More than just dance

With the sounds of Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" filling the office, Judith Douglas, Santa Monica College's dance department chair, discussed a memorable 2013 and what is in store for the coming year. "As a proud parent and as a proud department chair, I am very pleased with everything [the dancers] have achieved in such a short amount of time," she said.

Among the highlights of the year are the dance department's trip to Beijing and the Synapse and Global Motion shows that conquered The Broad Stage at SMC.

"[The instructors] worked all summer," Douglas said. "Three nights a week rehearsing students all summer, there's no pay. They donated their time rehearsing dancers and preparing to take 41 dancers to Beijing."

In China, the SMC dancers gave four performances for an audience of 75,000 people.

"People loved them," Douglas said. "They were like superstars. They were like Justin Bieber. People went absolutely nuts. Everywhere they went, people wanted their autographs. They were taking pictures. They have been invited to go back next year and perform again."

So far has the reputation of SMC's dance department come that just two weeks ago, SMC dancers also performed at Disneyland.

"I am extremely proud of their work," Douglas said. "Our students, within a short amount of time, have learned these dances, and it's not just dance steps. They have to learn about the country the dance comes from. They have to learn about the people."

At that moment, Sri Susilowati, one of the department's artistic directors, joined the discussion about the dance department.

"[The students] learned a lot about cultural connection and collaboration," Susilowati said. "Most of my students saw it as a life-changing experience. Some of them had never been out of the country or even out of the state."

Douglas shared one of many memories that have stayed with her from the year. She said that the dance department invited speakers, one of whom was infantry marine veteran Jay Lopez who talked about his experience at SMC's dance program.

"He was in duty in the Middle East, came back messed up like most people that come back after war," she said. "He was looking for direction and came here for college. For some reason, he enrolled in the dance class and fell in love with it. He has been taking dance classes here and is now a major."

"He said that the dance has put him on track mentally, emotionally and physically," she added. "I was brought to tears when I heard him say that. He wants to be a professional choreographer."

To Douglas, this is what education is all about.

"We don't teach dance steps here; we don't teach exercise," she said. "We teach an art form, a very deep art form, whether it is representing a culture or finding a way to express your inner self, because words cannot always express what is deep inside you."

"Art is a deep communication," she added.

Susilowati also hailed the importance of the art of dance.

"Onstage, one can become such a self-confident person," she said. "That's my longing for the students. This is why you need art."

After an active year, it was hard for Susilowati to even contemplate choosing a favorite piece that was performed.

"Every single piece has its own strength in composition, choreography, lighting," she said. "As an artistic director, it is hard for me to choose one."

For 2014, the department is preparing with the hope of returning to China.

"It will be for a completely different festival," said Susilowati.

She pointed out that this past summer, the dancers performed in a large, outdoor event, but will transition to an indoor theater performance during which SMC dancers will share the same stage as Beijing's local dance company.

"This is very exciting because then we can share a much more intimate connection," she said, adding that they would also be touring in China.

In February 2014, auditions will begin for the spring semester. The Synapse dance company will also be heading for Georgia in the spring to compete with other colleges at the American College Dance Festival.

"They have worked so hard, and now they will also see what other colleges are doing," Susilowati said. "It will be an entire week of events. This will be an exciting year for Synapse."

Cati Jean, an instructor from France who just returned from working with a dance studio in Norway as well as with the rock band Jane's Addiction in the U.S., said she is also looking forward to next year.

"The work in a classroom is the refinement of your technique and ability to perform," she said. "We will get the students ready to perform. You have to work on discipline in order to find freedom. Once you're in the world working for companies, then it will be second nature to you, like breathing, like walking, and you will be free whether in front of the camera, or like a rock band in front of the public."

For the coming year, the department will put a special emphasis on preparing students to become dancers ready for the professional world.

"Our concept for 2014 is pathways," said Douglas. "Giving students the opportunity to create a career that will sustain them and that is also their passion in life."

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