Maura Keefe Invigorates Dance History and Theory at Jacob’s Pillow and University of Maryland

Keefe leading a graduate seminar at SUNY Brockport. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Keefe

Most of Maura Keefe's students enter her dance history class with trepidation and the expectation that it will be boring. But for the associate director of the School of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies at University of Maryland, that's a welcome challenge. "I'm so passionate about it, so I want them to become interested in something," she says. To help students figure out what that something is, she lets them research and write about whatever dance topic they want. "I don't care what they write about, because I'm interested in all of it," she says.

Keefe's passion is a special gift that has enabled her to build a remarkable career as a dance historian. Through her classes at University of Maryland and work as scholar-in-residence at the renowned Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, Keefe demonstrates how critical discourse and knowledge of history are key components of dance advocacy.

The Road Less Traveled

Dance history wasn't something Keefe initially considered as a career path. After earning undergraduate degrees in English and dance from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, she worked as a political organizer. But she missed the dance world, so she went back to school at Smith College for an MFA in choreography and performance.

It was a card tacked to a library bulletin board, requesting oral histories from people dying of AIDS, that first sparked her interest in studying history. “I think I had always thought of history as something in the past," she says. “This call to history had a sense of urgency that I had not felt until that moment. The realization that history was also the present—the idea of documenting what was going on right now—was fascinating."

That inspiration led her to the University of California, Riverside, where she earned a PhD in dance history and theory in 2001. She landed a job as assistant professor at Ohio University in Athens right out of school. She taught there for four years before moving to Rochester to teach at SUNY Brockport, where she taught for 11 years, including two stints as dance department chair. Today, at University of Maryland, she teaches choreography, dance history and critical dance studies to undergraduate and graduate students, and she choreographs for department concerts. And every summer, she serves as Jacob's Pillow's scholar-in-residence.

Inside Her Classroom

Rather than teaching facts and figures, Keefe focuses on the historical context and cultural, social and political implications of dance works. “Any person with a smartphone can figure out what year Martha Graham made Lamentation," she says. “To help them understand that Lamentation was set within the context of the 1930s and what was going on at that time is much more important to me than the date of the premiere."

Keefe helps students understand the significance of early artists by making connections to current work and pop culture. "I have found that people aren't necessarily that interested in the 1930s. They'd much rather think about Beyoncé," she says. "In an undergraduate dance history class, I'd pair a dance by Ruth St. Denis with a dance that was made today."

She also resists the urge to include movement activities in her syllabus, which is now common in many college dance history courses. Instead, she takes an approach more aligned with the study of art history. “In most art history classes, you don't sit down and learn how to be a painter," she says. “You can look at the work of artists and understand the content, the culture of when it was made and the politics behind it, without having to have an embodied experience." Her method is deeply rooted in her desire to advocate for dance as a serious academic pursuit. “Dance at the university has been less respected because of a lack of understanding regarding the intelligence of the moving body," says Keefe. “So it's kind of a political agenda for me that if you take my dance history class, it's going to be a discussion-based seminar." Over the course of a semester, students become confident verbalizing their ideas.

During a PillowTalk with choreographer Camille A. Brown. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Keefe

At Jacob's Pillow

Keefe began working as scholar-in-residence at Jacob's Pillow in 1997 while working on her PhD. The position was newly created as part of a three-year pilot program to improve audience engagement. Nineteen years later, Keefe still spends 10 weeks each summer in Becket as one of two scholars, educating audiences about the Pillow's programming. She writes program essays called Pillow Notes, gives pre-performance lectures for each show, moderates postperformance discussions (which later get uploaded to YouTube) and conducts PillowTalks with the artists.

Her role is to help audience members better understand the work they're seeing at the Pillow. “How can we help them have a point of entry into the work?" asks Keefe. “There's no one right way to do it. It's about what things I think are important or useful to talk about. Sometimes it's a few things to look for in the movement or maybe something about the religious practices that led to this stylized form. I'm never interested in talking about, 'This is what this dance means to me.' Who cares about that?" Over the years, she's researched and interviewed hundreds of significant artists, including Yvonne Rainer, Lucy Guerin and Mark Morris.

For Keefe, history and theory are an essential part of dance advocacy. “Thinking critically about what we do is essential to our work as artists and writers—in every aspect of the field," she says. “That's why dance history is important. We have to be able to articulate why what we do matters."

Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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