Composite image of danah bella

Image credit: Marshall Clarke

Peabody's danah bella charts a new course for dance education

As founding chair of the Peabody Institute's new BFA Dance program, danah bella wants to disrupt. Art, she says, can and should startle and disorient you now and again. In the program's first major spring concert, bella and a grad student co-conspirator mischievously planted student performers in the audience pre-show. As people filled the auditorium with the lights still on, the students jumped out of their seats to dance, gyrate, and sing. The shenanigans didn't stop there. Between acts, program artist-in-residence jhon r. stronks sauntered on stage in different character getups—including a glittery gold gown, headdress, heels, and sunglasses—to improvise some dance moves of his own and belt out a tune. It was part performance and part ploy to buy time for the performers changing costumes off-stage. "I remember looking out at the crowd, and people had this 'Did we just see that?' look on their faces. They probably wondered, Is this all part of the show?" says bella, grinning as she relives the moment.

Video: Peabody Institute

Besides keeping the audience on its toes, bella wants to upend the archetypal conservatory dance training model. Unlike most Bachelor of Fine Arts dance programs, Peabody will allow its students to double major, so theoretically you could have a dancing mechanical engineer. She plans to keep the program small to offer more personalized instruction. The initial group is only 13 students, and future cohorts will be capped at 20. She's looking for versatile dancers who "are natural performers capable of bold movements, and who understand their own bodies." And, this being Johns Hopkins, bella wants to merge dance and science, including training in performing arts medicine and movement therapy. "We're still laying the foundation here, but eventually our students will be conducting biophysics research where we look at different body nuances and adjustments to help perform certain movements more easily and stay injury-free," says bella, a California native who has been teaching dance in higher education since 2002.

Bella says the Peabody program will ultimately prepare students to be at the forefront of dance innovation. "I'm hoping that when students leave here, they are not only skilled in dance performance and well-versed as choreographers but will become advocates for the community and understand how to use dance as social practice."

And, like her, they will be open to disruption.