VCU Dance became a BFA program in 1981, moving from the Physical Education Program into the VCU School of the Arts. Compared with many of the nation’s most acclaimed and well established dance programs which have been developing since the 1950s, VCU Dance has created and refined an exceptional BFA Degree Program in a relatively short amount of time. Over the last fifteen years, VCU Dance has soared into national visibility and recognition with the success of its BFA program and of its students, faculty, and alumni, as well as the celebrity of its guest artist program.
After visionary planning & action by Frances Wessells and Dean Murry DePillars, VCU’s dance program moved from the Health and Physical Education Department to the School of the Arts. In 1981, Anne Anderson becomes the first chair and in the fall, 25 freshmen began the new Dance major.
The department continued to grow throughout the 1990s, beginning to gain national visibility for its guest artist program, which included residencies with Doug Varone, Bebe Miller, and others. In 1995, VCU Dance presented Martha Graham Dance Company in a performance that included “Panorama Project,” featuring 33 dance majors. In 1996, renovation of the Grace Street Theater was completed under the guidance of chair Chris Burnside, and GST became the primary venue for departmental productions and presentations. Martha Curtis became chair in 1996, the same year major enrollment climbed to 74. Through the late 90s, the department presented Paul Taylor Dance Company, Joe Goode Performance Group, and others. In 1999 VCU was the first BFA dance program in Virginia to become a fully accredited member of the National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD).
By 2001, VCU Dance major enrollment had grown to 80, with 30% out of state students, giving our Virginia students the opportunity to work with a diverse group of some of the most talented dance students in the country. In 2001, Dance Magazine featured two VCU Dance alumni in the Top 25 to Watch: Richard Move and Paule Turner. Guest artist residencies between 20012005 included Tere O’Conner, JoAnna Mendl Shaw/Dancing With Horses, and Gesel Mason. In 2005, VCU Dance hosted the Mid Atlantic Region American College Dance Festival, featuring a performance by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.
In 2006, VCU VCU Dance majors and alumni performed a program of original work to a packed house at Danspace Project St. Mark’s Church, NY. Danspace Project invited VCU to perform as part of their Academy Dances series. Just days later, VCU Dancers performed guest artist Robert Battle’s Virginia Reel on at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the National College Choreography Initiative (NCCI) Celebration of College and University Dance.
Dr. James Frazier became chair in 2007. Guest artist engagements through the end of the decade included Urban Bush Women/Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Monica Bill Barnes, Miguel Gutierrez, and Tania Isaac Dance.
In 2010 the department was awarded an “American Masterpieces” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to restage Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Shelter. A documentary about the process, created by Martha Curtis and Bruce Berryhill, went on to screen at film festivals nationally and internationally, including Dance Films Association and the American Dance Festival. VCU Dance again hosted the Mid Atlantic Region American College Dance Festival in 2010, featuring a performance by Stephen Petronio Company, and in 2018, featuring a performance by Helen Simoneau Danse and guest teachers from AXIS Dance Company. Other guest residencies have included the Paris-based company stefanie batten bland, Kate Weare Company, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and Ananya Dance Theatre.
The percentage of VCU Dance students from outside of Virginia grew from 11% in 1996 to nearly 50% in 2013. The application pool has grown, making the program more competitive, with an acceptance rate ranging from 25-30%. In 2014, Dr. Gaynell Sherrod became chair, followed by Courtney Harris in 2017. With respect to diversity, the Department’s student population remains a model, with close to 60% of VCU Dance majors self-identified as non-White in 2018. Four new faculty hires in 2019 bring the faculty demographics more closely aligned with student demographics for the first time in the department’s history.
In spring of 2015, Dance majors performed Doug Varone’s Democracy (1996) set on them by Doug Varone and Dancers’ company member Julia Burrer, in the VCU Dance NOW concert and with the Varone company at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Students also performed at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2017 and 2018, in student works selected by adjudicators at the American College Dance Association’s National College Dance Festival.
“In completing my BFA at VCU Dance, I rediscovered my joy in learning while also teaching their wonderfully talented and dedicated students. What a delight to be part of the inspiring and generous VCU Dance community! I am proud to be an alumna.”
-Gerri Houlihan, Professor, Florida State University; Dean, School of the American Dance Festival