From Ballet to Modern: A History of the Contemporization of Dance At Andover

Dance at Andover began as a progam at Abbot Academy, with some performances held in the gymnasium, as pictured above.

Lined up in three rows, fourteen girls kneel down on the wooden floor, wearing black leotards, tights, and ballet shoes. Arms outstretched, they gaze intently toward the front of the dance studio, a thin ballet barre stretched out along the wall behind them. The photograph[a], titled “Dance” and taken in March 1966, depicts a ballet class at Abbot Academy. Ballet was the primary form of dance style at Andover until the early 2000s, according to Judith Wombwell, Instructor and Chair in Theater and Dance.

Records of Abbot’s dance curriculum dates back to as early as the 1930s, and the program was geared toward the entire student body. Up until the 1972-1973 Abbot school year, students were required to take a minimum of one term of ballet.

“We had held ballet classes for a very long time at Abbot Academy, and then when the schools merged, the dance program and ballet came up the hill. It’s one of the few programs that came up the hill, so we have a strong legacy with the Abbot Academy. Back then, there were mainly only ballet classes taught and over the years, we have expanded the dance program to offer a wider range of dance styles,” said Erin Strong, Instructor in Theater and Dance.

Trisha Brown, founder of the Judson Dance Theater and postmodern dance movement, was invited as a choreographer for the dance department during the 2002-2003 school year, breaking the ballet tradition at Andover, according to Wombwell.

“I think [Trisha Brown’s residency] broke the ballet culture and allowed dancers to try modern and other styles… study dance and you realize that dance is about everything, it’s a form of expression. It can represent culture, or pretty much anything you want it to represent. Dance is being used as a language that’s just as potent as literature. It’s really important for students to understand that they are learning only a little piece of what dance can be and how relevant it is to the world at large, ” said Wombwell.

According to Wombwell, when she began teaching at Andover[b], the dance culture at Andover was split up and still heavily geared towards ballet.

“When I got here I was a part-time teacher, and I put the dancers into three different levels: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. I held [ninety minute] classes for advanced, and an hour fifteen for beginners and intermediate every single day. It was just me and I had seventy dancers and the other teacher had five modern dancers… It was in a time when you’re either a ballet dancer or you’re a modern dancer and you don’t go back-and-forth. There was definitely a ballet culture,” said Wombwell.

Since 2002, many new dance groups have formed to explore styles not offered in the dance curriculum, such as Hypnotiq, Blue Strut, and Footnotes. Vastly different from the original ballet classes held at Andover, these dance groups allow students to explore their own choreography and styles of dance. Strong and Wombwell have worked toward creating a modern-based dance curriculum.

“I believe in not only bringing outside companies in but also the Dance Open and choreography class… and [students] finding their expression in it. It’s not just about technique, you’re not just athletes, you’re artists. Arts can help not only reflect your understanding of society, but the arts can help define society and change culture. It’s really powerful when you get to express your own thoughts and find a vehicle to do that through the medium of dance,” said Strong.

Wombwell continued to expand the dance opportunities available to students by showcasing performances choreographed by students, such as Dance Open, and later creating a choreography class with Strong. Today, there are many ways in which students can get involved with choreography and leadership in the dance department.

Dancer Sophie Liu ’20 has enjoyed the choreography opportunities at Andover.

Liu said, “Whether it’s through more informal settings like the dance labs or within dance clubs, or more serious platforms like 902’s, the Dance Open, Grasshopper, or even assisting with choreography for shows that ADG [Andover Dance Group] puts on, I think student choreography is really thriving here on campus, and I’m glad that there are so many platforms on which we can experiment and create and grow beyond the traditional dance curriculum.”

Trevor Moss ’22 explained that students’ choreography is performed both on and off campus.

“There’s an identity piece that’s traveling to Scotland this summer, and pretty much all of the combinations that we’ve done that are going to end up in the piece are student-choreographed… One of the seniors, Uanne Chang [’20], is doing a 902 production, where she choreographs the entire piece, and that’s just really amazing,” said Moss.

According to Victoria Zhou ’22, students are able to shape the dance department today by taking on leadership roles, such as in running dance shows and leading dance groups.

She said, “There are only three main teachers, and I think it’s because they also want us to learn how to become leaders ourselves. That’s why we have team captains, and that’s also why all of the dance clubs are led by students.”