Teen-age dancers study with intensity, perform with high energy and polish Company practices art on a shoestring

November 19, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The dancers leap like deer across the studio at Slayton House, the community arts center in Columbia's Wilde Lake Village Center, refreshing the repertory they performed on a September trip to France for a performance this weekend.

These are the members of Dance Dimension, an experiment in intensive dance education devised by Marilyn Byers, a resident of Laurel.

Though just teen-agers, these dancers meet five times a week, a regimen that would not be unusual for full-time adult professionals. They combine youthful energy and commitment with the polish and attention to detail of more experienced artists.

Byers expects her dancers to take much of the responsibility on themselves. If she has to leave the studio, any of the dancers -- 11 girls from Oakland Mills, Atholton, Wilde Lake, Centennial and Hammond high schools -- can take over the warm-up and give corrections.

"I believe in educating dancers, not training them," Byers says.

This year marks the 15th anniversary, more or less, of Dance Dimension, which celebrated with a reunion performance at the Columbia Festival in June and a trip to Columbia's sister city in France, Cergy-Pontoise, in September.

A high-octane reputation, and Byers' perseverance in keeping the company in the public eye, have resulted in Dance Dimension's being an ambassador for the community, representing Columbia at sister-city festivals in Tres Cantos, Spain, and Cergy-Pontoise, where the dancers were also designated official cultural ambassadors from Maryland.

Byers is a big backer of Columbia's sister-city program. It provides "a communication link and a diplomatic link" that makes her dancers' travels possible, though they still have to pay their way. For the trip to France in September, each dancer raised $1,200. "We support ourselves," says Byers. "Or the parents do."

The Columbia Association gives Byers a break on the rent for her studio time at Slayton House, but all other expenses are met by company membership fees.

Each member of the senior company, for instance, pays $176 a month for five weekly classes and an annual performance fee of $140 for costumes, lighting rental and other production expenses.

This doesn't cover much more than the basics. For her post-apocalypse piece "Out of the Ashes," which will be performed on the weekend program, Byers says: "I would love to do outrageous hair and makeup" for the mutant creatures born in a volcanic eruption, "but I just don't have the resources."

Dance is a shoestring art, especially in the United States, and Byers has lived on that shoestring for her entire professional life.

One of two daughters of a Church of the Brethren minister whose parish was in Martinsburg, W. Va., Byers was raised under its strict rules, which included no dancing.

Her first experience with organized movement ended in disaster. "I was thrown out of a lollipop dance in the third grade," she says cheerfully.

Then she took a dance class at a 4-H camp and was hooked. But that didn't prevent her from tormenting a student teacher who tried to interest Byers' high school class in dance.

"I was very uncooperative and made fun of it," Byers says remorsefully, "and this poor lady probably doesn't know to this day what an impact she had on me."

Byers married during her freshman year at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W. Va., had her first child, Mikki, now 28, and was pregnant with her second, Larissa, now 26, when her husband took a job in Maryland. She enrolled at the University of Maryland, College Park and finished an undergraduate degree in dance education in 1974. The marriage ended about the same time.

Her first job was at a school in Silver Spring, where she met and married its director, Fred Kendall. Now retired, he works part-time as technical director for Slayton House, tapes Byers' music, transports children and equipment, and serves as all-round gofer.

About 1976 -- she says she is very bad at dates -- Byers went to work for the Howard County schools, designing the dance section of its gifted-and-talented program and a dance increment for its physical education curriculum.

After leaving the Howard schools in the early 1980s, she went on to create the dance curriculum at Suitland High School, a magnet school for the arts in Prince George's County.

She is on a leave of absence from that job, but is running a dance program at the Johns Hopkins University.

Scattered? Just a little. When asked her age, she has to stop for a minute. "I think I'm 48," she says doubtfully.

She can't remember when she won any of several awards, including a Kennedy Center choreography fellowship for dance educators (it was in 1987, she finally figures out) or when Dance Dimension actually started. She estimates 1982.

Many of the works on this weekend's program reflect Byers' belief that dance can, and should, address issues of substance. In a world where abstract movement has ruled since the 1960s, this is a minority view.

"Rainforest" worries about the ecology of a vanishing world; "Out of the Ashes" shows the resilience of the human spirit after disaster.

"I love to see them grow up and express themselves and focus on issues larger than themselves," Byers says of her students.

Her mother, the minister's wife, thought her two daughters were going to become missionaries. Byers' sister went into a rock band, and Byers went into dance.

"Well," she says, "maybe I am a missionary, after all."

Dance Dimension performances will be at 7: 30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Slayton House, Wilde Lake Village Center, off Lynx Lane, Columbia. Tickets are $8 ($6 for students) and are available at the door. Information: 410-730-3987.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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