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Athletes gain increased agility, dexterity through dance class

Dance instructor Philip Johnston
Click photo to enlarge

In motion Philip Johnston coordinates the Discovery course Dance 100. “With non-majors, I have evolved a way of working with dance and using the space around them,” Johnston said. His instructional technique is grounded in “developmental work: crawling, rolling, tumbling – everything that involves the human body in motion.”

When Illinois athletes Adam Davis, Mikel LeShoure, Whitney Mercilus and Troy Pollard signed up to take Kate Kuper’s Dance 100 class, they knew they would probably learn to bust a few new moves.

What they didn’t know was that by the end of the semester, Kuper’s curriculum might end up boosting their writing skills as well.

Kuper, an adjunct professor of dance with many years of community-based experience teaching dancers of all ages, is the instructor for the only course section of this Freshman Discovery course reserved for students in the university’s Transition Program. Discovery courses, limited to 20 or fewer students, are intended to provide new students with an enriched, more personal level of instruction. The Transition Program provides extra support for incoming freshmen who, Kuper said, may be “coming in from low-performing schools, but have the potential to excel at the university.”

After her experience last year teaching Dance 100 for the first time, Kuper realized that many of her incoming freshmen could benefit not only from the physical exercises on the dance floor, but also from writing exercises.

“That’s my emphasis because that’s where they’re weakest (academically),” she said. “So this year, it’s less reading, more writing.

Dance 100 classes meet twice a week. The writing and other intellectual pursuits take place in the lecture session, in which students receive an introduction to the history of modern dance. For the second “lab” meeting, students don loose-fitting clothes and kick off their shoes in a dance studio for some hands-on/feet-on training.

Earlier this fall, in a basement studio in the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Kuper – dressed in capri pants and beating out rhythms on a tambourine – was shouting out moves to lines of dancers taking turns moving up and down the floor.

Philip Johnston
Click photos to enlarge

Philip Johnston to his Dance 100 students: “If you participate ... you’ll do fine.”

Philip Johnston

“Reach into the space ... get into the space ... EXPLODE! EXPLODE! EXPLODE!” she coached, as her charges moved gracefully forward, backward and side-to-side before hopping into the air with arms and legs outstretched in their own interpretation of Kuper’s final directive.

No small feat for the most coordinated feet at 10 o’clock in the morning.

And yet, most of the 19 class members participating were not only going with the flow, they were clearly finding their groove thing.

Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that some of the most uninhibited and free-spirited movers were a couple of the athletes – Pollard, a running back on the football team, from Jacksonville, Fla., and Davis, a catcher on the baseball team, from Bloomingdale, Ill.

“Troy is interested, hungry to move, adaptable physically,” Kuper said. “I suspect he is used to memorizing patterns with his feet anyway.”

It turns out, Kuper was right-on with her observation.

“When I’m working my feet really fast, sometimes it’ll look like I’m doing football moves,” he said. “Dance is helping me with my flexibility and being nimble.”

Pollard signed on for the class because he had heard some of the players took it last year and enjoyed the experience.

“I thought I’d take it and see what all the big fuss was about,” he said.

Davis also took the class at the recommendation of teammates.

“Being a catcher, I need good feet work, and dance helps me with my feet work,” he said.

Davis’ moves haven’t been lost on his teacher.

“He’s very comfortable with his body, and he’s not afraid to try things,” Kuper said.

For other athletes, the transition from artificial turf to dance floor has been more challenging.

“I’m kind of shy dancing in front of other people,” said Mercilus, a defensive lineman from Akron, Ohio. He was reluctant to dance because he doesn’t like to be laughed at. But he soon learned that’s not tolerated in Kuper’s class.

“I try not to ever put a person in a position where they’re feeling embarrassed,” she said. “My philosophy is to create an environment where it’s safe to solve problems courageously.”

LeShoure, a running back from Champaign, said his counselor directed him to Dance 100.

“It’s cool,” he said. “You get to learn to interact with all the other people. You can’t be shy in the class if it’s something you’re not used to doing.”

Sophomore Matt Eller, a kicker on the football team from Jacksonville, Fla., who took the class last year with dance professor and course coordinator Philip Johnston, believes the dance experience helped him on the field.

“It worked out for balance and flexibility,” he said. “It’s really big for kickers to have good flexibility.”

Lou Hernandez, the football team’s head strength coach, said “the more our athletes are involved in this training, the better.”

“Coach (Ron Zook) is such a big believer in physical conditioning,” Hernandez said. “If we get the opportunity to guide our students to an elective, no question, we guide them into something active like this.”

Hernandez said when the topic of football players dancing first comes up, most people – including the athletes – may ask, “Are you kidding me?”

“But they’re both about highly coordinated movement,” he said. “If you watch ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ among those who are most successful are football players: Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice, Jason Taylor, Warren Sapp.”

Hernandez said the Fighting Illini football coaching staff also recently began promoting the benefits of yoga.

“Yoga has helped tremendously,” Hernandez said, noting that some of the static and dynamic stretching has been particularly beneficial for the team’s offensive linemen “who may bench press 400 pounds and be able to do several 100-yard sprints – grueling demanding things – but have difficulty with simple body positions and holding.”

Since he began teaching and administering the course, Johnston said athletes in his classes have included former UI basketball player Sergio McClain and 2008 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team member and bronze medal winner Justin Spring.

“With non-majors, I have evolved a way of working with dance and using the space around them,” Johnston said. His instructional technique is grounded in “developmental work: crawling, rolling, tumbling – everything that involves the human body in motion.” And often, the exercises are executed with partners.

“In one class, I had a footballer who was 6 feet 6 inches tall – a giant of a lad, who was partnered with the most petite woman in the class. He treated her like porcelain. He was really a gentle giant.”

Johnston said he’ll never forget another class, which included an unusually agile trio of dance newbies.

“On the first day, they’re rolling and crawling,” he said. “I watched these guys and it was extraordinary. They were like lizards on the floor.”

Later, when the students invited Johnston to attend their gymnastics meet, their extraordinary, reptilian moves on the first day of class suddenly made sense.

The final assignment for students in Dance 100 is to create and perform their own dance. By then, most of the inhibitions they come into the experience with usually are gone.

That’s a stark contrast to how many start out on the first day of class, when Johnston tells them they stand a good chance of getting an A if they fulfill the requirements outlined in the syllabus. Many, he said, protest:  “But I’m not a dancer.”

However, Johnston isn’t so concerned about whether a student can execute a perfect plié or become a master of fancy footwork.

“I tell them, ‘If you participate, if you go for it, and are not standing in the corner, you’ll do fine.”

View a video about Dance 100


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