Mark and Ella Magruder: A legacy of Sweet Briar dance

Dance performance
Mark and Ella with dance students at the Josef Albers art exhibition in Pannell Gallery on Feb. 20 when they performed in conjunction with a talk on Merce Cunningham, Albers and chance choreography.
Dance professors Mark and Ella Magruder have been fixtures at Sweet Briar for more than three decades.

At the end of this school year, however, their careers at the College will come to an end. They will be deeply missed. To honor their commitment to Sweet Briar, one of their students, Courtney Hurt ’10, took a look back at their incredible careers.

Mark and Ella Magruder
Mark and Ella Magruder on vacation in China

There are many things that make Sweet Briar College special—the gorgeous campus, the small and challenging learning environment, the friendships forged that last a lifetime—but perhaps the thing that leaves the greatest impression is the excellence of the professors.

I recently attended a meeting where we were asked what professor had the greatest impact on our college experience. I could name many professors quite easily. However, there are two who forever changed my experience at Sweet Briar College and my life: Mark and Ella Magruder. They are Sweet Briar dance.

In fact, I had no intention of becoming a dance major when I entered Sweet Briar. I first met the Magruders at Accepted Applicants Weekend. At check-in, I met Mark, with his vivacious spirit and infectious grin. He encouraged me to come see a dance class. Having taken dance on and off for years, I thought why not? When I came to the class, Mark’s presence filled the whole room as he danced with us or played the drums shouting across the room to do “Super Spam,” which is a giant leap forming a kind of arrow shooting through space. Before I knew it, he had us all bounding, twisting, whirling and testing any preconceived limits we had on our bodies. I felt like a bouncy ball let loose in an open space for the first time. It was fun. I never had experienced a class quite like it before. After the class, I met Ella. I was struck by her warmth and depth of knowledge about dance. In just one hour, I felt like my body and mind had been unlocked. So in the fall of my first year, dance became the first major I declared and the Magruders became my guides along a path of self-discovery.

Symbiosis dance
Symbiosis dance. Photo by Mary Gearheart.

And that truly has been their role for 35 years teaching at Sweet Briar College. They do not require their style of dancing or way of thinking to be permanently embedded in their students. They sincerely strive, urge and cultivate each of their students to find their own unique voice through movement. They have the gift of helping to unearth the true dancer within each of us.

Mark unleashes the unbridled spirit that we did not realize was harnessed. He helps us learn to let that spirit run wild and helps us discover our physical and spiritual power and take it beyond where we thought possible. He lets us feel the pure joy and wondrous abandonment of finding ourselves in movement.

Ella’s gift is helping us examine movement from a physical and mental perspective simultaneously, seizing each moment and filling each phrase of music and fusing it together with intentionality, finding the precise arc of movement and the beauty in exactness while also finding the moment to let go. She has a way of making you think critically about movement without thinking at all, but letting the intention move your body.

Metamorphosis dance
Metamorphosis dance. Photo by Lee Luther Jr.

Whether it is contemplations on circles or learning to stag leap and pitch turn, together Ella and Mark form the perfect balance as dance professors. Each piece of choreography, year after year, is a rare gem and glimpse into who they are as artists—always different yet unique to who they are. As professors, they are interested in helping your mind, your body and your spirit work together to create your own path.

It is not just in the dance studio that the Magruders have shone over the years, but also in the classroom. Ella pioneered the teaching of creative movement and dance into one of the pillars of the Sweet Briar dance major. Ella prepares her students to be successful teachers in any avenue of dance. She prepares her students to teach creative movement to different age groups, to structure lesson plans and write grant proposals. Her work in teaching creative movement and dance has made the Sweet Briar dance major unique among peer institutions.

Mark is known for his inexhaustible curiosity and pursuit of knowledge. He has endless stories spanning a wide variety of interests including ichthyology, flute making, horticulture, Jeffersonian architecture, tea, crab shucking in Alaska, the Chicago Bears and much more. All of this passion pours into his classes on dance history and anatomy and kinesiology. It is not unusual for his classes to run long because he covers so much, so enthusiastically that he loses track of time! From Tudor era dances to exploring dance from cultures all over the world and teaching about his favorite muscle—the serratus anterior— there is no lack of fascinating facts in his classes. He imbues his students with the desire to pursue the world around them, always ask questions and keep learning.

Sign Signals dance
Sign Signals dance. Photo by Mary Gearheart.

The Magruders are just as passionate about learning opportunities outside the classroom. They have ensured that students can gain invaluable experience abroad. They have regularly participated and contributed to the Dance and the Child International Conference, held every three years in a different country, often taking students with them. At the most recent conference held in Adelaide, Australia, in 2018, the Magruders took five students with them. The students were able to take classes and even perform their own choreography in front of an international audience. Beyond the daCi conferences, the Magruders have also connected their students to summer programs with companies in New York City, Europe and beyond. Sharing my passion for circus arts, the Magruders encouraged me to go to the summer program at the National Institute for Circus Arts in Australia. Upon my return, they helped me continue my training and exploration of aerial arts which had never been done before at Sweet Briar. There is truly nothing that they will not do to help their students.

Whether you were a dance major, took just one class or even came across the Magruders while at Sweet Briar, their warmth, you won’t forget their encouragement and generosity. Mark’s classic sayings like “bee bop bareebop rhubarb pie”— which will bring a smile to anyone’s face—and Ella’s quality for making whomever she is talking to feel like they are respected and heard illustrate why they are not only great professors, but also a wonderful part of the Sweet Briar community.

Magruders and dance students
Mark and Ella with Class of 2020 dance students (l to r) Haylei Libran, Olympia LaHota and Rachel Woods after the Senior Dance Concert on Feb. 8.

Their love for Sweet Briar College carried them through the attempted closure and they still gave support and encouragement even as they were in uncertain waters. Their love for their students transcended the classrooms, and they were often supportive friends in times of personal crisis. They opened their hearts and led by example, teaching empathy both in and out of the classroom. Their model of empathy was an integral part of my education, one that I could have little expected to learn when I met them that day during Accepted Applicant’s weekend.

As their last semester teaching at Sweet Briar College comes to a close, I find it impossible to imagine campus without their unwavering love, support and energy. Of course, that is the beauty of professors at Sweet Briar College: their legacies live on in the students they taught, their impressions embedded deeply in the landscape and their knowledge forming the foundation for those that are to follow.

My life was forever changed, not only by attending Sweet Briar College, but also by learning from the Magruders. As they begin the next chapter of their lives, I am excited to see what they will create, what new adventures they will undertake and what new avenues they will dance upon! I know I can speak for many of my fellow Vixens when I say: Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your time and dedication to Sweet Briar College. Your impact cannot be measured in words. We love you and will miss you. Your legacy will continue to dance upon the stage in our hearts.

Merde, Merde

Courtney Hurt ’10

Mark and dance alumnae
Mark with dance alumnae (l to r) Betty Skeen Gorinson, Sarah Fletcher, Jessica Murphy and Courtney Hurt.