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As Teacher and Performer, Vail Dancing the Dream
Pamela Vail, assistant professor of dance
Part XIII of the 2010-11 series on new, tenure-track faculty members.
In a week filled with grading papers, teaching classes and preparing for a dance installation, Pamela Vail takes a break. The assistant professor of dance at Franklin & Marshall College thinks back to how it all began, and recalls her first moments as a dancer.
“I started dancing when I started moving,” Vail says in her office, surrounded by posters and other reminders of past and upcoming performances. “I started studying dance when I was 6, when my mom took me to local classes at the Rec Center. I was hooked. I still remember those first movements and positions.”
A choreographer, performer, improviser and teacher, Vail arrived at F&M in 2002 as a visiting assistant professor, and later became artist-in-residence and instructor in dance. She began a tenure-track position at the beginning of this academic year, and continues to perform on stage at F&M and other venues around the country. She will perform this week in Wilderness, a site-adaptable dance installation directed by her longtime colleague, Yanira Castro. The show premieres in the Roschel Performing Arts Center Thursday, March 24, at 8 p.m.
A native of Westchester County, N.Y., Vail earned her B.A. in dance and sociology at Middlebury College and her M.F.A. in dance from Smith College. Before arriving at F&M, she spent eight years living and dancing professionally in New York City.
“I wanted to make my way as a professional before I got into teaching,” Vail says. “I was living hand-to-mouth in New York, but that’s part of the dream. I walked dogs, worked at a coffee shop, and worked at a business loan center. But I got to dance each day, with auditions, classes and rehearsals.”
Vail has been working with Castro since 1995. She is also a founding member of The Architects, an ensemble of several of her fellow Middlebury graduates with whom she teaches and performs across the country. The Architects specialize in improvisation.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with people I’ve known for 20 years,” Vail says. “But improvisation can be terrifying. We joke sometimes, ‘Are we really doing this?’ We don’t necessarily know what each other will do, but we have an inherent trust.”
At F&M, Vail teaches Compositional Improvisation and Kinesiology for Dance, among several other courses. She tries to teach her students the same lessons she has learned in her professional work. “Dancing is about growing, and always asking ‘What else?’ I encourage my students to always be curious, to always be busy expanding their potential. You have no idea what you’re capable of. You may think you do, but you don’t. Isn’t that a great feeling? And I try to practice what I preach.”
A recent $15,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts allowed Vail to introduce F&M students to a performance that influenced her own career. Vail used the grant to reconstruct Trisha Brown’s Line Up, first performed in 1976. The project enabled F&M students to perform outreach to elementary and middle-school students in Lancaster. The central part of the grant project included multiple visits to campus and intensive rehearsals with Lisa Kraus, a Philadelphia-based dancer and member of Brown’s dance company.
F&M students showed an excerpt of the piece at Common Hour on Nov. 11, and the project was also a featured piece in the Fall Dance Concert in December.
“As a college student, seeing Trisha Brown’s work was a real turning point for me,” Vail says. “I’ve always admired her work, and she’s been very inspiring to me. I loved seeing the students come to an understanding of new things by doing it, not just by reading about it. You learn from embodying.”