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“Dance is the hidden language of the soul.”
KT Huckabee and Caitlin Osborne know the power of dance. As dancers themselves, instructors, and choreographers, they understand how the art form allows for the transcendence of space, time, and mental baggage.
Over the last 10 years, Ivyside Dance Ensemble (IDE) has offered Penn State Altoona students a platform for those experiences and continues to give them a chance to grow as dancers, performers, and people.
Created by Osborne, instructor in dance and theatre arts, Ivyside Dance Ensemble is for-credit and audition-based, with anywhere from 12 to 24 students accepted. It is an opportunity for those students to apply everything they learn in class to a live on-stage performance.
Says Huckabee, associate teaching professor and choreographer for IDE, “I think the chance to perform live is necessary as part of students’ education. Dance is a performing art. If it is limited and confined to the studio, then even though we talk about performance and expression and the best way to communicate through the body in class, unless they have the opportunity to actually do all of that onstage, they're missing out on a large part of what dance is all about.”
Adds Osborne, “I saw Ivyside Dance as a good opportunity to start something that would just be for the students and also that would give me a chance to do more choreography. I thought it would be nice to have a medium to work on my own ideas.”
The company works in a variety of genres such as ballet, jazz, tap, and hip hop, but its foundation is modern dance. “What we do is often very different from what students have experienced before coming to college,” states Huckabee. “But they are usually very open-minded. They may think things are weird, but l think for the most part, they trust us to take them on a journey that that might be a little uncomfortable for them. I think it’s a great learning experience.”
Malorie Cardaman agrees. “I thought I had a broad perspective of dance styles before I joined the ensemble, but it turns out there is so much more than I thought,” she states. “This is my first year doing any kind of modern dance, so at first it was challenging because I didn’t know how my body would move, but I got used to it, and now I love it!”
Both Huckabee and Osborne describe IDE as cyclical. Every two to four years, as students graduate, the pair must start from nearly scratch to rebuild the company, which takes on a new personality with each group of dancers joining.
But Huckabee says she has learned to trust the process. “We have to go with the flow, and so every semester, we're thinking what is the best way to work it, what’s the dynamic, how do we grow as a company? We have to find the strength in the dancers as a group and help them gel and find their own identity.”
Cassandra Lewis graduated in 2015. She fondly remembers the many hours of rehearsal in the studio and on the stage. “It was great to come together with people from different backgrounds and dance foundations and learn from one another. I experienced so much growth from those rehearsals. They were really the best part for me.”
Sami Fletcher, a sophomore studying industrial engineering, started dancing when she was 3. She was thrilled to learn that Penn State Altoona offers a dance program so she could continue learning and performing. “One of my favorite things about the ensemble is that the girls are supportive of each other. I grew up in a studio that was very competitive. Each of the girls just wanted to better themselves and compete with one another, and I was never a big fan of that. Here, we want to help each other and be close friends. It’s not competitive at all, and I love that.”
Each semester, students have the opportunity to work with not just Huckabee and Osborne, but other professional guest choreographers and instructors. This allows them to experience different artistic processes and types of choreography.
Students have traveled to New York to take professional dance classes and see shows performed at the Joyce Theater, the city’s premier professional dance theatre. “There are a couple of students now living in New York, and I really think that the experience of traveling there with us created a spark in them, allowed them to think, ‘where could I go, what is the rest of the world like.’”
Osborne says one of the highlights of her time with Ivyside Dance was last year when the company was invited to participate in Penn State Altoona’s Common Read program. They created and offered “The Language of Shaping” production, a collaborative work of five choreographers based on Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
This year, for the Ensemble’s spring performance, nine alumni dancers are returning to take part in a pair of works choreographed by Huckabee. In “Patsy,” a suite of dances set to the music of Patsy Cline, alums Josh Barr ‘12, Danielle Johnson ‘15, and Cassandra Lewis ’15, will dance the solos they first performed in 2012. They are joined by new soloists Alyse LaCava ‘17 and Laura Oswald ‘13 to stage this comic repertory piece. Additionally, Catherine Averill ’16, Samantha Bacza ‘16, Tori Long ‘16, and Sheriece Veazey ‘17 will dance in the Huckabee’s newest creation, “Muted,” a work featuring herself and fellow faculty member Tingting Zhou.
“It's been really exciting for me to have these graduates come back and dance with us again,” says Osborne. “They're young adults. Life can be hard, and they can feel really beaten down so it’s great to see them come back to a place that they love. I am so excited to see them on stage again.”
Bacza fondly remembers her time with Ivyside Dance Ensemble. “You make such good friends in the company, and everyone is so close. It’s great coming back because it’s been like a big family reunion.”
Adds Averill, “Ivyside Dance Ensemble was one of the best things that came out of Penn State Altoona for me. I met most of my friends in that group who I am still close with today. It shaped me and taught me to just be who I am.”
Averill, Bacza and Lewis are all excited about the upcoming alumni performance and catching up with each other. “It’s so nice to hear what they’ve all accomplished in the last few years,” says Lewis. “It’s wonderful to come back to this space and reconnect through movement. It’s almost like we never spent a day apart!”
“My body hurts a lot, I’m a little out of practice,” laughs Bacza, “but it’s been such a great experience.”
The next academic year will be a big transition for IDE as Osborne retires as director and leaves Penn State. Reflecting on the last ten years, she says the company was anything and everything she could have imagined it being. “There's not a single concert that I wasn't proud of, not a single company that didn't have dancers I was honored to work with. Plus, I was able to play around with ideas I wanted to as a choreographer. What more could I have asked for?”
Osborne is sad to move away from this part of her life but also feels that it’s time. “There is a lot of dance out there that's different from when I was learning it and even teaching it now. My hope is that Penn State Altoona will hire someone younger who can bring in those newer ideas and skills.” She says she doesn’t have a specific vision for the company’s future because it won’t be hers anymore. But she believes there is still a place for dance and IDE at Penn State Altoona, and she looks forward to seeing where the new director and dancers take it.
As a current and future member of the ensemble, Fletcher is excited, as well. “It’s awesome for me to be a part of the 10th anniversary and for all of us to carry on the legacy of the company, to be the faces of it, showing people we are still going to do what we do and the company is still thriving after all these years.”