Performing arts and dance teacher Donna Cory’s philosophy: once you’re in the dance program at Bishop’s, you’re always in the dance program at Bishop’s.
She explains, “I am a firm believer that the School, the performing arts department, and the dance program all offer these children an enormous amount of opportunity and space. That is the chapter when you’re with us. The chapter when you’re not with us, you need to give back to those children who are in the chapter with us now.”
Alumni know they have what Ms. Cory calls “an open invitation for the rest of their lives” to stop by and contribute anything from choreographing a piece for a School production, being a guest artist in a production, teaching a master class, or sharing advice about collegiate dance programs around the country. Ms. Cory says, “Anytime an alum is in town they can shoot me a text and say, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ Since they’ve been in this program, they know there’s certain times of the year where I have to say, ‘Thanks, but we have our nose to the grindstone and the deadline is… and the show opens… but there’s probably something you can do with Jazz Modern 2 or you can spend time with Studio.’ We don’t pay them for that, that’s them giving back to the program that gave to them. They just come visit and maybe do some Q&A, maybe teach some choreo, whatever they feel comfortable doing.” She estimates that on average, alumni are in the studio twice a month.
However, as Ms. Cory notes, the Performing Dance Group (PDG) “program has grown to the point where every year I hire an alumni choreographer to actually be embedded with us.” Bishop’s English and dance teacher Crescence Birder ’07 was the first alumna Ms. Cory hired (the year before Ms. Birder began teaching at Bishop’s) and other alumni working with the program in recent years include Alexandra Allman ’13, Angela Schopke ’09, Julia Smith-Eppsteiner ’09 and Zeny Mateo ’15. This year, Alex Krstic ’15 and Jess Dancy ’05 are working with PDG.
These are people Ms. Cory describes as “kids who succeeded in getting a piece ‘across the finish line’ when they were here. Then they have gone off to college and done something with dance. They have danced past us so they have information they can bring back to us.”
Which translates to an expansive experience for current students, who see someone “of their own generation” come back to campus, and they can now “have a conversation with them as equals about the art form. But no matter how old/equal you are, it still kind of melts your heart as the person who was in the sixth grade when they were a senior.” For example, Ms. Cory tells about Charmaine Hiller ’16 who recently visited. “She’s not really been accessible to us because she’s been in Scotland. She was teaching, but because she graduated not so long ago, there were people in the room who had been in middle school when she was a senior. One of them said, ‘One of the dreams of my life was to dance in the same room with her and it just happened!’”
Another benefit is when an alumnus returns to teach. Ms. Cory explains, “Invested as Crescence and I are, we are two female bodies standing in front of the room. That is a little bit of a perk for the girls; because guys are saying, ‘How do I do that in this body? How do I wear that?’ Put a male at the front of the room, and for the first time, the girls have that problem. How do I wear it? That’s a skill set. In the real world, there probably are more male dance teachers than female dance teachers. If I can put Gabe Garon ’17, Camden Ryder ’19, Ankur Rathee ’09 or Raphael Lee ’16 at the front of the room, that’s a double win. It’s easier to imagine yourself doing it if there’s a role model doing it well.”
“I’m all about keeping them connected with each other. We could do the program without them, but it wouldn’t be as good. I don’t have time to teach and be researching exactly what is going on at UC Irvine’s dance program, which is amazing; beyond that, I can’t tell you the intricate, current details. But there’s a PDGer out there somewhere who knows that.”