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Op-ed

Teaching Baltimore to dance

Baltimore is a city of the arts. Walk through any neighborhood and it's not uncommon to notice a musician with a guitar strapped to his or her back or a paintbrush peeking from a bag slung over an artist's shoulder. If that neighborhood happens to be Mt. Vernon, those telltale signs of artistry might include tights and a "bun-head." This month, as we celebrate the Peabody Dance program's centenary (peabody.jhu.edu/dance100), we also commemorate its place in Baltimore history and in Baltimore's arts and cultural life.

In 1914, as tourists flocked to Baltimore for the Star Spangled Banner's centennial celebration, Peabody's new dance program opened its doors. The new department bonded closely with the tradition of musical excellence at Peabody, teaching musicians that music could be experienced through movement of the body. At the time, only one significant ballet company was operating in the United States, and dance was largely associated with Broadway and vaudeville. A dance program was just what Charm City needed.

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As Peabody Dance grew, the cultural fabric of Baltimore was growing with it. The Baltimore Museum of Art was founded in the same year, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened just two years later, followed by commercial radio stations broadcasting in Baltimore in 1922. By that time, Peabody Dance had catapulted to success with a 1922 performance of Orpheus and Eurydice featuring 200 dancers, musicians and singers. Serious dancers flocked to Peabody, one of the first schools to offer rigorous ballet training outside of New York City.

The first dance classes taught inside the walls of 1 East Mount Vernon Place were in eurythmics and "barefoot" dancing, which was influenced by dancer Isadora Duncan's free-flowing movements. The department continued to set the pace for dance programs across the country, while reflecting larger cultural and societal trends. Ballet was added by 1918, and the first book examining Native American Dance was researched and written by Peabody Dance leaders. During the decades that followed, Peabody welcomed esteemed choreographers and dancers to Baltimore to work with students, often helping to launch the careers of Peabody dancers and cementing Peabody's — and Baltimore's — place on the national dance map.

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To this day, Peabody Dance sets a high bar for excellence in dance training. Peabody dancers learn improvisation and composition, which provides advanced students a significant advantage when heading to college dance programs. Musicians from the Peabody Conservatory also make frequent appearances in Peabody Dance classes, allowing dance students to perform with live music — a rare and valuable opportunity. And through Peabody's unique Estelle Dennis/Peabody Dance Training Program for Boys, more than two-dozen young men with a passion for dance but little or no dance experience receive free dance training of the highest caliber.

One of the most exciting parts of our centennial celebration is the chance to tell the story of Peabody Dance to new and even wider audiences in Baltimore and across the state through a compelling archival exhibit which will open at Peabody this month before traveling to libraries in Wicomico, Harford and Cecil Counties throughout the year. Peabody Dance also joins with the Society of Dance History Scholars to host a conference in Baltimore, which will include several free public events. The capstone of the celebration is a special performance highlighting Peabody Dance's remarkable history and promising future.

Peabody Dance alumni have gone on to successful dance careers with companies including Pilobolus, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, Mark Morris Dance Group, the Stuttgart Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, taking what they learned in Baltimore to a national and even international, stage. And with more than 300 students from age 3 to adult studying dance each week, Peabody continues to play a vital role in Baltimore's vibrant art scene.

Sandra Levi Gerstung (sandigerstung1@gmail.com) and Terry Morgenthaler (terrymorgenthaler@gmail.com) are co-chairs of the Peabody Dance Centennial Performance.


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