The steady and rhythmic beat of drums in harmony with the whispers of shekere jumped off the walls of the first floor of Judd Gymnasium on Saturday. If people were to enter Judd’s west wing, they’d find guest instructor Jason Aryeh and seven members of the Springfield community leaping and swaying to Ghanaian melodies. A woman in sweatpants, dressed in black and dark green, with bangs covering her eyebrows and a heart tattoo on her left forearm would immediately run up to anyone who happened to stumble across the dance session.
“Join us,” she’d say.
Those who obliged were dancing loosely and freely to the West African music within minutes. Among all involved however, the welcoming woman moved with such speed, such fluidity, such passion.
After 30 minutes on the floor, the woman retreated to the end of the gym, sweat streaking down her left temple. While catching her breath, she bent over, put her hands to her knees and looked on at what she had assembled. What she saw was promising. She saw energy – a joyful aura. But to Springfield College’s new professor of dance Sarah Zehnder, something was still missing.
Along with the birth of basketball, and the heavy historical presence of volleyball there is also a hidden, yet rich history of dancing at Springfield College. The art found its niche on Alden Street when its pioneer, a man named Ted Shawn, settled at the institution in 1932 and scattered the seeds of modern dance upon the campus. Shawn formed an all-male group out of Springfield athletes and established “Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers” in the spring of 1933, his first semester as a professor. The group would reign for seven years up in the Berkshires, at their home stage in Jacob’s Pillow, presently a world renowned dancing center.
“His mission was to show that there was tremendous athleticism and grace in modern dance, which hadn’t [received] much attention or respect,” said Martin Shell, Chair of Visual and Performing Arts.
With the performances of Shawn and his men, Springfield College’s dancing culture boomed between 1933 and 1940, and held its prominence for decades following. But even the greatest tenures can wear away. The school’s dance program has lived on ever since, but with the growth of the campus, its presence and its platforms slowly melted into the institution’s background. Woods Hall was demolished in 2008 to make room for the Flynn Campus Union. In 2010, Judd was renovated for the YMCA, and the institution lost another location for dancing in the building’s east wing. With space decreased over time, Springfield has lost enrollment over the years to programs from other schools.
“Our performing arts program has had its difficulty with its profile on campus,” Shell said.
Heading into the spring of 2017, the college needed an instructor to rejuvenate a program with little space to grow.
Although the program doesn’t have an official home, the performing arts department still believes it can gain traction in different ways, and restore the program to heights of its former glory. That all begins with an instructor leading the charge.
With the abrupt silence of Charlie Puth’s Attention, Sarah Zehnder’s class ceased their pirouettes. It was time to break it all down. Zehnder, however wanted to start with falling.
“We have to emphasize our breath,” she said. “Exhale when you go to the floor.”
Zehnder proceeded to have one of her students demonstrate a pirouette and fall in one motion. The student pirouetted, stepped, and stumbled a bit before planting.
“Good, now do the rest,” said Zehnder. “Your steps have to be quick.”
The student tried again, and finished her fall, despite some tension.
“Yes!” Zehnder applauded. “Now imagine if you had breathed.”
Zehnder stressed to her class to dance with a fearlessness.
“Only when we take risks can we know how to achieve it,” she said.
Before proceeding Zehnder demonstrated the fall one last time. The pirouette. The step. The fall. One fluid motion.
“She makes it look so easy,” one of her students in the back noted quietly.
Born and raised in Northwest Ohio, Zehnder did not begin dancing until later in her childhood. She didn’t live the life where she lived in a dance studio since she was three.
Growing up, Zehnder, under cover of darkness, would sneak downstairs during the late nights and early mornings and sharpen her hip hop skills in secret. For a few perfect hours, she would indulge herself in MTV videos, tapes she was banned by her parents from viewing, and would practice the moonwalk until she felt like the King of Pop himself.
Once she found her footing in dancing she began attending workshops and demonstrated a skill that earned her the scholarship out of high school that helped send her to train further in hip hop in California for commercial dancing. After six months in the Golden State, Zehnder returned east to enroll in college and expanded her knowledge in contemporary dancing to create a fusion of a dancing backgrounds.
After tireless ambition, Zehnder, a dancing enthusiast with hopes and dreams of making a difference, has followed in Ted Shawn’s footsteps, and has arrived at Alden Street.
Zehnder wants to continue her success, and help expand the campus culture and connections for the better. To her, what was missing from Jason Aryeh’s session on Friday was the Springfield College student involvement. She believes the combination of students with community members would be revolutionary.
“There’s less of a sense of community between the college and the community,” said Zehnder. “The college feels very isolated. There’s all these wonderful things happening on campus – and there are outreach events on campus like Humanics In Action, but that’s only once a year. I want there to be more of an exchange.”
Zehnder’s plan is to create as many opportunities through dance for the campus and city community to unite. She will begin these efforts with the upcoming December concerts on the 8th through the 10th. Zehnder hopes to hold two master classes during the weekend that will be run by her company, Zehnder Dance, and a pop class that will be open to the entire community. Dancing demands a certain looseness and high energy. Zehnder hopes to use such attributes found within the college’s culture to connect it with its surrounding neighborhood. Her hope is that the sessions along with the shows, will provide a full-day experience for the community and college to further bond.
“I don’t want the dance program here to be just an on-campus happening,” Zehnder said. “I want more community involvement. Dance is about community, and communicating with each other and sharing. It’s important that we come together and enjoy being with other people.”
Shell is pleased with the work Zehnder has put forth so far.
“She’s already generated a tremendous amount of excitement and enthusiasm about dance courses and co-curricular dance experience,” said Shell. “She’s a very engaging and dynamic instructor. She’s very good at the healthy training of a dancer, so you can train without injury and sustain the body through the work.”
Zehnder understands that Springfield College is an institution that preaches the value of spirit, mind, and body. She attributes the same to the art of dancing and refuses to let it go ignored.
“The arts are so important,” she said. “To ignore Ted Shawn and the Jacob’s Pillow festivals – to ignore all that history and not support dance is like ignoring the basketball history and not having a basketball team.”
It has been just two months since the commencement of the school year, and already has Zehnder made an impact that is poised to make a lasting effect and revolutionize the college’s culture for the better.
“The class that I’ve taken with her [jazz and technique], has been one of the best experiences of my life,” said freshman student Alexandra MacPherson. “I’ve never been pushed so hard, but I’ve still had fun, and still love what I do. From day one of the class I’ve felt welcome and not afraid of anything. I can’t wait to see and what experiences come next.”