Carving Your Own Path: Self-Designing a Dance Major with Kayla Saavedra ‘20
By Emma Swain ’20
Some lucky folks come into Carthage knowing exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Their paths are clear-cut, and they hit the ground running towards their future. For others, however, the path is more complicated. Many people (like me) can’t choose just one major and end up double majoring in two of their passions – or, even designing their own major. Carthage offers a program through which students can design their own majors by working with faculty to select classes from multiple disciplines to suit what’s best for them. This week, I got the chance to sit down with Kayla Saavedra ’20, one such student who took advantage of Carthage’s flexibility to design her own Dance Major.
So, just to clarify: you are a self-designed dance major, graduating in the class of 2020?
Yes, I’ll be a senior next year. I call myself a self-designed dance major. Technically, it’s a theatre major with a dance emphasis, so it’s kind of like a double major in theatre and dance.
Let’s start out with the very beginning of your time at Carthage, in Fall 2016. You’re now entering your senior year. How did everything start? What major did you come in with?
I came in originally as a Music Theatre major, with the dream of performing. But that changed completely when I got the opportunity to direct for the Racine Unified School District. From there, my major changed four times. I started to realize that I wanted to work with students. At this point, I wasn’t a dance minor yet, but one day when I was volunteering with NDEO (the National Dance Education Organization) at the Boys and Girls Club Dance Clinic, Stacy Pottinger approached me and said she thought I would be a really good dance minor. From there, I took a tap class with Kristina Saldarelli, and my love for dance grew. I decided to be a Dance major because I started to love it just as much as I loved theatre. I’ve always been a dancer, but Carthage made me love it again, even though I never thought I could love it like I did when I was little.
What made you decide to self-design a major?
Genuinely, I think it was Kristina Saldarelli. I know it sounds cliche to say that a teacher pushed you, but in this case it’s true. Kristina is an adjunct at Carthage and the most amazing professor. She is so sweet and was one of the people that told me that I don’t have to be a perfect dancer, I just have to try my best and give it my all. She’s the kind of teacher I would like to be someday, because she made me confident in myself as a dancer, which is something I’ve been working on for a long time. So I always tell everyone that the reason that I became a dance major is because Kristina made me believe in myself. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think I would have done it.
What was the process of becoming a dance major like? What were some of the trials and tribulations you faced? How did the dance and theatre departments support you?
The really nice thing for me was that an alumni, Libby Nelson ’16, designed a similar major in the past, so when I initially ran my idea by Stacy, she sent me some documents that Libby had used. Libby designed a business and dance major, so I looked at her framework and altered it to fit my desire to teach and choreograph. My path is much more dance-based than Libby’s, but it was still helpful to see what someone did in the past. The process required me to select classes from Carthage’s Theatre and Dance catalogues that would support what I wanted to do. I chose things like Dance History, Dance Composition, Theatre for Children, and Costuming and Makeup. I chose classes that I think would help me prepare for a teaching role in both dance and theatre. The hardest part of the process was making sure everything fit into my four-year-plan, and the physical and mental strain of taking upper-level courses to catch up to where I needed to be to graduate in four years. The entire theatre faculty have been supportive and Stacy Pottinger has been awesome throughout the whole process. She’s the one I really had to sit down and work things out with. I also got to go on a J-Term trip in June to NYC with Herschel Kruger last summer. During that time, I was able to visit and take some classes at a dance studio in the city, which was super cool. Herschel was very supportive of my choice to do this, and when I returned from the classes, he made sure to ask me how they were. He has also been helping me make sure my senior thesis is ready to go for next year!
What are a couple of the most notable opportunities you’ve had through the dance department?
The dance department has really grown so much since I started at Carthage, and there are so many opportunities available. Every spring, I participate in the Boys and Girls Club Clinic, where we teach kids dance in our studio on campus. I’m also part of NDEO (the National Dance Education Organization), and am planning to graduate with dance honors through NHSDA (the National Honor Society for Dance Arts). That’s really exciting because those are really good things to have on a resume as a future dance educator.
One of the biggest opportunities on campus is the variety of dance classes and teachers available to work with. All the professors teach differently, and everyone brings a different point of view to the classroom. Joey Hernandez has judged dance competitions and worked in commercial jazz, Kristina teaches at a studio, Stacy has been in a dance troupe. All of them bring really different aspects of dance to the table, and it’s really cool to be able to get so many different ideas from them and to be able to string together what I want to do in my future from their examples.
What show did you most recently work on? What piece(s) did you choreograph?
This past semester, I choreographed two pieces for Away From the Mirror. I was also the concert coordinator, so I worked alongside Stacy helping to run auditions, send out emails, run tech rehearsals, figure out the lighting for each dance, etc. I really had a big part of the show this time, and I really enjoyed it.
Where did the inspiration for your most recent pieces come from?
This year, I worked on two pieces, a group piece and a trio, for Away From The Mirror. The trio was called “I’ll Bring Thunder” and was about how your past and present affect your future. The three dancers were all supposed to be different versions of myself, weaving through each other and trying to show how I became the person that I am today. The group piece was inspired by the #MeToo Movement. This was definitely the hardest one to choreograph because it’s such a big topic right now. I wanted to do it justice and incorporate the theme of social media, but not diminish or dehumanize any of the aspects. It was really hard, but I really loved how my dancers pulled it off. They had to have a lot of emotion for that piece, but I think they did really well.
What are you planning/hoping to do in your final year at Carthage? Any plans for your senior thesis?
Yes! After seeing my work on the spring show this year, Stacy and Herschel talked, and we all eventually decided that I will be working on the spring show (Away From the Mirror 2020) for my senior thesis. I will be working again as the concert coordinator, working alongside Kristina Saldarelli to direct, and choreographing three of my own pieces. I’m hoping to do a hip hop/tap piece, a modern piece, and a contemporary or jazz piece. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m very excited, especially for the opportunity to work with Kristina again!
What advice would you give to incoming freshmen who are hoping to pursue dance at Carthage?
I have two things. First thing: don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and show your talents; you never know who’s noticing things. Many times I went to an audition and thought I did terribly, but then I would make it into a piece, because someone noticed something I didn’t think I had. Then I would grow from being in that piece, and that would never have happened if I hadn’t put myself out there.
Second thing: get to know your faculty. The program has really grown leaps and bounds and there’s so much love for everyone; all the teachers are so welcoming. My work being in dance pieces and classes has brought me closer to all my professors, and without them I wouldn’t have my self-designed major or be where I am today. The faculty are there to help and push you, not to judge you. Because of them, everyone is super supportive of everyone - classes at Carthage are not the kind of classes where you walk in and feel judged. Everyone is welcome to make mistakes and try new things, and then grow from those mistakes, which is a super helpful environment for me as a future teacher and choreographer. The teachers are all also really open to talking about life outside of dance and answering questions, which is really valuable, since college isn’t just about taking classes. If you get to know your faculty, you will be so much better off in your four years.
And finally, the dreaded question: do you have any post-Carthage thoughts yet?
I hope to teach, that’s the plan right now. Whether that be at a high school (my dream job) or a community theater, or a studio, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ve found that working with high schoolers is my passion, so that’s the age group I’d like to work with. Right now, I don’t really have any plans in place, but I do have a couple of job interviews for high school theatre and dance positions in the next couple of weeks, and I’m hoping that one of those places will want to hire me after graduation! Either way, I really want to teach. I’m planning to get through senior year and see what happens from there.
Any closing thoughts or words of wisdom?
Come join the dance program!!! We are growing and we want to grow even more. Libby paved the way for me, and now I really want to pave the way for other students to become more involved in the dance program. I really wish we had a dance major as well as a minor, and the more students we get involved with dance at Carthage, the more likely that becomes. We need as many people as we can get!