Though she had always been a mover, Diane Frank had taken few formal dance classes before college. In fact, she entered Ohio University’s theater department in 1966 planning to become a high school drama teacher. While there, though, she took class from Shirley Wimmer, founder of Ohio University’s School of Dance, who saw her potential and encouraged her to explore it. Now a dance lecturer at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Frank understands how watching a student light up in a Cunningham or bharata natyam class, and encouraging the dancer to investigate the spark, can be richly rewarding for both teacher and student.
After earning her BFA in theater, Frank taught a dance class for non-majors at Ohio University. “I was only about half a step ahead of my students,” she says. Craving more dance knowledge, she earned her MA in dance at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, studying with Beverly Schmidt Blossom, a founding member of the Alwin Nikolais Dance Theatre. “I had lots of intention back then but was physically weak,” says Frank. Blossom helped her improve technically but, like Wimmer, never left creativity out of the process, a link Frank weaves into her own teaching. “Focusing on technique alone is like sharpening a pencil but never writing with it,” she says.
MA in hand, Frank was hired to teach at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she was part of a committee that booked visiting artists, including Carolyn Brown, who had just retired from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Brown suggested the university bring in Douglas Dunn next, and Frank was blown away. After Dunn left, Frank asked for a leave of absence. “After meeting Carolyn and Doug, I felt bogus as a teacher,” she says. “I realized I needed to know movement in my bones, rather than as a construct. I needed to learn a deeper body logic from Merce and Doug before I could teach well.”
She was offered a scholarship at the Cunningham Studio in New York and was soon dancing with Dunn’s company. “Both Merce and Doug taught me that class is an investigation,” says Frank. “Whatever Merce was examining in his choreography would find its way into his technique class.”
After three years at the Cunningham Studio, Frank asked Cunningham if she could teach. He replied, “You could try.” She taught at the studio for the next eight years and, at Cunningham’s request, she also taught technique and repertory in France at the American Center’s Atelier Cunningham.
Frank has been at Stanford University since 1988. Since the university offers a dance minor but no major, all of her students major in areas other than dance. She brings the larger dance world into the university through artistic collaborations and residency projects, and she promotes the idea that dance is research. “The studio is our lab,” she says, “and performance is a way to show the results of our investigation.” When students begin to choreograph, she doesn’t ask “What do you want to say?” but rather “What is your question?”
Even without a dance major, a number of Stanford students go on to dance professionally or earn dance MFAs at other colleges. And many return to Stanford to teach or set pieces. “They get something and they give back,” says Frank. “To be part of an effort that sustains the field is so motivating and satisfying.” DT
Photo courtesy of Stanford Drama
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