How Shall We Dance?

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

Ronnie Brosterman and Gail Abrams

The Scripps Dance Program is located just off Mary Wig Johnson Court, south of Elm Tree Lawn, in the original Richardson Dance Studio from the 1950s. On a recent afternoon, the small studio was packed with students from throughout The Claremont Colleges for a beginning movement class, taught by Gail Abrams. The atmosphere was upbeat and focused, as students moved across the floor following Abrams’ lead.

The students’ dedication to dance is inspired by the quality of the instruction. Professors Ronnie Brosterman and Gail Abrams have learned from necessity to do a lot with a little. Their commitment to the Scripps dance program deserves medals.

Brosterman came to Scripps in 1981 and Abrams in 1986. They inherited a program started by Bea Richardson, after whom the facility is named, and continued by long-remembered professors and instructors such as Linda Levy and Gary Bates.

Scripps is able to offer a flexible major, according to Abrams, although she believes it needs to be expanded to remain competitive with other dance programs in the nation. (Scripps currently has about 20 dance majors and several dance minors, up from five some years ago.) She gives kudos to the part-time faculty who, she says, “all go above and beyond the requirements of their contracts because they believe so strongly in the Scripps dance program and our students.” She is proud of the students “who are able to see past the facilities and recognize that the true strength of the department is the people—the faculty, the staff, and our students.”

Brosterman adds: “The fact that we are able to attract serious dancers to our campus is a tribute to our reputation and the positive experience and conversations prospective students have with current students and faculty.”

Evidence of the quality of the Scripps Dance Program appears in many forms. Every guest teacher and choreographer that comes to Scripps remarks on the intelligence, commitment, dedication, and admirable work ethic of the students. And Scripps has been recognized at American College Dance festivals over the past several years as a “distinctive program.”

“Teachers and adjudicators at the festival often remark on the performance commitment of our dancers,” notes Abrams proudly, “and the fact that they are ‘real’ people, expressing human emotion and sensitivity in their dancing.” Brosterman explains that last year both of the dance pieces choreographed by Scripps students and judged at the regional festival in Kansas were selected for the Gala performance—”an honor indeed!” she says.

The 35′ x 53′ dance studio is the only space for teaching, practicing, and an occasional performance for the Scripps Dance Program, a dynamic part of the Scripps experience. That the program continues to attract the number of students it does is heartening. Yet the facilities do not match the need.

The most critical need of the program is a second, larger studio. The National Association of Schools of Dance guidelines call for 100 square feet of studio space for each dancer. “Based on this criterion,” says Brosterman, “we should limit our classes to 16 dancers plus teacher and accompanist.” But many of Scripps classes are larger, even though the department tries to cap them at 20. Currently, there are 25 students in the Advanced Modern class, and 18 in Ballet II. “These are upper-division classes where students need to be able to move full-out,” says Brosterman. “Because dancers need to keep dancing each semester, it is not an option to turn these students away and tell them to try again next semester.”

There are also 21 students in Beginning Dance and 35 students plus two faculty in a new Core II class in the studio this semester.

The professors say they have difficulty in scheduling class preparation time for faculty, production rehearsals, and student class projects. This leads to students rehearsingat 8 a.m. when their bodies aren’t warm or at 11 p.m. (or later) when they are tired. Also, having only one studio with one type of floor surface limits the kinds of dance they can produce.

What Brosterman and Abrams hope for in a new facility are a minimum of two studios, office space for at least three full-time faculty, a secretary’s office, adequate dressing rooms with showers, public restrooms, as well as areas for video viewing and editing, costume construction, and storage. A student lounge would be nice, as well. The professors view these requirements as “pretty basic.”

With two studios, the department could expand its offerings to include additional dance styles such as tap and flamenco. They could also offer more distinct levels of technique. “We need a Ballet III, a Beginning Jazz, a Modern II taught separately from Modern I, and a second level of West African,” says Brosterman. “We simply don’t have the space now.”

The College does indeed have plans for a new dance facility that meets the above needs, with full architectural drawings and a to-scale model by Brenda Levin, the architect for the Malott Commons. What it doesn’t have are the funds to start and complete a new building project. According to Vice President and Treasurer James Manifold, the design process took almost four years with activeinvolvement of faculty, students, and staff. In December 2005, the trustees approved the design subject to funding. “Since then,” said Manifold, “the College’s construction program has been focused on the Tiernan Field House, soccer field and parking garage project, and major remodels of Steele Hall and Balch Hall. It is now the dance department’s turn. To move this project into construction drawings will require a significant lead gift.”

In all conversations about dance, the professors return to the integrity of the students and how this manifests itself in their dancing and choreography. “Each of them is defining for herself what it means to be a moving, expressive body and what sort of a statement she personally wishes to make through her art,” says Brosterman.

Now, the professors wish to offer an appropriate home at Scripps for these young dancers.

For further information about the College’s needs and plans for a new dance facility, please contact Nancy Ambrose, director of leadership giving, at (909) 607-7533, or


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