Dance program fights for its life

The dancers moved in near unison with loose arms and swaying hips. Sporadically, they hopped like music-driven marionettes. A forest of bare feet polished the wooden floor in time to the booming rhythm. This is but one of the many exotic tastes offered by the soon-to-be extinguished World Dance Office (WDO).

I watched in wonder from the rear of the room, doing my best to stay in my seat as the students whirled, slid and hopped past me. The Lions of Batucada, a Samba band that could double as a barrage of artillery, pounded a beat that invaded even the slim spaces between my cells and infected my hand with rhythm. I … was only an observer … but … I couldn’t stop scribbling … everything … in time with the … music.

In that moment, I fathomed the beauty of dance.

The dancer’s world is the music, their joints in fluid motion, a strong heart pounding, and the overwhelming sensation that their bodies wouldn’t stop even if they wanted it too.

They may not want to stop, but WDO claims Portland State is about to pull the plug. Lack of resources? Their predecessor was axed a few years ago under this banner to pacify the Measure 5 funding cuts. The department was only two years old and housed 15 students, but the true loss went unreported.

In comparison with other dance programs, PSU dance was a thriving department drawing professional companies from all over the country. The cost of the cut to the community more than outweighed the money.

The void left by the dance department’s beheading has been shouldered by the WDO and the physical education (P.E.) department. A split dance program sound like a bad idea? You guessed right.

The P.E. department offers mainstream hip-hop and other revenue-generating classes, while resisting WDO’s use of Stott 207, a dance room too tiny even for one of the programs. WDO, a student organization funded only by student fees, is being crushed by pressure brought to bear on them by the bullish department. In some cases, this pressure could be described as a brick wall outright preventing entry into 207. Last year, students found one of their world dance classes canceled mid-term with no compensation.

Molly Gibson, coordinator of the WDO, feels the shutout is hurting both the students of PSU and the Portland Community. “The World Dance Office is a bridge to Portland as a whole. To take a P.E. dance class, you have to be a PSU student, but we are open to anyone. This is essential in a city with very little opportunity for dance,” Gibson said.

“In addition to this, our program offers diversity the P.E. department isn’t capable of, nor has any interest in. WDO is bringing in dancers from all over the world. We even have a workshop from Zimbabwe coming.”

The WDO mission statement states this more eloquently by saying, “Our goal is to use dance forms to bridge communication differences between cultures, using it as a catalyst to start interaction between people and breaking down invisible barriers.”

Back in Stott 207, I saw this first hand. Sheyla Mattos, an instructor from Brazil, led the class bravely in a snapping rhythm. I felt the barriers hidden within the stiffest dancers become porous. The final dance convoluted into a serpentine line of waving arms and oscillating bodies that paraded about the room. The snake constricted in on itself in ever-tightening loops while the seven percussionists boomed at tumultous levels.

Is this snake following in the footsteps of the dance department, straight to the gallows? Molly Gibson thinks so. “We have the funding … for now. What we don’t have is a place to dance. Even if Stott 207 was available all the time, it just isn’t big enough for dance of this magnitude. The best dance floor in Portland is right here at PSU and Shattuck 212 isn’t even being used.”

Christine Stapleton, WDO assistant coordinator, agrees. “Last year, I was taking a Chicano/Latino night class right next to 212. We were supposed to dance on concrete with a thin layer of tile, when right across the hall was a spacious room with great floors, beautiful windows, and even a stage.”

Stott 207 didn’t have any windows, but when the Samba ended the dancers clapped and laughed anyway. They broke reluctantly to gather their items as a Tai Chi class pressed in on the room.

The heart of what dancing is all about came with a smile from a dancer who has attended WDO classes for the past three years. Between gasps, Christina said, “Dance is a language. I’ve taken Argentina, tango, swing, folk, Cuban, zydeco, ballroom and many more. Each one is a way I can communicate with another culture and develop a better response to music. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”And PSU wants to take that away?