MCALLEN, TEXAS – If you asked for American modern dancer Martha Graham’s opinion, she’d tell you that dance was the first art form. For the Performing Arts department at South Texas, it would be the last piece to shimmy into place.
Every time the drama program would stage a musical like “The Bee,” or, when the music students rocked an upbeat jam in the Cooper Cabaret, the art of movement was always missing — until now. STC has announced a brand-new dance degree, beginning this fall, allowing learners to brisé into high-energy careers.
Take student Arlet Juarez. Currently a business major, she plans to double up with dance in pursuit of a lifelong dream to open her own children’s studio in the Valley.
“It’s really exciting because at first, I wasn’t sure there was a degree for dance,” shares Juarez, who thought she would have to transfer to follow her passion. “But now that it’s going to be here in the fall, it’s exciting because I can already step into it … and see that I’m getting closer to a degree in dance.”
“Finally, we have our dance major,” adds instructor Jose Zamora, who taught Juarez in high school and now works as an adjunct dance instructor at STC. Zamora grew up in the local dance community and is excited about having an accessible, local dance program in which to pass on his passion and expertise.
“There is a growing appreciation for the arts,” says the instructor. “It is no longer just the focus of entertainment. People see that there can be a lucrative career behind it.”
With the majority of the area’s high schools already offering robust dance programs, students like Juarez can now continue to follow their calling close to home. After all, the McAllen Independent School District boasts a national dance team. And according to a recent economic report, it also hosts the highest number of students earning seats in the All Valley fine arts programs, with many representing the region at state.
Instead of waiting for a university to pursue their art — or missing out on the opportunity altogether — aspiring dancers can get off on the right foot, right at South Texas College.
“Our dance programs across the Valley are so phenomenal, and they produce very talented individuals,” explains Drama Department Chair Joel Jason Rodriguez, an instructor at STC for over a decade. “To contribute to furthering that education for those students who want to pursue a career in the field, I think we’re all honored to be a part of that now.”
Previously, the College has offered Beginning Ballet as well as two lecture courses, World Dance and Dance Appreciation. Now, with a full associate degree in dance in the limelight, the class schedule will surge, with more options in ballet, modern, jazz, choreography, improv and more.
The degree will help students set the stage for creative careers in dance companies and beyond, working as performers, choreographers or director’s assistants. Opportunities like these are on the rise in the RGV, which is quickly becoming a hub for art and culture in South Texas. The region staked its claim in 2017 with the debut of the McAllen Performing Arts Center, the most advanced such facility south of San Antonio, holding close to 2,000 seats.
There are also career paths in education from public schools to dance studios, with the additional possibility of students like Juarez opening their own spaces.
“People think that it’s just about dancing, but there are so many opportunities available within the arts,” explains Rodriguez. “To have that background in the arts gives us that foundation to go further … and it’s great to have that here at STC.”
As the program develops, students will have more opportunities to study choreography and pedagogy to help meet the region’s booming demand for dance educators in public schools. Zamora says the community has a strong tradition of baile folklorico, traditional folk dances from Mexico with characteristics of ballet. The introduction of STC’s latest program will help add American contemporary and modern dance into the artistic ecosystem.
“It’s an exciting endeavor to bridge what already exists here in the Valley with what is missing so that our students here have the same opportunities and exposure that other artists do around the country,” explains Zamora.
Currently, the department is working on solutions to make dance classes compatible with social distancing requirements, including cleaning in between sessions and scheduling smaller class sizes. The latter precaution yields an added benefit of expanded one-on-one instruction.
“We’re up for the challenge,” says Rodriguez. “We know that we have students waiting to pursue that degree in dance.”
The College has an existing dance studio on the main campus, plus access to the drama department’s black box studio and main stage theater. The program is currently looking to collaborate with local dance studios to expand further and offer more practice spaces.
Performances are also on the docket, giving students the chance to cross over and collaborate with various departments. “There are myriad opportunities for performances that our community can really enjoy,” says Rodriguez. According to the veteran thespian, the latest performing arts program addition will open up exciting possibilities, particularly when it comes to musical productions. With the new dance degree, he says, “I think we’re going to feel complete.”
“Everyone is excited to see where this goes,” says Zamora. “It’s going to be incredible to give people a space to grow. … Hopefully, it will take us into the new generation of dance here in the Valley.”
For students like Juarez, the opportunity couldn’t be more timely. The first in her immediate family to attend college, she is excited to pursue her art — all the more because dance studios have been largely closed since early last year.
“It’s going to be a really cool experience to start dancing again,” says the success-bound bailador.
“Dance has really shaped me and who I am.”