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Beyond the Steps: Study Dance at TMCC

Stage lights in a theater.
Rebecca A. Eckland

EJ Zuniga graduated from TMCC in Spring 2019 with an Associate of Arts degree; this semester, he’s back on campus as a non-degree seeking student, cast in a singing and dancing role in this fall’s That’s Entertainment: A Musical Theatre Cabaret, with performances on Nov. 22 and 23. 

“I’m deciding and exploring right now,” Zuniga said who will continue his education at UNR when he’s ready. “Going to dance class, it’s a great way to de-stress... and it’s fun.”  Zuniga is one of several performers who will take part in the Cabaret, which can be thought of as a playlist of your favorite performances from broadway musical productions. 

“The inspiration for That’s Entertainment: A Musical Theatre Cabaret was born out of the idea to showcase the complexity and longevity of musical theatre performances in a review style setting,” said Dance, Exercise and Movement Instructor Dayna DeFilippis who is the Lead Choreographer for the production and Co-Director with TMCC Performing Arts Professor Ted Owens. “Besides the fact that musical theatre performances are exciting and entertaining, they are also insightful and emotional, spanning many genres and themes—no subject is off limits to musical theatre.” 

The versatility of subject matter, genre and style ensures that the show will touch different emotional registers, spanning elation to sadness, and romance to heartbreak. This wide range of songs makes the performances relatable and memorable for audiences of all ages. It also requires a lot of the performers who bring this varied score to life.  

Zuniga began taking dance classes when a theater professor in high school suggested that he add dance to his repertoire of performance skills. “It was a lot of work to start from zero,” said Zuniga who started by taking jazz and tap dance classes at TMCC. Yet, dance has taught Zuniga more than just new ways of moving—although with all the new choreography he learns, there is certainly that—instead, it’s the process of dance itself that has been life-changing. 

“Adding dance was so foreign to me—so I had to work a lot harder,” he said. “It’s taught me that if something is difficult, no matter what it is, I can get there if I keep practicing and keep trying. And then when I do, I feel pretty accomplished at the end.”

Dance as a Part of a Liberal Arts Education

It might be surprising to some that dance is considered an academic subject, or that it’s possible to take a class composed of long rehearsal nights that ends in a handful of performances. Yet, there is something about the study of prescribed, measured and practiced movement through space—and the history behind those movements—that offer students unique forays into the heart of a Liberal Arts education. “Studying dance is often so much more than simply learning how to execute steps and move through space; it is about uncovering personal strengths, overcoming weaknesses, and finding greater understanding for how one chooses to present themselves to, and interact with, the outside world,” said DeFilippis. “Of course, learning steps and moving through space is always the first step in getting to all the rest.” 

While no office job will ask you to perform in quite the same way, skills gleaned from learning choreography and committing these movements to memory can transfer to academic and professional arenas in surprising ways. “Students who study dance, regardless of whether or not they choose to enter the degree program, gain confidence, self-reliance, multi-tasking and troubleshooting skills, resilience, and, perhaps most importantly, dance students gain respect; respect for the work, for themselves, and for the other dancers moving alongside them in class,” said DeFilippis. 

Zuniga, who is the lead soloist for the song “Razzle Dazzle,” said that negotiating different types of movement—and singing while dancing—adds to the challenge. But, that’s the point of performance. “Performing can take you out of your comfort zone,” said Zuniga. “I used to have a lot of stage fright, but performing teaches you to embrace your awkwardness, and to think on the fly.”

Kalyn Payton, who is also cast in That’s Entertainment, has witnessed other ways in which the study of dance—and practice for this particular production—is impacting other aspects of her academic life. An Elementary Education major and a lifelong musician and dancer, Payton sees connections between what creative pursuits can offer students, even the ones she will one day teach. “In one of my Elementary Education classes, I wrote an essay on incorporating the arts in the classroom—it’s definitely something I’ve thought about a lot more,” she said. “Arts can give young students self-confidence, presentation skills, compassion, and empathy.”

Taking the First Step

The dance floor and rehearsal stage share several essential elements with the classroom: each are spaces for learning, openness, and growth. “Because many of the pieces in the Cabaret are ensemble pieces, we all have to work together, and we all have to be on the same page,” said Zuniga. “Teamwork is a big part of this production.” 

If you’ve never taken a dance class but wanted to try, the TMCC Dance Program is a great place to start. The classes are affordable and taught by faculty who are practicing professionals in their field of expertise. “All students are welcome to enroll in classes, regardless of previous experience and skill level,” said DeFilippis. “Students in the program can expect to gain insight into history, current trends in the field, and connect with one another in an inviting, open, and diverse environment.” 

The Dance Program offers beginning through advanced level classes in Ballet, Modern Dance, Jazz and Tap, as well as theory courses focused on Improvisation and Composition and Dance Appreciation, which is also a general education course. “Everyone should take a class in some kind of art at some point. The arts are often overlooked, and it’s important to be introduced to performance and to see what it can offer you,” said Payton, who is looking forward to sharing the results of her hard work on the stage in the upcoming performances.

“Come see the show—and take a class,” said Zuniga. “See how rewarding it can be to do something like this.”

Performance Details for That’s Entertainment!

That’s Entertainment: A Musical Theatre Cabaret will be performed in the Student Center on the Dandini Campus. Performances happen Friday, Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 23 at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 for general admission or $8 for students and can be purchased in advance or by the door. 

For more information about the TMCC Dance Program, contact the Performing Arts department at 775-674-7610.