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Dancing At A Legend’s Feet

The percussion of the tribal drums beating on the stereo thumpedagainst the old wooden floor as he stepped quickly into the climaxof the move, rising upward on the point of one foot and preparingto fall backward into a run for the dance’s next sequence.

He curved his body and reached for the ceiling flawlessly,slowly and intentionally losing his balance with the beat of themusic to prepare for the pivot. The airy room’s low yellow lightsreflected off his sweat as he reached full extension and gravitybegan to call him back.

With the force finally growing too great, he swung down from hisperch and took the first fast step into the next move.

He missed the step and tumbled onto the floor. Other dancers ranaround him as he slid to a stop on the mat.

But Daven Terrell, a 17-year-old Mississippi School of the Artsdance student from Columbia, doesn’t call that failure. It’s just apause on the path to excellence.

“If I fall, that means I’m pushing myself. Just gotta get up anddo it again – no mistakes, only opportunities,” he said.

That’s the lesson taught to Terrell and the other MSA dancersthis week by Patricia Amacker-McConnell, a retired dance professorwho founded the dance program at the University of SouthernMississippi in 1971 and helped write the state’s high school dancecurriculum.

A dance legend in Mississippi who studied under American moderndance pioneers like Martha Graham and helped bring the art form tothe state, McConnell spent three days guest lecturing the dancestudents as part of the school’s grant-funded Artists in Residenceprogram, meant to put the students of several disciplines in touchwith the masters of their fields.

McConnell made the trip to Brookhaven from her home in Salt LakeCity at the request of three of her former students – MSA DirectorSuzanne Hirsch, MSA Principal Jana Perry and MSA dance instructorTammy Stanford Williams. On her first visit to the school, theartist and teacher fell in love with the institution.

“It’s a sacred environment,” McConnell said. “It’s as special,what they’re doing here, as if I’d walked into an arts studio inNew York. I didn’t get this opportunity when I was in highschool.”

McConnell waxed eloquent about the impact of an advanced artseducation, an impact she said goes far beyond the dance floor, thestudio or the microphone.

“I think creative empathy is a way to go really deep into theperson,” she said. “These kids may not be dancers or musicians, butthey’re going to have the ability to creatively respond to life.They’re not just art-making, they’re self-making.”

While on campus, McConnell taught both. With a classroom ofbarefoot teenage dancers clothed in tights and T-shirts gatheredaround her, she led students on a journey into the basics of moderndance – an art form of self-expression that utilizes free-flowingmovements of the entire body, spun off from the more rigidclassical ballet in the early 1900s.

Counting, clapping and demonstrating, McConnell put the studentsthrough a series of moves that saw them curl, stretch, slump andstraighten in all directions, often while on the move at a quicktempo. Students balanced one minute and let gravity take them thenext, flew into the air in one move and knelt in a bow afterward.Their fast starts and hard stops pushed folds into the rubber dancemat.

Students lined up to shake McConnell’s hand when the final bellrang. They’ll put some of her teachings on display at the falldance concert on Nov. 3 and Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. in LamptonAuditorium.

Even more, MSA students will be learning McConnell’s moves foryears to come. The school has become a repository for her moderndance choreography and will store her personal collection on CDs tobe used in class.

“Most universities would be very pleased to have an opportunitylike this,” said Williams, the dance instructor. “She is atrend-setter and a pioneer in our state for dance across the board.To hear about the masters like Martha Graham, and then to havesomeone who studied under the master walk into the room … it’slike a piece of history come to life.”

More history will come to life as the school’s new program takesshape over the coming months, with more master artists scheduled tovisit the school and meet the community.

Hirsch, the school director, said the Artists in Residenceprogram would also bring to Brookhaven Beth Henley, a Jackson-bornplaywright who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1981 for herplay “Crimes of the Heart;” Michelle Grabner, a painting anddrawing professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago;and the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. All the guest artists willeither perform or meet with the public in special events.

“It’s vital in the arts to have many voices and differentexperiences,” Hirsch said. “We’re very thankful to have thissupport. It’s not just for our kids – we’re trying to broaden thehorizons for our community as well.”