By Amy Karagiannakis
Dance at Illinois is getting a long overdue curriculum redesign. Built on a traditional conservatory model, the dance curriculum at Illinois was developed over 50 years ago with a bias toward ballet and modern dance forms. It became clear to the faculty and students that it was time to reimagine what Dance at Illinois could be. “We felt stymied by what we could do creatively due to self-imposed mandates that certain techniques had to be taught every semester over others,” shared Dr. Kemal Nance, assistant professor of dance at Illinois. The idea of decentralizing the curriculum became the focus of undoing the department’s history of systemic racism. By breaking down the barriers that existed within the current, outdated curriculum, its faculty and students now have the flexibility and freedom to pursue other forms of dance in their research and teaching. Nance, a master teacher of the Umfundalai technique of contemporary African dance; Professor Sara Hook, celebrated performer and choreographer; and Professor Linda Lehovec led the department’s curriculum redesign efforts.
“We were at the tail end of a faculty retreat in May 2019. At the end of a day-long conversation, it became really obvious that there was a need to do something. We weren’t clear what that something was at the time, but we knew something had to change. Our offerings as a body of specialists was so rich and yet that collective wasn’t reflected in the curriculum,” recalled Nance. Hook and Nance began meeting weekly over the summer to talk through some ideas. Department Head Jan Erkert officially charged them with redesigning the curriculum, and they formed an ad hoc committee of students and faculty called the Reimagining Team. Together, the department has redesigned the dance curriculum at Illinois to collectively support a progressive, equitable, and anti-racist dance program.
The Department of Dance at Illinois has made significant changes in regard to who dances since Jan Erkert’s tenure as department head began in 2006. Underrepresented minorities now make up 49% of the student body and 27% of the faculty, compared to just 7% and 10% respectively in 2007. “In order to create a truly inclusive environment, our community continues to explore, confront, and expand our personal and embodied relationships to the effects of all types of oppression. We are addressing the systemic racism contained in policies, processes, and nomenclature of our curriculum. I believe that consistent and steady efforts are necessary to create transformational change,” said Erkert.
Changes in the dance curriculum at Illinois are already beginning to take place as a result of the efforts of Erkert, Nance, Hook, and the committee. The new curriculum better reflects Illinois’s role as a leading land-grant research university by exposing students to a global spectrum of aesthetics and dance forms to include contemporary African dance forms and diasporic dance, as well as urban social dance forms such as hip hop, house, and vogue.
Prioritizing inclusivity for all, the department is shifting away from a “one size fits all” standard of pedagogy and championing the support of a much wider breadth of dance research and collaboration across the department. These curriculum changes are setting up dance students at Illinois to be creative problem solvers and innovators in their field – ultimately going on to make the world a better place once they graduate and leave campus.