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A Trip to the Desert – The National Association of Schools of Dance Annual Meeting

September 14-17, 2010 - Tucson, Arizona

It’s about 40 degrees colder here than it was in Tucson where Milwaukee Ballet School Manager Renee Griswold and I spent the week surrounded by palm trees, Saguaro cacti, great Mexican food and the National Association of Schools of Dance’s annual meeting! This is the fifth year Milwaukee Ballet School has attended the conference (previously in St. Pete’s Beach, FL and Minneapolis, MN) and our third as an accredited professional school. We headed off to the desert and spent three days thinking about dance in a way the day-to-day grind doesn’t often allow.

The National Association of Schools of Dance (NASD) has put Milwaukee Ballet School into an elite group of 13 ballet schools associated with professional companies (among them, such schools as The Ailey School, Atlanta Ballet, Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham) and a large group of fantastic university dance programs (UWM’s Janet Lilly was there and she told us that the Dance Department will have their site visit in December and will find out a year from now if they will be awarded accreditation! Merde!*) Being accredited has given us the ability to apply for visas for foreign students, apply high school credit to our students taking dance in place of physical education, and access to a network of people who care about high-quality dance education across the country.

Though the conference always happens in our first week of classes at Milwaukee Ballet School (and usually during Renee’s youngest son’s birthday), we have to admit it is fun to get away, soak up some sun and connect with some of our favorite people – Sharon Story (Atlanta Ballet), George de la Peña (University of Iowa), Susan Levine (University of Nebraska-Lincoln), Mary Lisa Burns (Merce Cunningham) and Angela Kane (University of Michigan). There was a definite void without Denise Jefferson from The Ailey School who just passed away this summer. Denise held many roles in the NASD, most recently as treasurer. Judith Scalin, pro tempore treasurer from Loyola Marymount College, stepped in to give the most touching and lovely treasurer’s report/tribute pointing out just how “treasured” Denise was and always will be. We spent the Thursday night dinner at the Last Territory (like an Old West movie set) getting to know Tracy Inman who has been the Associate Director of The Ailey School for nine years and has just stepped into the role as Co-Director (along with Melanie Person). Not only did he have some hilarious stories, he gave us a lot of great ideas about further streamlining the audition process for our Summer Intensive program.

Renee ran the panel for the professional schools on Thursday afternoon. It is easy to feel lost in a swarm of university buzz at these conferences so we always look forward to some time with our ballet school colleagues. There was a good discussion about auditions, financial aid, scholarships and foreign students. Overall, it is always refreshing to hear what is happening in other cities. Last year, the economy easily won the race for the most popular topic of conversation however I was pleased to hear positivity and hopefulness versus the doom-and-gloom that can sometimes overwhelm a group of non-profit arts professionals.

People seem dedicated to finding innovative ways to retain students (at Ailey School awarding “graduation certificates” to the 6-year-olds which seemed to increase the number of kids continuing into the next level) and to market shows (at University of Alabama shows are at 5:30 p.m. on Fridays and are only an hour and fifteen minutes long and they consistently sell out). This year the conversations about technology moved way beyond Facebook (thumbs up, I like this!) to real ways to connect with “millenials” the generation of techno-savvy students born between 1982-2000. This panel, “Trends, Curricula, Strategic Planning: Potential Relationships in the Second Decade” was led by three stellar ladies – Susan Petry (Ohio State University), Jan Van Dyke (University of North Carolina at Greensboro) and Donna White (University of Utah) who brought up some really thought provoking insights and questions about how to utilize technology to connect with a new generation without straying too far from our classical roots, ignoring the mastery that is necessary in dance and without dumbing anything down.

I think both Renee and I would agree that it is exciting to hear what other people are doing in the field of Dance but just as exciting to come back to a team of people who care so deeply about this city and this art form. Milwaukee Ballet’s initiatives and progress are relevant and competitive nationally. Milwaukee Ballet is a great place to be, even in these trying times of financial and political turmoil. The arts are an escape from life’s woes and after a brief respite in the hot Arizona sun, it is fun to look forward to an escape this season, right here at home.

Alyson Chavez
Director of Education

*"Merde" is how dancers say “good luck” because of course it’s bad luck to say good luck and “break a leg” doesn’t work for dancers either. It is French and if you don’t know what it means… well, you can Google it!