force behind the program. Held every February, the concert features 16 to 18 numbers (often choreographed by visiting artists like Nappytabs or Justin Giles). The team then culls the best from its concert to put together a competition routine for NDA Nationals in April.

Visiting artist Jaci Royal has choreographed two Cougarette concert numbers. She was struck by the discipline and drive that Maxfield has instilled. “It’s a completely professional atmosphere. The dancers are very focused and their work ethic is amazing,” she says. “Jodi is an excellent leader and you can tell how much the girls respect her.”

Team practices double as classes for the dancers and are held every weekday for a total of 12 hours per week. Maxfield starts with a 20-minute warm-up and then moves into technique drills and choreography review. “We work on everything from our homecoming variety show to football sidelines and basketball timeouts,” she says. “Some days are set aside exclusively to work on numbers for our concert.” Dancers are encouraged to supplement this with additional classes in ballet, modern and jazz through the university or at prestigious nearby studios, like The Dance Club and Center Stage Performing Arts Studio.

Maxfield herself often puts in a 12- to 15-hour day. “And then when you add a game to that…” she says, pausing. “I never anticipated how time-consuming it would be.” The week of this interview, for instance, she had traveled with the team to San Jose State, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame. “I feel very grateful that BYU has had the confidence in me to allow me to take the team where I’ve dreamed.”

A Winning Tradition

A big part of the Cougarettes’ rise to national prominence has been its consistent domination at NDA Nationals. The team has won 10 total championship titles between the overall and hip-hop divisions. It’s been a challenge for Maxfield, who says the clean, crisp choreography favored by the Universal Dance Association actually more closely resembles her team’s style, but that logistics dictate their participation in NDA. “Part of our religion as Mormons is that we don’t participate in things on Sunday, and NDA is the only competition that isn’t held on Sunday,” she says.

Conforming to NDA’s format has also been a tall order. Each routine must contain three 30-second sections of jazz, pom and hip hop. “We’re not a pom squad,” says Maxfield, “so we’ve had to adapt in order to come up with something that reads favorably to the judges.”

Jodi Maxfield in rehearsal with the Cougarettes

Last year, she took the Cougarettes to the New Prague Dance Festival, where they won Grand Prix Overall along with “Most Friendly” kudos. “It was the trip of a lifetime going abroad to compete and having that cultural experience,” says Maxfield, noting that it was support from the athletic department that made such a trip possible. “It never would have happened if we were still in the dance department.”

The team’s accomplishments and stringent standards are evident in its alumni, who’ve gone on to join the Rockettes and NFL/NBA dance teams, dance on Broadway and assist major choreographers, including Justin Giles and Nappytabs. “It can work in such a positive way for them, especially if they want to go into teaching,” Maxfield says. “Not only does it give you a really broad dance perspective, but here in Utah, drill team is really big. So many girls come back and tell me it has helped them secure a job.” Of course, the dance team pedigree isn’t beneficial 100 percent of the time—some former Cougarettes have come close to making the Top 20 of “So You Think You Can Dance,” but were told they were “too clean, too polished” for the show’s raw contemporary style.

No matter what her dancers go on to do, Maxfield knows they will make their mark. “I love dance team and everything it teaches them,” she says proudly. “Success is in their blood. I never have to encourage my dancers to go above and beyond. They want to be challenged, and as a coach and choreographer, that’s the dream.” DT

Jen Jones Donatelli recently tried out for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. She contributes regularly to Dance Teacher.

Photos of  Jodi Maxfield by Amber Bauerle of Frosted Productions; performance photo courtesy BYU

 

Studio Owners
Megan McCluskey, courtesy Lown

Door-to-door costume delivery. Renting a movie screen to screen your virtual showcase as a drive-in in your parking lot. Giving every dancer the chance to have a private, red-carpet experience, even if it means sanitizing your studio 20-plus times in one day.

While these ideas may have sounded inconceivable a year ago, they are just some of the ways studio owners got creative with their end-of-year recitals in 2020.

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Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

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