Sam Houston State University
Cindy Gratz grew up immersed in both academia and ethnic dance. While her father was teaching at the University of Hawaii, Gratz followed her mother off to hula classes, studying with master teacher Kumu Hula Nona Beamer. Her mother, Sara Carpenter, an emeritus faculty member of Southern Illinois University/Edwardsville and a Mexican-American, also immersed her in folklórico. “My mother was teaching world dance when it was not cool,” she says. When the family moved back to the mainland, Gratz’s mother took her to Katherine Dunham’s class in East St. Louis. “I went kicking and screaming,” remembers the Texas native. “I wanted to do tap, jazz and ballet like every other kid.”
Fortunately, Gratz was not like every other kid. “At 10, I told people that I wanted to go to UCLA, then NYU and then teach at a university in Texas,” she says. “Except for a short stint in the circus, that’s pretty much exactly what I did.” (Gratz rode elephants for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in 1977. “You have to have something to tell your grandchildren,” she says.) Now, as a professor at Sam Houston State University, she takes a broad approach to teaching dance, considering context, historical roots and multiple influences.
When she arrived at SHSU in 1991, she brought her world dance experience right into the curriculum. “They had a class that combined folk and social dances, which was a start,” says Gratz, who expanded the program to include several world dance forms. “You cannot learn the dance without learning the culture. So if we are learning the Cotton-Eyed Joe, a Texas form, we have to address the polka rhythms and Native American lineage of the dance.” She continually adds new forms, from Tahitian to Bharatanatyam, depending on the ever-shifting interests and backgrounds of the student body.
“There is no one form of dance that is better than another; we honor all forms here,” says Gratz’s boss, Jennifer Pontius, associate professor and dance coordinator. “Cindy has been a large part of that effort with the work she has brought here in world dance.”
A car accident in 2006 left Gratz with a spinal cord injury and limited movement in her arms. After two years of rehabilitation, two new hips and a new knee, she’s nearly back to full capacity. “I am like the bionic, metallic woman,” she says. “Hula was really helpful in getting my range back.”
In addition to her role at SHSU, Gratz continues to develop her own choreography, often based in social issues. She also works with older adults in Prime Time, a component of her company, Texas World Dance Company, which has been going strong since 1988.
Supervising MFA students’ thesis projects is part of her job at SHSU. “Helping students manifest their ideas is so fulfilling,” she says. She’s also a stickler for editing and requires that composition students cut a 30-minute dance down to three minutes, while maintaining the essence of the dance. “They learn a lot about filler, and honesty,” she says. “She has a gift for making students find their place in dance,” says Pontius. “We are not all going to be in a dance company. She opens doors to other possibilities in dance or in themselves.”
“When I hear students coming out of a dance class saying, ‘Wow, what a great teacher,’ I smile,” Gratz says. “But when they come out of a studio saying, ‘Wow, what a great class,’ I am delighted. This is what I strive to do, provide good classes with focus on the topic, enhanced by humor and memorable anecdotes. The credit should go to the subject. I am just the messenger.”
Photo by Julian Grandberry, courtesy of Cindy Gratz