A final bow: Q&A with Dance Guild founder Ellen Van’t Hof

Chimes: So, you founded Dance Guild when you were a student at Calvin, correct?

Van’t Hof: Yes, along with a few other dancers. It started in spring of 1971, and I was a student here at 17 years old, so I had skipped a grade and so that put me here early. There were some other dancers I had met, and I had studied dance in the fall of the year before for the first time. So when I was 17 I studied in England: I was an au pair girl. I took care of some kids but those kids were both in school, so during my free time I took dance and art classes in Bristol, England. That got me started, so when I got back to Calvin and got into my program here, I ended up majoring in art. I wanted to do some dancing because I just had a taste of it and I was so excited. So I found some other like-minded people and in those early months of 1971, there was a big interest on campus in the arts. It was a very rich time for anybody involved in the arts. We founded five guilds: the drama guild, the writer’s guild, the visual art guild, the music guild and the dance guild. Each was basically founded by a group of interested students that wanted to put their own work out, and we sponsored a fine arts festival that spring.

There was a big wooden stage by the Commons, and we had a banner for each guild. We would have performances for about three full days. Morning and night and all day long students in between classes would come sit out on the lawn and watch whatever was going on. And it went on for three days during the last couple weeks of classes. Imagine! It was really something. There were poetry readings and there were music performances, and there were some one-act plays performed, and there was lots of dancing. All of us were so excited about doing our art and having a venue where we could put our own art out there. It was very fun.

Chimes: How has dance guild progressed throughout the years?

Van’t Hof: It stayed small, just maybe a half dozen to a dozen of us. And we would drag people in for various events. Throughout the year we did chapels and all kinds of interesting things. It was a chance for all of the students to put their own work out there. You know, you are used to being in classes, you are used to studying someone else’s work. We didn’t even have a dance program here; we were out hanging because there was of course English for the writers and music for the music people and there was visual art for the visual art people and there was theater for the drama people — but for the dance people, we had to make everything up on our own.

Chimes: So, would you say this was the first element of dance at Calvin?

Van’t Hof: Yeah. We did some really interesting pieces because we didn’t know our limits, we just sort of made things up and tried it. There was a lot of improvisation. So that was in 1971, and it continued through until I graduated, and soon after I graduated I went into my master’s program for theater and communication arts and sciences But then afterward I came back to Calvin and started teaching. The guild was still in existence and continued. There were some lulls and restructuring but it has always existed since then. Now we’re in itse are in the 45th yea.

Chimes: Did you teach dance classes?

Van’t Hof: Yes, I came back in 1975 and taught one interim class. Then the following year I taught another interim class, directed a musical, a few things like that. Over the years I started teaching more and more and I was always interested in dance, so I kept teaching more and more. I kept my studies going, so I continued to work and then I went out to Philadelphia periodically where I was working on a doctorate there. Anyways, I would come back to Calvin and teach some classes and over time that increased so by 1998 I was teaching dance full time. It was then that we implemented the dance minor and the director of dance position. So until then it was sort of catch-as-catch-can, and I just kept pushing for more courses and building a dance program. And then over the course of the nineties it began to grow and grow and grow. Dance Guild became, and still is, an incredible outlet for dancers of all kinds, of all styles, of all body types, of all levels of experience to get together and just put dance out on the stage.

It is just so much fun, and I don’t know of any other college that does this. At every other college I have been affiliated with, you audition and finally when you are a junior or a senior you are allowed to be onstage. Maybe you are allowed to choreograph a piece during your senior year that will be shown. It’s never “you want to learn how to dance? Well, come onto my dance and then you can learn to perform it this fall.” The inclusiveness of Dance Guild is what is so fun. I think it also, I always tell my students and they can roll their eyes maybe, but it’s all about the joy of dance. It’s all about finding the joy. It’s just a blast. And the way they dance, and what you see on stage for the dance guild show, it’s just pure, pure fun. And they are all just having the time of their lives and that’s what it’s been since the beginning. So I love to see it continued and I love to see it growing.

Professor Vanderwall will be taking the position after me. She’ll be here starting next fall and she’s been working with me all year so she’s ready to go and she’s going to do exciting things. She also is finishing her doctorate in dance education from Temple University and she’s a performer, she actually danced this past weekend and has been dancing in the Grand Rapids area with different groups, so she’s got a lot of experience and knowledge to bring to the place, so there’s not going to be a slowdown when I’m gone. It’s going to keep going and it’s going to keep growing.

Chimes: Do you have any other hopes for the guild?

Van’t Hof: I’d like to keep seeing them grow, not necessarily just in size, although I love the dynamics of the size of the group. It’s the biggest student organization by far and we draw these huge audiences. We sell out to 4000 people in our two different shows and so I’d love to see that continue and maybe grow. But I’d also like to see the dancers grow. And I think we’ve gained so much more vitality since we’ve got such a large international population. There are dancers from all minority groups but then also from a lot of international cultures that are dancing with dance guild now, and that just adds so much excitement. I would love to see that grow too, and I think we’re on the right track.

Chimes: How do you see dance being influential in student’ lives?

Van’t Hof: What I find is that many students graduate from Calvin and one of their fondest memories is dance guild and that’s because you make probably your best friends by sweating with them, don’t you think? And there’s tons of laughing that goes on in those rehearsals When you work hard to produce something together, you make lifelong friends that way. There’s this whole sense of community about the dancers and dance guild and that I think is really powerful. It also provides a real respite I think for some students. They’re so heavily into their classes and studying all the time, but then they get to go to a dance guild rehearsal. I just think it brightens your day and gives you some exercise, allows you to let some of your frustrations out and laugh a little bit with other people. I think it can really serve a powerful purpose there. I also like to think that the whole experience is rooted in the creational gift of dance and play and creativity, so that afterward we can say ‘thank you Lord this is just what I needed.’

Chimes: It goes right with Calvin’s mission: renew the world through dance!

Van’t Hof: Exactly. I think a lot of the dancers from Dance Guild are open then after they leave here to participate in worship groups in their churches or give classes or take classes themselves in dance and they keep doing it. Many of them I hear from are still dancing. And that’s wild, that’s wonderful. It’s healthy and it’s freeing.

Chimes: What will you miss most about your position here?

Van’t Hof: Oh, the students of course. I have taught thousands actually over the years, because I started way back in 1975 with my first classes, and I have been full-time since ’96. It’s been my life and I love it. But it is the right time to leave and I feel good about that and even though I’ll miss the students and definitely the people I work with, because everybody who works at Calvin is just great and I love them all, so that I’m going to miss, but I’m leaving it in really good hands.

This interview has been condensed and edited.