2016-04-07 / News

Instructor strives to expand dance opportunities

By Patricia Erikson

If you’ve heard that Thornton Academy has become an epicenter for dance education in Maine, you might like to know that Emma Arenstam Campbell ’04 is behind the curtain. The Thornton Academy and Bates (class of ’08) grad returned to campus in 2011 and has turned the dance program into a powerhouse that performs three dance concerts per year, integrates dance into both theatrical and orchestral performances, and sends students to out-of-state conventions. Accounting for Dance I, II and III, and the dance company, Emma involves over 150 students in dance at Thornton.

“At this point, I have had students studying four years of foundational technique with me; this makes a big difference in their choreography and performance skills,” Arenstam said. “Those students become role models for the more novice students. In turn, this creates an environment in the program where everyone is consistently striving to improve.”

With her signature generosity and team-oriented spirit, Arenstam isn’t stopping at building an amazing Thornton dance program, she’s collaborating with other studios, dance educators and organizations to build a more extensive and cohesive dance education community across Maine.

“Public school offerings in dance in Maine are very sparse, which is unfortunate. As an advocate, I strive to show the importance of what we are doing through the positive impact dance has had on my students’ lives. I will basically do anything that I can to support organizations like the Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Alliance for Arts Education, as well as more local groups that will support arts education in our state. I have worked as a teacher leader for the Maine Arts Commission and am currently involved in their census project. I’m also part of the Arts are Basic Coalition for the Maine Alliance for Arts Education and will work with students and teachers on their advocacy day at the Capitol in late March.”

When asked what she hopes her advocacy will accomplish, Arenstam quickly points to how important dance is to people and how she wants to spread the benefits of dance statewide to youth.

“Dance is a wonderful art form which incorporates critical thinking, teamwork, athleticism and aesthetics. I just want to help others realize how important dance is for kids. Arts education is so critical in the development of well rounded, compassionate and vested adults. I don’t want to make an army of dancers. I want students to take dance so that they will appreciate art for the rest of their lives. Along the journey, they will develop skills that are so critical to their success as adults in both school and work environments.”

One strategy for opening up more dance opportunity in schools statewide is to support dance teachers. With the collaboration of other K-12, higher education and private studio teachers, Arenstam is leading the creation of a Maine Dance Education Organization, which will support the needs of dance educators statewide.

“We created a Fall Showcase in November for dancers from different organizations. This past year, the showcase raised $2,650; we donated the money to the Maine Arts Commission for a grant in dance education. I really hope to be able to do more things like this in the future. I think it is so important to help others when possible. Currently, there are professional organizations for music, theater and visual art but none for dance. If we can help other dance educators with resources that they need to provide quality instruction, then that is wonderful.”

Meanwhile, on campus, as the magazine goes to press, Arenstam is working diligently with a cast of 50 students who will perform in the TA Players’ spring musical, “West Side Story.”

“Some high schools wouldn’t touch this musical because it’s so difficult,” said Theater program director David Hanright. “Emma has a vision and it’s very demanding. The dancing is extensive.”

Emma explained the challenge: the cast of “West Side Story” dancers is predominantly male.

“This performance requires 10 to 20 men who are proficient in dance. We have chosen not to have women cast as men. Of our male dancers, only a handful of them have taken dance with me before. But they are trying so hard and being so responsive. They’re doing great.”

The original “West Side Story” was choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who had a background as a ballet dancer and theater actor. Arenstam describes Robbins’ style as explosive, technical and very masculine.

“His choreography is based in ballet dance vocabulary, while emulating gang fighting. He’s taking street violence and turning it into dance. The result is a complicated dialogue between two gangs.”

A lot of choreographic work is expected of dance teachers; this is true for the current production. Arenstam has used Robbins’ choreography as inspiration and the audience will recognize signature movements such as finger snapping and pencil jumps. But the rest must be choreographed from scratch.

“We try things with our cast, most of whom don’t have a dance background, at least in the case of the guys. Then you have to find what works within their abilities.”

The result? Essentially a new choreography for each production.

“I really like choreography because I like the storytelling process.”

Tickets to “West Side Story” may be purchased online at www.thorntonacademy.org/arts.


Patricia Erikson is an author and educator who is director of communications for Thornton Academy. She lives on Peaks Island and maintains a blog, www.peaksislandpress.com.

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