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Archive for Saturday, August 12, 2006

New dance instructor hopes to bring global perspective to classroom

August 12, 2006

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"I'm a flamenco expert," said Michelle Heffner Hayes, Kansas University's new associate professor of dance.

But she quickly demurred, not sure whether her doctorate in dance history and theory - or her half-dozen published papers on the cultural history of flamenco dance - actually support her short claim.

Maybe, she decided.

"When I was in Mexico, I was the 'U.S. dance expert.' I don't know if I deserved that title."

Hayes, who earned her undergraduate degree in dance at KU in 1991, has traveled the world and established strong international business ties through dance.

In her most recent role as the executive director of cultural affairs at Miami Dade College in Florida, she helped set up an American tour for Taller Flamenco from Seville, Spain, getting them into the country and setting up vital dates on a tour - and bringing that taste of culture directly to Miami.

At KU, she'll be immersing the students into the Spanish culture - the language, the food, the style and, yes, the dance - by sending them abroad through many of the contacts she has made in her years bringing flamenco to the United States.

She also hopes to establish ties for students of broad disciplines with a think tank in Buenos Aires, Argentina (where tango rules the nights), that looks at how the culture of the place represents the values of its people.

The business of dance

Janet Hamburg, professor of dance in KU's Department of Music and Dance, said that Hayes would be adding to the program's global dimension.

"Movement relates to every aspect of our lives," Hamburg said. "We want our students to feel that they are part of the world, not just to perfect their technique."

And being part of the world, Hamburg said, means being able to graduate from college with a skill set not just to know how to dance, but to make a living at it. And the expertise Hayes brings in arts administration will go a long way in helping KU's dance students.

"Arts administration is an important factor in terms of students who are able to support themselves," Hamburg said. "You may have a great choreographer, but with no business savvy her business becomes unmanageable."

Hayes agrees. "What we need to get better at doing is giving artists the tools to promote themselves."

"We may produce a thousand violinists with the same technical skills as Joshua Bell," Hayes said, "but somewhere along the way someone has taught Joshua Bell how to promote himself, and that's what really sets him apart.

"I have a different perspective than the other teachers. They were - and are - great dancers. I've developed as an arts administrator; I give people the tools to promote marginalized arts."

Hamburg said that Hayes, a native of Topeka, also will be an important example for the students.

"It's important that she's a Kansan," Hamburg said. "It shows that you don't have to be limited by your geography. A lot of students feel that they couldn't make it in New York. Professor Hayes is an example of someone who has found success both nationally and internationally."

Filling (dance) shoes

Hayes said that she had not actually been looking for a career change, "My mentor, Joan Stone, retired and asked me if I would replace her."

But she wasn't a simple shoe-in, Hamburg said.

"We did a national search and Michelle Heffner Hayes was one of the top three applicants that we had. She was an extraordinary student when she was here. She was a role model for other undergraduates; we're delighted that she will be a role model as a professor."

Hamburg said that while Stone and Hayes were both marvelous dance scholars and historians, there are more differences than just the specific areas of dance they specialize in.

Hayes, Hamburg said, will be joining the faculty at a time when some members of the university administration are interested in adding a masters of fine arts degree for dance. There are no MFA programs for dance in Kansas or any of its surrounding states, Hamburg said. "This is certainly a need. This would be a terrific asset to the university and to the state."

Hayes' background in arts administration, Hamburg said, gives the dance program a person who is capable of teaching potential MFA candidates.

Back to the studio

Hayes said that she's looking forward to her new post as an opportunity to once again teach and participate in the arts.

Her former job bringing in international acts to the Miami area and establishing national tours was full of long hours and high stress.

"There are very few flamenco traveling tours" for a reason, she said. "They are expensive and fragile - and full of Byzantine complexity given our nation's post 9-11 stance on international travelers."

Long hours worrying about everything from ticket sales to getting artists organized across borders made her prioritize her time in ways that she hadn't intended.

"I've tried to maintain a career as a dancer while doing all of these administrative things," she said, "but when you work 60 to 80 hours a week it's hard to maintain an artistic side.

"I had to ask myself, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute, what is important to me?'" she said. "This is me getting back in the studio."

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