Inhale confidence, exhale doubt: a dancer's summer at the American Dance Festival

A group of dancers moves around a basketball court somewhere on Duke University’s East Campus, alternating chants of “victory is my battle cry” and gasps for breath. They are in Abby Zbikowski’s class at the American Dance Festival (ADF) and they are in the final 30 seconds of a piece. The chant echoes around the court as they push themselves to the very limit through the end.

Gabrielle Roulhac (School of Dance ’18) looks around the room and sees that everyone else, like her, is smiling. “We made it,” she remembers.

The third-year Contemporary Dance student (along with several other UNCSA dancers) spent part of her summer at ADF’s Six Week School, where she took classes in a variety of dance styles and techniques. Classes like the Shen Wei technique, William Forsythe’s ballet technique and African dance with Sherone Price.

And then there's the class with Zbikowski, whose courses blending African and hip-hop dance forms are described as “highly physical” ones in which “students will discover their limits and extremes.


Inhale Confidence ; Exhale Doubt #adf16

A video posted by Gabrielle Loren (@gabrielleloren) on

Above: Roulhac improvising one day during her time at ADF. "Not a specific movement," she says, "but just my movement quality I was investigating at the time."

During the Six Week School, students attend regular classes of their choosing on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with additional “drop-in” classes available on the other three days of the week.

The Shen Wei class was one of the highlights for Roulhac. “It’s a different technique than the ones we have at UNCSA,” she says. “You focus on your breathing, fluidity. It’s not as harsh. I didn’t feel like I was in a class, just moving my body.” 

Other classes, like the William Forsythe ballet repertory class, challenged her mentally and technically. But the challenges were also part of the rewards that come with studying such a diverse range of styles and techniques. “I like to be versatile and I like having all of these styles to pull from,” she says.

Roulhac learned about ADF through Dance faculty member and associate dean Brenda Daniels, who also served on the festival’s faculty from 2001-2014. 

The festival has students from all over the world, many distinguished faculty and musicians," Daniels says, "plus a performance series that features a ‘who’s who’ of modern and contemporary companies.

It is a true education in the multiple directions that contemporary dance can go.

Brenda Daniels, about the American Dance Festival

“Students also get to see all of the evening shows featuring dance companies large and small. It is a true education in the multiple directions that contemporary dance can go. Many of the performing company directors and choreographers have auditions or master classes at ADF, so it is also a great networking and career building opportunity.”

For Roulhac, the major takeaways from ADF were the relationships she formed and strengthened in a non-competitive, positive atmosphere — living in an apartment with four of her UNCSA colleagues, taking classes with students and professionals from around the world and even performing a piece, Forbidden, with UNCSA alumnus Frankie Lee III.


Working with different instructors, new colleagues and a variety of dance styles fosters growth and expands students' horizons, helping them add dimension and versatility when they return to their studies in the fall.

And in the School of Dance, attending festivals like ADF is no exception for students. The faculty encourages all students to go elsewhere during the summer, Daniels says, “to study with different faculty, take classes with different students, and have an altogether different experience."

“I am so glad that Gabby attended ADF this past summer,” she adds. “She is a beautifully talented dancer and an excellent student who I am sure made the most of her experience.”

It sounds like she did just that.

by Corrine Luthy

September 9, 2016