Strictly Seattle gives a workout for body and mind.
By the fifth day of Strictly Seattle, choreographer Michele Miller already sees improvement in her advanced students. She walks through the renovated, brick-walled studio at Velocity Dance Center, eyes and hands alert to the tiniest bit of tension in the students’ backs as they hang over from the hips. The 22 students in this modern technique class are working their way through Miller’s seamless warm-up—a floor-barre mash-up of modern, martial arts, gymnastics, Wii Fit, and Pilates. Watching it feels like a massage, but the students are working hard, and they haven’t even gotten to the killer ab series yet. Miller touches a back here, a hip bone there, so they can feel where to release. “Your hips are more square today,” she notes happily.
Velocity staffs this three-week intensive with the movers and shakers of Seattle’s modern dance scene (see “Seattle Takes Off,” p. 70). And the advanced students could be the next generation of movers and shakers themselves. Many are just finishing up college dance degrees and starting to look for work. At Strictly Seattle (which accepts students ages 16 and up), they have the chance to interact with nine different local artists in a challenging yet supportive environment. Working with faculty from a range of contemporary backgrounds, students explore multiple styles and philosophies. The common denominators? All classes emphasize risk-taking and artistic experimentation, while helping dancers tap directly into Seattle’s professional dance network.
A day at Strictly Seattle means almost seven hours in the studio. Last summer, the advanced students kicked off the morning with a technique class—modern one day, foundational ballet the next. “Our ballet has a very modern bent to it,” says executive director Kara O’Toole. Her smile widens as she adds, “Your ballet teacher has a mohawk.” Next, they explored creative process and improvisation with four contemporary choreographers: KT Niehoff, Beth Graczyk and Corrie Befort of Salt Horse, and Bebe Miller. In the afternoons, they split up into smaller groups to work with other choreographers, including the 2009 A.W.A.R.D. Show winner Amelia Reeber, on pieces they would perform at the end of the program. An hour-long lunch break gave them time to relax in the park behind Velocity or explore the hip surrounding neighborhood of Capitol Hill. (The studios are also busy at night, when Strictly Seattle offers evening classes for less advanced adult dancers.)
According to O’Toole, many of the faculty members are former program participants. “A lot of dancers who have built their careers in the community started with Strictly Seattle,” she says. “This was their first touchstone, where they met a bunch of choreographers and dancers.” As students get to know these innovative artists, those same artists are learning about the students, getting a sense of whether they might be a good match for future projects. Not everyone lands a job, but some do. For instance, choreographer Amy O’Neal—a major draw of the program for her high-energy, funk-influenced classes and sharp observations—hired two of her 2010 students for a February 2011 show.
For dancers who bring a healthy attitude, seven hours a day for three weeks can result in exponential growth. Graczyk says that many students she worked with “came in with a focus and readiness that enabled them to make great strides in a short time. They knew the value of their time, and you could see it in their willingness to take risks.” By the end, she says, they emerged “more articulate and powerful as performers.” Befort, who has taught at Strictly Seattle in the past, noted that the “rigor and variety of techniques” pushed dancers to test their own physical and intellectual boundaries.
While some students enroll in the Professional Session, an audition-only level that allows the most accomplished dancers to push themselves even further, the atmosphere at Strictly Seattle is inclusive. A 15-minute break on the first Friday morning of the program finds most of the advanced students resting in the largest of Velocity’s three studios, sunlight slanting in from the skylights and pooling on the wooden floor. The students chat in small groups in a loose circle; nobody’s back is turned on anyone. In the final balance, they are all mature dancers working on their craft, discovering what kind of artistic voice speaks to them—and what they have to share with other artists.
To borrow a phrase that the Salt Horse duo used during one class, the teachers at Strictly Seattle hope “you’ll find your specific curiosity.” This is perhaps the greatest reward of the program: In the process of meeting Seattle’s choreographers, you have an opportunity to meet yourself.
Rosie Gaynor is a freelance writer in Seattle.
Amy O’Neal (in black) teaches modern class at Strictly Seattle. Photo by Jennifer Richard, courtesy Velocity