By Naomi Shulman
One fine fall day nearly a quarter-century ago, a young, slim woman with hair to her waist walked into an empty gymnasium with five teenagers. The space seemed cavernously large, and the group of students laughably small. But the woman kept her head up and her eyes focused. She had been charged with creating Deerfield Academy’s dance program, and if this was what she was given, she was determined to make it work.
That was Jen Whitcomb, longtime head of Deerfield’s dance program and chair of the Visual and Performing Arts Department. Today, 25 years later, she is still youthful, and still looks every inch the dance instructor. Straight-backed and lithe, with flowing hair that can easily be tightened into a ballerina bun, she moves with fluid grace. You might assume this came from a childhood spent at the barre, but you would be mistaken, because while Whitcomb may look as though she pirouetted before she walked, she didn’t start dancing until she was older than many of her students.
“I came to dance quite late,” she admits. “I had been an athlete, horseback rider, and serious skier. I didn’t dance till I was 16, but when I started, I knew right away that it was what I wanted to do with my life. It married all the things I cared most about—creativity, physicality, self-expression. I learned to stand up in my bones and present myself.”
There’s an apt analogy here. Just as Whitcomb came late to the performing arts, a fully formed performing arts program was a latecomer to Deerfield. There’s always been a stage presence on campus, of course: The earliest theatrical playbill goes back to 1903; alumni of a certain age can recall at least a couple Gilbert & Sullivan librettos; and the Glee Club kept the school in song for decades. Still, a formal performing arts department is relatively new.
“When I first came here in 1976, music was an activity that took place in afternoons, not a course offering,” says Robert Moorhead, who headed the department before Whitcomb. “There was no dance program until the school became coed, and theater faculty were actually English teachers.” But over the decades, the school’s performing arts opportunities gradually became regular course offerings as well as co-curriculars. To use Whitcomb’s words, the arts program began to stand and present itself.
It has taken some doing. When Whitcomb founded the dance department, the program was a tabula rasa—as was she. Whitcomb had a handful of students and only a few years’ experience, but she did have a vision: She conjured up a comprehensive curriculum, training versatile dancers who could specialize, but would also be able to “do everything,” Whitcomb explains. “I’m a professional modern dancer, but I always did a lot of dance forms. Ballet, certainly, but I also loved jazz, and hip-hop, when that came along.”
Deerfield’s emphasis on a well-rounded, balanced academic approach meshed well with Whitcomb’s own experience; after all, she points out, experimenting with ideas and activities is a Deerfield value. “Not only do I believe it’s important for dancers to be well rounded and versatile,” Whitcomb explains, “but I like the broad-minded curiosity that comes from being willing to step outside your comfort zone and try new things.”
“Deerfield students are really balanced,” agrees Lena Mazel ’13, who aspires to be a professional ballet dancer. “When I first came, I was into only ballet, but now I do everything.” Really? “Well, almost everything. My friends encourage me to do hip-hop, but I make a total fool of myself.” She’s laughing, but she knows this, too, is a gift. “I feel safe to make a fool of myself,” she continues. “You can take risks here.”
This may be partly why the dance program has expanded tenfold under Whitcomb’s direction. There are a few students like Lena, who’ve been dancing since preschool and seem headed for the stage, but there are also dozens of others who had never taken a single class before. In fact, there are around 50 students taking classes and another 50 in co-curriculars—with an equal gender balance in the lower levels. “Last year we had more boys than girls,” Whitcomb points out. “We’ve got the football players and the freshman girls, and they are as divergent representatives of our school population as you can imagine.” Clearly students have responded to the call to try new things.
Theater Director Catriona Hynds agrees: “Everyone benefits from taking a theater class,” says Hynds, now beginning her second year directing the program, “whether it be building up your confidence in public speaking or the ability to express your ideas or work in a group.”
Growing up in Scotland, there were precious few dramatic outlets in Hynds’ own schooling, but the few she had made a strong impression. “I knew at 15 that I wanted to direct because I loved being involved in the rare school play,” she says. She went on to win a much coveted Scottish Arts Council fellowship, and has taught literally around the world: Her resume includes the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, the National Theater of Iceland in Reykjavik, and the New Israeli Opera Company in Tel Aviv. Now Hynds revels in the stellar talents Deerfield offers up for her to work with; she has already directed Brighton Beach Memoirs, Medea, and The Dining Room, ambitious productions not often tackled in high school. “Some of the talent here is every bit as good as anything I witnessed at the college level,” she says. “My main priority has been to build off the hugely solid foundation that my predecessor had built over many years.”
One challenge all teachers at Deerfield face is creating time, or opportunity, for students to explore new disciplines. It is a major focus for Dan Roihl, now in his third year directing the music program. “Deerfield has a structured day,” he reflects. “I kept hearing that students wished they could sing in chorus or play in orchestra but had no time. And heaven forbid if some students wanted to do both! They simply couldn’t.” So Roihl, with support from Whitcomb, Moorhead, and other faculty, is creating more opportunities for musical expression, and not just for diehard musicians. Some ensembles meet outside the academic day, for example, but Roihl has also helped to establish new traditions that build on the school’s musical history, such as a candlelight ceremony shortly before Commencement. Even small things, like making sure a piano is available in the Dining Hall for a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday” can affect the school culture.
It’s no wonder that Roihl places a priority on song. Still only in his 30s, he has worked at times as a church music director, a children’s choir conductor, a composer, and a professional countertenor, both as soloist and in ensembles. He established a chamber choir in Cambridge, MA, before he even headed to graduate school. Singing is in his bones, and as such he is building it into the Deerfield day. In many ways Roihl’s philosophy mirrors that of Frank Boyden, who used song as a means of leveling the playing field, providing inspiration, and uniting his Deerfield boys into a cohesive unit.
“Some students have never encountered group singing before,” Roihl says. “They may even have experienced a stigma around it. If it’s woven into the daily fabric, that’s a good start to erasing negative feelings. Also, if it’s something students are exposed to on a regular basis, some will want to pursue it further.”
That might mean participating in the chamber music ensemble, Academy Chorus, or “Bands: Wind/Rock/Jazz,” an umbrella course offering that includes a concert band, jazz band, percussion ensemble, and even rock bands. String players with full academic loads can now participate in orchestra once a week without enrolling in class. The audition-only Madrigal Choir recently won accolades at the Great East Festival at Six Flags New England, and was a semifinalist in local PBS affiliate WGBY’s “Together in Song” festival. And, of course, there are the a cappella groups—the all-male Mellow-D’s and all-female Rhapso-D’s, both exploring a contemporary/pop repertoire, and the newly established Chamber Singers, an a cappella ensemble of soloists that meets during the co-curricular period for one term out of the year. Interestingly, more popular than any of these are “Koch Friday Concerts.”
The program (named after the Koch Center, where performances are usually held) is an important element in building musical arts into students’ lives. “Many of these kids have nothing to do with performing arts, but they get up with their guitar or sing,” says Moorhead. “And no matter how good or bad they may be, they get tremendous support from their peers. There’s an obvious need and reward for them to perform.” The event has grown substantially over the years, Moorhead notes. “I think it comes from a desire in students to connect in a primary way,” he says. “That personal contact is something they welcome, need, and value in a way that’s different from what it was years ago. The performing arts program is helping to meet those needs.”
Perhaps because his focus is on the visual arts, longtime art teacher and KFC organizer David Dickinson sees it in a somewhat different light. “Performance isn’t only good for building confidence,” he points out. “I think it’s an emotional release.”
Taking the Show on the Road
This year, Whitcomb will be on sabbatical, and she will use the time to bolster the department’s overarching goals as well as her own. With Moorhead stepping back in as interim department chair and ballet instructor Crystal Nilsson teaching her courses, Whitcomb is spending time in New York City with her longtime mentor, Lynn Simonson, at the Simonson Contemporary Dance Center, and traveling around Latin America and the Caribbean basin exploring social and folkloric dance forms, which happen to be particularly well suited to Deerfield’s unusually gender-balanced dance classes; Whitcomb points out that upper-level dancers can incorporate the intricate handwork and “breathtaking” lifts into partnering choreography.
“I’d love to see the whole school doing salsa,” she laughs—but Whitcomb isn’t just looking for new moves. She’s also focusing on an arts advocacy program in Rio de Janeiro that is bringing artistic programs to high-crime, low-income areas—precisely the neighborhoods least likely to have artistic outlets. The Brazilian government believes that the arts knit communities together in surprising ways. “To create something, to give birth to a work of art, is one of the most satisfying things you can possibly do,” points out Whitcomb. “The curtain opens and there are people waiting to see you, and you are counting on the person beside you . . . it’s a sense of brotherhood, camaraderie, and connection.” Immersing herself in these programs, Whitcomb hopes, will ultimately lead to significant new course offerings, such as an interdisciplinary language, dance, and history course. It also harkens back to Dan Roihl’s theory: performing together “helps cement the feeling of communal bond, and binds students to the greater legacy and history of the institution,” he explains.
In that same vein, Deerfield is poised to do similar work in its surrounding communities—in places such as a new charter school in the economically depressed city of Holyoke, a mere half-hour drive away. “One goal is to build a service component into the dance program,” says Whitcomb. “I want to teach my kids to teach creative movement. We’ve got to get the arts back into the public schools, but it also illustrates the most practical elements of dance to my students—how dance can open up new worlds.” Catriona Hynds echoes this: “We will be taking beautiful children’s shows into local elementary schools and reminiscence projects into nearby care facilities,” she says. “I aim to keep reaching out to a wider section of the community who would benefit from our high-quality productions.”
But Deerfield will not simply be reaching out to the surrounding community. It will also be pulling the community deeper in. “One of the best ways to build enthusiasm for the musical arts is to focus on great literature, and one challenge is that much of the literature requires a critical mass in terms of players,” says Roihl. “In the interest of achieving that, I’ve started a community choir.” This fall Roihl is planning to take on Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem, two famously ambitious works that benefit from a heavy turnout of singers. “I’ve turned one of the choirs into a ‘town and gown,’ and have had community members come in and join us.” When it comes to singing at Deerfield, the more the merrier.
The Curtain Rises
Hynds, Whitcomb, and Roihl bring different skills to the stage, but clearly share a philosophy—that the arts are integral to education, not just for budding artists but for everyone. This may be why they work so well together, and why their co-taught course, “Introduction to Performing Arts,” which piloted last fall, has already made a big splash. An intro course offering like this had been in the catalog “forever,” says Whitcomb, “but it had never been team-taught by all the department heads. All three of us did every single class together. I was singing, God forbid, and Catriona was dancing, and . . .” Whitcomb pauses. “It was an incredible experience.” More importantly, it exposes students in a meaningful way to a rich variety of creative expression. With their teachers stepping out of the comfort zones of their own disciplines, students have a model for trying something new—and perhaps uncovering a talent for it.
Or not. Discovering artistic talent isn’t the only endpoint here. Like Hynds, Whitcomb points out that the arts are important for all students because they support creative thinking—perhaps the most important talent of all. “We put an awful lot of store into math and sciences,” says Whitcomb. “I know we need them—both my sons are engineers!—but we also need the arts, especially when we’re developing the 21st century learner.”
David Dickinson heartily agrees. “I find that in teaching the current generations, I’m taking them through the process of problem solving,” he says. Such training may be even more crucial in the technological age. “Learning involves patience, focus, and time. All of that flies in the face of technology, where with the click of a button you can find an answer, you can Google anything.”
Whitcomb and Dickinson may have a vested interest here, but they are far from alone. Whitcomb thinks back to filmmaker Ken Burns’ visit to Deerfield last winter. “The very last question he got was, ‘What makes us quintessentially American?’ And Burns said it’s our ability to reinvent ourselves, to improvise. That’s why he believes strongly in the arts,” notes Whitcomb. “Young entrepreneurs talk about how important it is to think creatively, and that comes from the arts; when you engender creativity it can lead to all sorts of things: an entrepreneurial mindset, new ways of looking at familiar situations, and a fresh take on problem solving.”
Which brings us back to Deerfield’s now-vital performing arts program—a far cry from the empty, echoing gymnasium Whitcomb walked into decades ago with a class she could count on one hand. “I remember all of those students as though I taught them yesterday, and I recall that the gym felt immense to us,” Whitcomb says now. But then again, perhaps things haven’t changed that much. The goal is the same: to give students the skills and the inspiration they need to approach problems with fresh eyes, and to express what cannot be said with words. Looking back on those early days, Whitcomb comments that it feels like “half a lifetime ago.” And it was. But that means there’s half a lifetime to go yet. When she returns next year, her colleagues will have continued to set the stage, and the show will go on. ••