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FIDM dance students

CSUSM Professor Karen Schaffman Encourages The Use of Dance For Social Change

Karen Schaffman, Ph.D., Professor and Program Director for Dance Studies at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM), teaches Performance Lab which provides students an opportunity to develop and collaborate on new performance works that culminate in presentations to the public. While introducing historical and theoretical concepts, students understand the depth of the creative process and the important social and political impact of the work through service learning.

The CSUSM Dance Studies Program is now in its third year, but Dr. Schaffman, who has been with CSUSM for the past 19 years, has always worked in creative collaboration between the visual and performing arts to bring people together with interdisciplinary works.

She was asked to develop a dance performance to celebrate Veterans Day at two George G. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers, including TOWN SQUARE®, a Chula Vista day center for immersive Reminiscence Therapy. The Glenner Park TOWN SQUARE® is modeled after San Diego in the 1950s and has 14 storefronts including a diner, city hall, a vintage clothing store, and a gas station. Through Immersive Therapy, TOWN SQUARE® utilizes tangible prompts from a participant’s past to elicit familiar memories from their youth.

We met Dr. Schaffman in her Performance Lab classroom when FIDM Alumni, former DEBUT Fashion Designer, and College Representative Kelly Pudgil was invited to share a special workshop, Fabric of America: U.S. History through Fashion. The workshop addressed U.S. fashion from the turn of the century to the 1950s, and covered the driving forces and influences on it—from industrialization and WWI to the Suffragettes and the Roaring 20s. She also presented on 1930s counter-trends, the Golden Age, and the rise of the suburbs. To provide further historical reference, the students also studied 1940s black and white Lindy Hop dance movies. Through the creative collaboration, they discussed student costume ideas for the 1950s dance tribute. Pudgil assisted with styling the looks and the students decided on clothing and accessories that were casual and reminiscent without being exact.

Female FIDM dance student

As is her pedagogy, Dr. Schaffman guides students while providing them independence to think outside the box and take creative ownership of the dance performance. In this way, she fosters critical thinkers and skilled communicators, with leadership skills. As a dance activist, she encourages her students to serve the community and use dance as an instrument for personal transformation and social change. She encourages students to feel the limitations or freedom of the clothes, in their dance.

This is the same consideration that FIDM Theatre Costume Design students think about when designing for the runway dance performance in the DEBUT Runway Show.

The group of CSUSM dance students channeled their talents to collaboratively combine swing dancing, runway, and improvisation, while taking a conscious approach that values diversity and inclusivity.

The CSUSM student performers and collaborators for this project were Minnie Atkins, Tatiana Ferreira, Eliese Holt, Iris Lee, Melissa Loza, Caiser LeBoss Owens, Stephania Rey, Lesly Rodriguez, and Zoe Zawacki. Alumna Selena Reycasa also participated, with additional faculty mentorship by Anya Cloud and Tommy Chu.

“It was an opportunity to combine my compassion as a human, my drive for activism, and my skills as a dancer to impact the lives of others," said CSUSM student Minnie Atkins. "This project allowed me to get first-hand experience using dance as a form of activism.”

They shared their dance performance in the 1950s Glenner Park set for Veterans Day weekend. The students were asked to share a ten-minute program, that morphed into a joyful 30-minute program, followed by a 20-minute dance party with the TOWN SQUARE® participants. Continuing to bring the visual and performing arts together, CSUSM student Long Truong photographed both dance performances.

Dancing FIDM student

To foster the Dance Studies Program learning outcomes, the preparation and the design-oriented dance performance along with a final paper were created as a semester long project. The students reflected on how the course grew and how the works are relevant today and with a specific audience and community. They articulated their comprehension through written reflection on their semester-long dance experience, as well as the historical, political, and cultural context of dance.

“I do feel like this experience was relevant to our current cultural climate,” wrote CSUSM student Lesly Rodriguez, “because we brought back elements from a different era in time as the people we are, with the bodies we have. We didn’t feel the need to imitate history, because we renewed it.”