Virtual festival celebrates 50 years of inclusive dance at Brown

A weeklong Festival of Dance from March 20 to 26 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of dance at the University with studio classes, engaging presentations and premiere performances.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Just about everyone at Brown knows about Campus Dance, an annual bash for graduating students and returning alumni held on the College Green during Commencement and Reunion Weekend. But for nearly a decade, another kind of campus dance at Brown has quietly built a fan club and found its own renown.

The Other Campus Dance, hosted by Julie Strandberg, a distinguished senior lecturer in theatre arts and performance studies, provides a space for alumni to meet, reminisce and bond, just like its namesake. But rather than grooving to booming pop and rock music, participants stretch as they listen to the soothing sounds of Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” There’s no spirited midnight singalong — just a low-impact, upbeat modern dance class.

Strandberg said her favorite element of the event is that it’s open to all, regardless of age or ability — which means that, like the larger Campus Dance on the Main Green, it attracts people from wildly different generations and walks of life.

“Dancing is all about looking at what you can do, rather than what you can’t do,” Strandberg said. “You can dance if you have a tight hamstring. You can dance if you’re recovering from an injury. You can dance if you are paralyzed from the waist down and you’re sitting in a chair. If you want to dance, all you need is a body.”

Well, that and a computer. On Saturday, March 20, at 11 a.m., the Other Campus Dance kicks off a weeklong virtual Festival of Dance, chock full of studio classes, engaging presentations and premiere performances. The festival’s aim is not only to showcase student talent and faculty research but also to celebrate a major milestone: 50 years of dance at Brown.

And for the entirety of that half-century, Strandberg has been a leader in Brown’s dance program, having arrived on College Hill in 1969, the same year the University established its signature Open Curriculum. For more than a decade, she was the only dance instructor at Brown. She taught technique and composition in a converted dormitory lounge inside Pembroke College’s Metcalf Hall. She offered stretching lessons to the men on the neighboring Brown campus in her free time.

Helene Miller, a Class of 1980 graduate, recalled that Strandberg’s approach to teaching made dance, often viewed as a highly challenging and competitive pursuit, seem like a source of fun rather than stress. She said the classes inspired her to keep dancing later in life and to choose a career that sparked joy: She’s now organizer of the nonprofit Partnership for Providence Parks, Recreation and Streetscapes, where she supports local neighborhoods in the process of curating murals, creative activities, public dance performances and pop-up art installations in communal spaces.

“This rich opportunity changed my life and informed the community work that I am honored to be part of here in Providence,” Miller said. “Indeed, because of Julie’s mentorship, I am grateful to be ‘dancing it forward’ beyond Brown.”

In the 1980s, dance became its own program at Brown, and it welcomed another faculty member, Michelle Bach-Coulibaly. She and Strandberg were an entrepreneurial duo, hosting countless galas and showcases. Strandberg said that when the University brought in dance experts from across the country to conduct a review of the program, the experts were shocked by the pair’s productivity.

“Their report essentially said, ‘These women are doing as much as universities with full departments are doing,’” Strandberg said. “That kicked off a postdoctoral fellowship program funded by the Mellon Foundation, which really increased the range and depth of study that we could offer. Now, people are applying to Brown specifically to study dance.”

Strandberg prefers to look to the future rather than reminisce, but when she thinks back on the last half-century, she says that one theme has driven dance at Brown from the beginning: radical inclusiveness. Brown’s dance faculty not only welcome students of all levels and concentrations to their courses but also offer lessons in a wide variety of styles, from ballet to West African traditional dance. Artists and Scientists as Partners, an initiative co-founded by Strandberg and adjunct lecturer Rachel Balaban, brings the art of dance to people with neurological disorders and catalyzes new scientific research on the benefits of movement therapy. Balaban, a Class of 1980 graduate, also convenes Dance for All People, a series of dance classes that convene individuals with Parkinson’s disease and other movement challenges.

Strandberg said these initiatives have made Brown a must-visit site for anyone working at the intersection of dance, medicine and public health. Many of her students who concentrate in physics or pre-medicine bridge the two disciplines in their final class projects.

“At many other institutions, science classes are, say, four credit hours, and dance classes are just one or two,” Strandberg said. “But at Brown, the Open Curriculum elevates the arts by declaring every class to be the same number of credit hours. I think that helps students and faculty see dance as the truly interdisciplinary field that it is and take it seriously. They see its potential in guiding medical practices. They see its potential in bringing cultures together and healing division.”

Ballet at Brown


"Brown is a unique place for ballet because of the incredible range and talents of the students we have," said visiting lecturer Patricia Seto-Weiss.

The program’s focus on inclusion, accessibility and cross-cultural connection are themes woven into nearly every event at this spring’s Festival of Dance. On Saturday, March 20, celebrated Brooklyn choreographer Jamal Jackson — one of many Brown dance alumni featured throughout the week — will lead a class that reinterprets Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” using contemporary African dance moves and modern techniques. On Thursday, March 25, the festival will host a workshop exploring the reciprocal and nuanced relationships between writing and dancing. On Friday, March 26, the last day of the festival, a collective ensemble of seven dancer-scholars from various fields across the humanities and social sciences will give an experimental dance performance.

As with every University event this semester, the entire festival will take place virtually over Zoom. Despite the challenges of virtual platforms, rather than focusing on what dancers have lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — the rush of live performance, the intimacy of a studio space, the interpersonal connections forged with fellow dancers in rehearsal — Strandberg likes to emphasize what Brown’s dance community has gained.

“I’ve found that it’s easier to give students real-time suggestions on technique when I’m teaching over Zoom, because I can see everyone equally clearly — no one can hide in the back of the room,” Strandberg said. “And one thing we’ve learned is that with Zoom, we can reach more people. We have scheduled the Festival of Dance at an optimal time for people on the West Coast, in Europe and in Asia to tune in.”

The last year has also allowed students in the program to explore the emerging field of dance film. The festival’s two concerts, “Extension and Friends” on March 20 and “Dance in the time of COVID” on March 25, feature several student-produced, student-choreographed pieces that were made for film rather than the stage, an approach Strandberg said feels much more engaging than a stage performance on a medium like Zoom.

“Dancers don’t stop dancing, so the conversation was never, ‘Let’s just cancel everything and wait until next year,’” she said. “The conversation was, ‘If we can’t be in the theater, how can we still dance and feel fulfilled?’ That is the theme of the festival and really this whole past year: Let’s not look at what we don’t have, let’s look at what we do have.”

The Festival of Dance runs Saturday, March 20, to Friday, March 26. All events are free and open to the public, but registration is required.