M U H L E N B E R G    M A G A Z I N E F A L L    2 0 0 1
State of the Arts
In Silence
(continued from pg.12)

Six years ago, Dearborn, who had always dreamed of starting a college dance program, heard about the opening at Muhlenberg.

"My telephone interviews with people for this job were a little humorous," Dearborn admits. Theater and Dance Department Chairman Charlie Richter describes the phone interviews as "difficult."

"But she had great references and a vision that was consistent with what we were looking for," Richter says.

So Dearborn packed her bags and came to Muhlenberg College, where dance was little more than an extracurricular club and her first classes had to be taught in a converted gymnasium in the basement of a student dormitory. The courses were offered as part of the theater major and many of the students had never worn ballet shoes before. Dearborn's work was cut out for her.

"Sometimes I was a little embarrassed," she says of taking her first Muhlenberg classes to the American College Dance Festival, a prestigious college dance competition. "We were never the absolute worst but," her voice trails off.

"The first year here I kept questioning myself," Dearborn says. "But I kept the mantra going, 'If you build it, they will come.'"

And with some encouragement from Dearborn and Richter, Muhlenberg College did build it. In 1997, the school broke ground on a $10.5 million, 44,000- square-foot building that became the Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance - home to the college's dance and theater programs.

Slowly, Dearborn has turned the extracurricular club into a respected academic major at the liberal arts institution.

Dance, which first became a major at the college last year, is now the school's eighth most-popular major. Muhlenberg officials are hiring a second full-time dance professor who will join Dearborn in the fall. (There are nine part-time professors.)

Dance classes are so in demand that Dearborn never had the opportunity to move out of the converted dormitory dance room - she now teaches in both buildings. And next spring, the school will hold the American College Dance Festival, an annual competition that carries with it national recognition.

"It's a huge undertaking and it's difficult. A college needs to have a very devoted person who is willing to take on the responsibility of mounting a festival," says festival President Diane DeFries. "Everyone can't do it. You need the facilities and you need the motivation."

Motivation is something Dearborn knows. But in spite of how far she's brought Muhlenberg's dance program, she is acutely aware of how far it has yet to go.

"The numbers have grown as big as we can get," she says proudly, referring to the 300 students who take dance classes each semester and the 50 declared dance majors. "The quality is there right now. Of course, you always want to do better. We're not as far as where we need to be."

Every year at the American College Dance Festival, a handful of colleges - out of the roughly 35 participating - are selected to perform at the show's end. Of those colleges, one or two are selected to perform at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., at a biennial event sponsored by the festival.

Muhlenberg College has never been selected for either honor.

But at this spring's festival, Dearborn says she was far from embarrassed by her students' performances. "This year I was extremely proud," she says, flashing a wide grin. Then, she boasts, "I think we're on the cusp of that national recognition."

"She is enormously effective in the classroom and as a choreographer and as a faculty colleague," says Curtis Dretsch, Muhlenberg College vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty.

Photo of Karen Dearborn and dance students during class
Karen Dearborn is proud of the way the Muhlenberg dance program has grown in recent years, with approximately 300 students enrolled in dance classes each semester and 50 dance majors.

"She gets incredibly strong evaluations from her students. She is much beloved," Richter says. "And she is one of the most inspirational people I've ever been fortunate to know."

Dearborn is pleased by her success. "We're so much on track, it's scary. Sometimes, I want to pinch myself," she says. It is still, as always, all about dance.

"There is nothing else in my life that has ever come close to taking me in another direction," she says, her voice suddenly serious.

But she is quick to point out that it is not the number of students who make it to top-notch ballet companies or theaters that matters to her.

"I'm not making just dancers," she says. "I don't count my success by how many dancers I have in companies. I count my success by how many students dance has taught to take risks. "It's not how many turns or how many kicks you can make. I want my students to work hard and be wonderful human beings who contribute positively to society and the world."

In the stark gray-and-black room she helped design in the Trexler Pavilion, Dearborn takes control of her class with a forceful energy, shouting quick commands to her dancers and gently correcting their mistakes.

At the front of the room she demonstrates a double pique turn that she wants her students to complete and then relinquishes the floor to them. "Now let's pretend it's a beautiful spring day and you're in a field of flowers and you want one and, oh, you have it and it's gorgeous," she croons to the piano's swelling music. "Now reach over with the other hand. And you want your toe to touch a pool of water and it's making a ripple."

Around her, 25 pairs of legs in tights stretch and spin. Dearborn beams.

"And look at those nice doubles that come out of positive thinking."

previous page - CONTENTS - next page