Paul Dennis is an Associate Professor the the UMass Amherst Department of Music and Dance, as well as a Co-Director of the University Dancers and a coordinator of HFA's New York Professional Outreach Program. Professor Dennis discusses his journey with dance and how his experiences have shaped his relationship with the art form.
When did you first begin dancing?
I began at age 9 in my country of Trinidad. I had previously seen someone dance who said he took dance classes. So I went to my parents asking for dance classes, and two weeks later my dad took me to my first ballet class.
When did you know that you wanted to pursue dance as a career, and how did you determine your path?
At 18 years old, I participated in “Teen Talent” a national talent competition hosted by Trinidad TV personality Hazel Ward. The first prize, which I won along with my dance partner, was an all expense trip to NYC. At the time I was working in a bank and dance was not much more than a serious hobby. Those days my dad and I would take weekend walks along one of Trinidad’s beaches, and during one of those walks he suggested that I pursue dance as a career. It sounded as good as any advice at the time and since I had not yet used the prize from the competition, and Trinidad had some dancers previously entered and graduated, I booked a flight to audition for the Juilliard School in NYC. May I add that my path was singular and clear: I was to pursue dance as a career. It wasn’t to “get a college degree in dance” nor, “try out my passion as long as I can, since I had banking as a ‘back-up.’” My focus was such that during holiday breaks from school, I would participate in short programs with dance companies and studios. One winter break I took a temp job to earn some income and decided after, that, anything I did from then on had to be associated with dance. I was either going to be a dance professional or simply not dance at all.
What is your favorite style of dance and why?
At the time, Juilliard dance required four years of ballet, three of the Graham and Limon (modern) techniques and one of Taylor (another modern) technique. Limon and Taylor were my favorite because of their musicality, the grand design of bodies in space, the humanistic approach to the choreography and that my body seemed to have an affinity to the way these techniques moved.
What have been your favorite pieces to perform and choreograph over the course of your career?
“Day on Earth” choreographed by Doris Humphrey
“Chaconne” choreographed by Jose Limon
“There is a Time” choreographed by Jose Limon
“Tenant of the Street” choreographed by Eve Gentry
“Seeline ‘Oman” choreographed by Reggie Wilson
“...and suddenly, everything seems so far away” choreographed by yours truly.
I’m not a prolific choreographer, producing one new annually. This, my most recent commission, premiered this spring in Florence, Italy was created during an 11-day creative residency. I had to be exact in my intent and acutely mindful of shape and structure because I didn’t have the luxury of an extended editing period. What it produced was a tightly structured 30 minute work for 14 dancers that had clarity and courage in the phrasework and a satisfying use of space. Not to forget I was working with dancers who were eager and capable to explore creative ideas beyond what they were used to, and that lends a wonderful edgy ness and immediacy to the performance.
You have collaborated with Tewksbury Hospital to bring dance therapy to patients living with Huntington’s Disease (HD). What has that experience been like? How has it influenced your perspective on dance?
Well, firstly, I am not a dance therapist and so I hesitate using the term “therapy” to identify what we accomplished at Tewksbury Hospital; though it has therapeutic effects, there is no formal research/outcomes other than anecdotal. I studied Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) towards becoming a Certified Movement Analyst (CMA), which gave me scientific grounding in all aspects of functional and performative movement. This deepened my commitment to using dance as a tool to meet the needs of the community, specifically those with Huntington’s (HD) and other neurodegenerative diseases. The experience of working alongside physical and occupational therapists and other caregivers in an attempt to delay the progress of disease symptoms and to alleviate the movement disorder and the emotional and cognitive distress of the residents was profoundly satisfying. The experience has sharpened/confirmed my conviction that dance, aside from its importance as an art, holds a unique place in personal growth/change.
You are also a NYPOP (New York Professional Outreach Program) coordinator for the dance department. How do you think this program provides unique opportunities for students?
My overall goal in the course is to provide an environment and resources where students are able to take responsibility for researching and planning their after-graduation path(s). It is designed largely as a self-directed course where students are given opportunities for administration (writing, researching, budgeting), networking (forums and panels, alumni events) and marketing (interviews, auditions, photo shoots) among other issues and ideas that are critical to learn for a successful career in dance. Probably the major thrust of the program is to provide support for the student who wants to pursue a career in dance; and at last count, the class in fall ‘18 identified 28+ such careers.
Are you working on any projects that you are excited about for the future?
My solo concert tour is ongoing; as I mentioned the latest edition including a 30 minute work for 14 dancers with music by Arvo Part, in Florence, Italy and I’m working towards a venue here in the Pioneer Valley as well in NYC. I am also in the beginning stages of developing a short term dance study abroad in collaboration with a theater and dance academy in Italy. And thirdly, I’m also in the process of designing the protocol for a clinical study in a collaborative effort called Movement Intervention for Neurodegenerative Disease (MIND:Dance for HD, at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston).