Saint Mary’s College Dance Company and Cathy Davalos Celebrate 20th Anniversary

CatherineMarie DavalosWhen CatherineMarie Davalos applied for a full-time, tenure-track assistant professor position at Saint Mary’s back in 1997, she had no idea that 20 years later she would be the director of the Dance Program, director of the Saint Mary’s College Dance Company, and overseeing the newly launched graduate MFA in Dance program. Before Davalos came on board, Claire Sheridan was the dance faculty member teaching classes that at the time were cross-listed between Performing Arts and Health, Physical Education and Recreation (now known as the Kinesiology Department) in a small studio at the back of Madigan Gym. “Claire mentioned that she brought the dance program as far as she could, and needed a new person to take it to the next level,” said Davalos.
 
Davalos applied for the position and interviewed with Sheridan, other Performing Arts faculty, and some of the Performing Arts students (which officially became a major a few years earlier in 1993). “I remember thinking, “Wow this is it. This is where I’m going to work for the rest of my life.’ I had a feeling, a hope that they wanted me because I knew I wanted to be at Saint Mary’s,” recalled Davalos. When Davalos was hired, Sheridan left to found the LEAP Program. After Davalos’ first semester at the college, she hired Dana Lawton as a part-time faculty member. Davalos was also actively performing in companies and showing her own work in the Bay Area, and was able to bring guest artists in for master classes. From there, the dance program grew.
 
The first year Davalos was at Saint Mary’s, she founded SMC’s dance company. “I discovered, [that] if you call it a company, their perception of what it means to be a student in a dance program changes. The dance company brought a level of community to the program, that we didn’t have before,” said Davalos. In the spring of 1998, the company presented its first concert which featured a mix of faculty and student choreography. The dance company has grown so much over the past 20 years that now the program hosts two concerts annually—a fall student-choreographed concert and a spring concert featuring faculty choreography and work by guest artists.
 
“When I came [to Saint Mary’s] there was one student who was a dance major, and there were 10 students in total in my class. By my second year here, we had to double everything,” said Davalos. As student interest increased, Davalos and the Performing Arts Department had to double classes and, eventually establish multiple levels of training. “We now have four levels of modern technique and four levels of ballet,” said Davalos. Now, the company averages between 40 to 50 students—all of whom are either majoring or minoring in dance. “The beautiful thing about the growth of the program is our relationship with the school. When I needed additional faculty and classes as we were growing and developing, the school was able to provide and support us,” said Davalos.

Liquid Pronouncements by CatherineMarie Davalos Each year, members of the company attend the regional conference of the American College Dance Association (ACDA). The conference features master classes and a showcase where schools bring different dances for adjudication. Select dances are invited by a panel of judges to perform in the ACDA Gala. A select three dances from each region are invited to perform at the National College Dance Festival hosted at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. One of the most defining moments of Davalos’ career was the first time the Saint Mary’s dance company made it to the gala.

Shaunna Vella ’03, MFA ’16, an original company member when the group was first invited to the ACDA Gala, graduated and began teaching part-time at the College. Last summer, after graduating as a member of the very first cohort of the Saint Mary’s MFA in Dance program, she became a full-time faculty member. “When I came here in 1999 for my undergraduate studies, I never thought I would be a full-time professor of dance. My life with this dance program developed as I did; at first I could teach part-time and be a professional dancer in San Francisco, and then when I was ready to hone my pedagogy and shift into academic lines of inquiry, the dance program was there to support and challenge me,” said Vella.

In 2010, SMCDC was selected for the ACDA Gala again with their dance Fast Brass choreographed by guest artist, Janice Garrett, which was also invited to perform at the national conference in Washington, D.C. It was also in 2009, that the Performing Arts Department began offering scholarships for students majoring or minoring in one of the three Performing Arts programs—Dance, Music, and Theatre. The new scholarships along with the national recognition through ACDA began attracting a higher caliber of dance student to the Dance Program.
 
For Davalos the spring concerts are always bittersweet. “The spring is tough because it is when the seniors graduate. Every year, I have to tell myself ‘Okay, they’re ready—you have to let them go,’” said Davalos. Luckily for her, many of her alumni still remain in touch. “I still get Christmas cards from students from many years ago. They send me pictures of their families.It’s really fun.” With the new MFA in Dance program, some students are able to further their studies in dance at Saint Mary’s.
 
This spring semester, the company is gearing up for its 20th Anniversary Concert, Rise, which will run May 11-13 in the LeFevre Theatre. Directed by Vella, Rise investigates the different ways in which people are striving to face the challenges of today with love, compassion, strength, humor, intelligence, grace, and a strong commitment to our shared future. The concert will feature choreography by dance faculty members, including  Davalos, Pope Flyne, Dana Lawton, Rogelio Lopez, Dima and Olga Sukachov, Elizebeth Randall-Rains, and Vella, as well as Zaquia Mahler Salinas, MFA in Dance ’17.
 

Rise runs May 11-13 at 8 p.m. and May 13 at 4 p.m. in the LeFevre Theatre. For more information on the 20th Anniversary Concert and how to buy tickets, visit: stmarys-ca.edu/dance-rise.