Hard work, laughs, growth, freedom, structure, sweat, and of course, Britney Spears: These are just some of the things dancers can expect from a rehearsal with student choreographer Dan Van Note '14. And the mix he brings of fun and hard work, in an atmosphere of creative freedom, is the reason so many student dancers want to work with him.
"Students have a lot of demands on their time at Davidson, and it's really humbling when you get 35 people who say ‘hey, I want to spend an hour with you every week to help make your creative visions come to life and to then share it with my peers,'" Van Note said.
He regularly choreographs and performs in dances for Davidson's semi-annual Dance Ensemble show, and served as president of the organization for three semesters. He also is a member of Gamut Dance Company, the audition-based dance group on campus. In addition to performing on campus for Dance Ensemble, Gamut, and two Live Thursday events, he has choreographed and performed in shows in Greensboro, N.C.; Shanghai, China; and New York City.
Oh, and he's been dancing for just three years. Total.
A high school athlete from Topsham, Maine, Van Note always enjoyed watching dance-particularly the sort of commercial, pop culture styles he saw in music videos-but never saw himself as a dancer. And he certainly never envisioned pursuing dance professionally.
But Davidson's student-run Dance Ensemble, open to students of all dance interests and backgrounds, appealed to Van Note, and he performed in the ensemble's fall show his freshman year. He then tried his hand at choreographing a dance for the spring show, and "from then on I was hooked," he said. He has choreographed one or two pieces every semester since, and plans to pursue dance after graduation.
An anthropology major and economics minor, Van Note says his cultural studies inform his choreography, and vice versa.
For example, during the fall of 2012 he studied anthropology abroad at Fudan University in Shanghai, China-part of Davidson's Shanghai Program-and while there he joined the hip hop/street dance group at the university. He choreographed a piece for the group, working across language barriers and cultural expectations. And, he used his experience working with the dance group as a field study for his anthropology course.
Last year, Van Note received a dance scholarship from Davidson that enabled him to spend time in New York City during the summer, taking dance classes and making work in a rented studio space. At the end of his time in the city, he performed three unique solo pieces: one without music; one with music he composed with the computer program GarageBand; and, of course, one with Britney.
Recently Van Note received a Dean Rusk travel grant to study historically African American and queer dance styles in Cape Town, South Africa. While there, he did a lot of solo improvisational work.
"It was really the first time in my life that I had not been provided with clear direction as to the correct method for me to follow," he said. "I was completely self-directed, both in the logistical elements of finding filming locations, and in the artistic task of creating artful dance scenes."
In early March Van Note traveled with Dance Prof. Alison Bory and nine other Davidson students to the American College Dance Festival at Georgia College. While there he attended workshops and shared choreography. His piece, "Warning: Please Read Carefully," was selected for inclusion in the final gala, which showcases the best work from the workshop, and also was selected as an alternate to represent the Southeast region at the national gala held at the Kennedy Center.
As a member of Gamut Dance Company, he continues to take dance classes and hone his technical skills. And in addition to dance skills, his experience as a choreographer has taught him life skills, such as strategies for effective leadership, he said. One very important leadership lesson: "Never pretend like you know everything," he said.
The opportunity to work with people on something creative-whether as a member of a dance team or as a choreographer-is what most excites Van Note about dance.
"It's a time when students aren't graded, and a time when creativity is number one," he said. "It's the reason that I'm excited to come back to campus every semester."
And dancers are excited to work with Van Note, too – his Dance Ensemble pieces regularly draw some of the largest groups of dancers, averaging around 25 students.
"To be able to come into Davidson without having set foot in a dance studio before, with no kind of training, and to be able to evolve to choreograph dances for 25-plus people, and to be able to do that in a more intentional, effective way, has been amazing," he said. And he welcomes the opportunity to work with other students who are trying something new and just discovering their dance abilities, as he was three years ago.
Because dance is created "by humans for humans," it is an ever-changing, ever-surprising medium for creative expression, Van Note said, and he loves that.
"A choreographed dance is never going to be as we see it in our minds," he said, "that's the joy of it."
After graduation Van Note hopes to live and work in New York City, and continue to choreograph and dance.