Sweet Briar dancers head to international conference in Australia

Vanessa Finnegan
Vanessa Finnegan ’16 during her Honors Summer Research project in summer 2016

Sweet Briar professors Mark and Ella Magruder are taking a group of students and alumnae to Australia this summer to attend Panpapanpalya 2018, the second annual global congress hosted by dance and the Child international and the World Dance Alliance July 8-13 in Adelaide.

The conference, one of the largest gatherings of dance educators and performers worldwide, centers on four interconnected themes: dance, gathering, generations and learning, all summarized in the Aboriginal Kaurna word “Panpapanpalya.” It will take place at the University of South Australia’s City West campus and at Adelaide College of the Arts.

“The students will assist us, perform and share ideas with dancers from around the world,” says Mark Magruder, who has been teaching at Sweet Briar for more than 30 years. The Magruders will present a workshop and talk at the congress. Every three years, they attend a daCi conference with students — in 2015, the couple traveled to Denmark with dance major Ruth Packard ’17.

This year’s lucky participants are sophomores Rachel Woods, Olympia LeHota and Haylei Libran and first-year Mary Parker. They’ll be joined by M.A.T. candidate Vanessa Finnegan and recent grad Katrina Buniak. In addition to assisting their professors, the students will get to show some of their own work, as well. Woods, LeHota and Libran will perform their piece “NYX,” which they’ve choreographed themselves, while Finnegan will stage a solo.

Olympia LeHota and Haylei Libran
Olympia LeHota ’20 (top) and Haylei Libran ’20. Photo by Andrew Wilds

“I am most excited about meeting new people and keeping an open mind towards different ideas and concepts,” says LeHota, a dance and art history double major from Asheville, N.C., who also is pursuing an Arts Management Certificate in museum studies. Taking classes with professionals from around the world is another perk of the trip, she adds, because it will let her “experience a variety of teaching styles.”

LeHota teaches dance in Sweet Briar’s afterschool program, as does Woods, who is planning to get her M.A.T. after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in dance. “This is perfect for me,” says the Raleigh, N.C., native. “I am able to teach alongside my professor and shadow everything he does.”

Like LeHota, Woods looks forward to learning new dance techniques and expanding her network. “The conference is an opportunity to connect with people from all over the world — which one day could lead to a great job opportunity,” she adds.

Libran, from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., has the same thought. “I want to join a dance company in the future, so who knows, maybe I meet a company from America while at daCi that really strikes my fancy and I form a connection with them,” she ponders.

For the dance major and theatre minor, the trip is a big deal all around: “This will be my first time outside of the United States, and I will be flying solo, so I am equal parts excited and nervous!”

Haylei Libran and Rachel Woods
Libran (left) and Rachel Woods ’20 during a class

It’s a first for fellow dance major Parker, too. “It will be quite an adventure,” says the Richmond native, who co-teaches an Irish dance class in the afterschool program at Sweet Briar. “Teaching Irish dance is one of the careers I’m considering, and this trip would have a lot of great things to prepare me for it,” she explains. “Since Irish is competed internationally, it’s good to talk to people outside your country, make connections and practice being in a foreign location.”

Parker also wants to gain more insight into the art of teaching, including what it takes to get children interested in dance. Overall, she says, the trip checks a lot of boxes on her career path. Like everyone else, though, she’s especially excited about the conference’s international aspect, and what she might learn from it: “The thing I’m looking forward to the most is talking to people from several different countries with perspectives on dance that I may not have heard before.”

For Finnegan, an M.A.T. candidate who is pursuing licensure in secondary English and preK-12 dance, the trip is all about practical results.

“The daCi conference is a huge opportunity for me to expand my knowledge in the field of dance education,” says Finnegan, who also teaches dance to young children at the Carver Recreation Center in Charlottesville. “I look forward to meeting other dance educators, being a part of the dance workshops and performing my solo. In the future, I want to start a small spoken word dance company that will bring a program and workshops to public schools.”