Rebekah Kowal says she didn’t have much exposure to dance growing up.
It wasn’t until the native of Littleton, Colorado, spent time at Connecticut College, a private liberal arts college in New London, Connecticut, where she was a two-sport athlete in tennis and swimming, that she discovered her love for dance.
Now, the newly appointed chair of the University of Iowa Department of Dance is on a path to grow and improve the department and provide new and enriching opportunities for its students. Kowal, who has taught dance at the UI for 16 years, was named department head in June.
“I took my first dance class at Connecticut College, and I was completely sold and thought, ‘This is what I want to do with my life,’” Kowal says.
The next year, she transferred to Barnard College in New York City to pursue an education in dance.
“Barnard College had a wonderful program that allowed its majors and minors to take classes in the city,” says Kowal. “They gave us money to go take classes anywhere we wanted in the city, so on top of the classes we took at the school, we were also funded to take classes elsewhere.”
After dancing professionally in New York for several years, and earning a PhD in American studies from New York University, Kowal came to the UI in 2001 as an assistant professor of dance.
Iowa Now caught up with her to talk about her new role and her plans for the Department of Dance.
What has dance meant to you over the years, and how has your relationship with it changed?
Taking my first dance class at Connecticut College was truly a transformative experience for me because it allowed me to unify different parts of myself and my interests.
Dance helps you cultivate a relationship with your body; when I discovered that, it was a major turning point for me. I understood how powerful that can be for people.
I was able to keep taking dance classes throughout my graduate school career and kept practicing until about three years ago, when I had a pretty serious back injury. Early on, one of my favorite things about teaching at the UI was that I could take technique classes here and continue to learn and improve.
How has the transition to chair of the department been?
Some days I feel kind of overwhelmed because it’s a completely new level of responsibility, but more often than not I feel like I’m in my element because I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time.
I’ve had the benefit of a lot of mentorship from my colleagues. I’ve been working toward this level of leadership in our department for a long time. I’m very grateful that my colleagues are supporting this transition and that we have an amazing staff through the Division of Performing Arts that lets us know we’re not alone. We’re part of this bigger entity that’s great at supporting transitions into administrative roles because there are so many people who can teach and guide you.
What is your vision for the dance department?
Our students are diligent, disciplined, and passionate, so it’s a top priority for our faculty to make sure we keep giving them the freedom to explore their interests but also the tools to succeed. This means, in addition to learning from our faculty and graduate students, bringing in guest artists for them to perform with and learn from.
And although the move is several years away, we have a big challenge coming up in moving the department from Halsey Hall to a new building. We’re excited to think creatively about designing a space that’s going to work for us now, but also for the department in perpetuity. It’s important for us to think about the legacy of our department and to be responsible members of the larger community.
What are some interesting things currently taking place in the Department of Dance?
Our department is in a state of wonderful growth and very high student interest. Besides our majors and graduate students, we also serve about 400 non-majors every semester in our nonmajor classes. These classes range from ballet to modern dance to jazz to hip-hop, and we offer levels from beginner to intermediate for nonmajors, all of which are taught by dynamic graduate student instructors who have had prodigious careers in the U.S. and Europe. We’re very thrilled about having them here.
We have the Dance Gala coming up in November, which is our annual event. The concert will feature Helios, a re-staging of a section of legendary choreographer Martha Graham’s Acts of Light. We have a graduate student named Jesse Factor who danced with the Graham Dance Company and has been given the responsibility and honor of staging this piece with our dancers.
Also this spring, Michael Sakamoto, one of our faculty members, will be presenting a work called Soil in Hancher as part of this inaugural season.
The Joffrey Ballet will perform a re-imagined version of The Nutcracker at Hancher this year. How does this, and other dance performances like it, affect the local dance culture?
It is so important for all us to have the opportunity to participate in and benefit from the culture that Hancher can provide. The staff at Hancher has always brought phenomenal dance companies to town, and that helps not only expose our students to different styles of dance but also builds a larger audience for us. It all works in mutually beneficial ways.
Our department will be performing on the new Hancher stage for the first time in the fall of 2017, and right now we’re considering options for a guest artist to perform with our student dancers. And Hancher is also a wonderful recruitment tool since prospective students will know that they’ll get a chance to perform on a world-class stage.