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Students to Dance on Side of 40-Foot Building

Imagine pushing off from the side of a building high above the ground, executing a graceful spin, all while trying to point your toes.
Students at Washington and Lee University, and not just dance students, will get the opportunity to try this in a new six-week class that begins this May.

Jenefer Davies, W&L visiting assistant professor of dance, will be recruiting students across campus for an aerial dance performance on the side of 40-foot high Wilson Hall.

“I believe this is the first time aerial dance has been attempted at a college,” says Davies. “I really want to expand the appeal of dance to other students on campus, so anyone who is interested in athletics, climbing, rappelling, gymnastics, cheerleading, basketball, diving – they would be perfect for this.”

Davies thinks about 30 students will take part, judging from the buzz she’s heard.

Students will be lowered from the roof in mountain climbing harnesses. “Obviously, the safety aspect is very important,” says Davies, “which is why we’ve hired a professional rigging company. We chose an industry leader and one of the top flying companies in the world which has rigged Broadway performances such as Peter Pan. They will provide and supervise the heavy-duty equipment and accept liability. I feel totally comfortable with them.”

In an unusual pairing, Davies will be working alongside James Dick, W&L’s director of campus recreation who oversees the Outing Club. “The performance will combine elements of dance and rock climbing,” says Dick, “so my job is to work with the students on the technical aspects. They’ll learn many of the techniques used by professional rock climbers, from how to tie their ropes to how to balance in a harness. There will definitely be physical challenges.”

The biggest challenge as far as Davies is concerned will be preparing the dancers’ bodies. Normally she would take a year to build up their muscle groups, but this time she will get them ready in just six weeks. “It’s going to be intense. Aerial work is all about the abdominals, because for so much of the dance your feet are on the wall and you’re parallel to the ground. Your abdominals are what hold you up. The students will have to be at a certain level physically before they can perform safely.”

Davies says that the hardest part for the students will be adapting to the change in gravitational forces. “You have to know how much force to use to push off against the wall and how to accomplish the movements before retuning to the wall. It’s hard to avoid scraping yourself against the wall when you are first learning.”

The performance will last 45 minutes, with up to three dancers at a time on the wall for a series of five to eight minute dances. Students will wear special costumes, and Davies is planning to use very long pieces of fabric to add another level of expression to the dance. “It’s really beautiful,” says Davies “especially when the dancers are low to the ground because the push-off is very slow and they can do a lot of movements before they swing back in again. The higher they are on the wall, the more limited their movements are because they are closer to the rigging but those limitations allow for more specificity.”

Davies has been interested in aerial dance for the past eight years. “I started looking into it because it’s fairly new within the dance continuum and at the moment dance companies are playing around with it – and there’s no established technique yet. When you alter the element of gravity, it completely changes what you’ve been taught about the nature of dance. It’s also imbued with an athleticism that’s certainly always contained in dance but not always apparent. I think people are drawn to aerial dance. They have this amazed wonder on their faces when they see it and feel a kinship with it immediately, because it contains elements that everyone, not just dancers, can do such as pushing off a wall and spinning.”

Students who want to sign up for the class are doing so now. The performance will take place in May. The aerial dance project was made possible by a $7,500 Mellon Grant from the Associated Colleges of the South.