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January 2008

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Juilliard Dance

Published: January 1, 2008
Category: profile

Carol Walker: Ambassador for Dance

By Rachel Straus

If she hadn’t fallen madly in love with dance in high school, Carol Walker says she might have followed a career in international relations. But as a performer, teacher, and choreographer for 27 years, and then a college dance dean with connections to companies and schools worldwide for the next 23, her life’s trajectory shares the same variety and scope as that of a career diplomat’s. Walker’s tenacity, negotiating skills, and charisma are those of a first-rate ambassador whose success involves focusing on the big picture. “I love dance because it’s about music and people,” she says. “I loving seeing all the elements come together.”

Walker’s wardrobe is colorful and she laughs a lot. Her words, however, never mince. “I’ve been so bloody lucky,” she says about being on a first-name basis with Mark Morris and Merce Cunningham and about coming of age during the U.S. dance boom. “I had wonderful mentors. I was in places where I could grow and go.” Walker grew up in Highland Park, IL, the only child of Madeline and Charles Kluss. Belonging to the third wave of American modern dancers that developed—many outside of big cities—Walker and her peers followed in the wake of groundbreakers like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Hanya Holm.

Though Holm provided her with her “first taste of professionalism,” says Walker, referring to the two summers she spent studying with the German expressionist at Colorado College, it was the lesser-known dance artist Phyllis Sabold who introduced Walker to dance. Sabold gave the teenager the first of many classes, opening her to the art’s innumerable expressive possibilities. When Sabold developed cancer, Walker—age 20 and recently married to Peter Walker—began filling in for her mentor at her studio in Highland Park, IL.

“I remember Phyllis saying, ‘You can’t consider yourself a good teacher until you can teach 5-year-olds and until you can build a technique in someone,’ ” says Walker. Consequently the budding young teacher taught all age groups while dancing for Sabold and in summer tent show performances of The King and I and Brigadoon. She also raised, with Peter, two daughters, Kim and Kathleen. Then, after the death of Sabold and with the prompting of a “lady of the community,” Carol Eisenschiml, Walker opened her own studio in 1971. “I learned a lot by doing and by seeing what the results were,” says Walker of her development as a teacher. The results of merging elements of Graham, Humphrey, and ballet techniques were good: Her studio became a financial and artistic success; her students went on to professional dance careers.

“I felt like Carol could run the world,” says dancer Janie Brendel, who started studying with Walker in grade school and whom New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning described as “claim[ing] the stage with formidable delicacy” in 2000.

Another former Walker student, Liz Frankel, a ballet teacher at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, says, “Carol created a magnificent freedom in her studio.” That freedom included improvisational studies as a finale to technique class, something rarely done even today.

In 1969 Walker had inherited Sabold’s teaching job at Barat College, where no dance department existed. Seizing on a rare opportunity, Walker slowly cajoled and convinced wary college administrators to fund a new program devoted to dance education, performance, and choreography. By the time she left her position at Barat in 1984, she had become the director of the theater and dance department. She had also earned a BA from the college.

“There was always something perking me along,” says Walker, “keeping my perspective fresh.” In the beginning it was performing, but as her teaching responsibilities grew and keeping in shape became more difficult, her focus changed. First she choreographed for Barat Repertory Dance Group and presented lecture-demonstrations with her studio dancers at public schools. Then she went to New York City to study with Alwin Nikolais, Cunningham, and Graham. She also received National Endowment for the Arts grants to bring modern dance companies and master teachers to Barat and her studio. With increased government funding for the arts, Walker didn’t just ride the dance boom, she grabbed its opportunities with both fists.

This dance dynamo describes teaching 18 classes, raising a family, choreographing, and developing and running a college dance program without self-congratulatory fanfare. “Because of the position of modern dance at the time,” she says, “you had to be a leader. You rose to the occasion.” By 1983 Walker, age 46, could have begun resting on her laurels. Instead she took up another challenge, applying twice to become dean of dance at Purchase College, State University of New York. In her second try for the position, Walker wrote in a cover letter, “I do not have an internationally marketable reputation. I do know something about dance administration. You may want to keep reading.” Painfully aware that in the dance department’s 12-year history 8 deans (all former performing stars) had come and gone, the search committee read on and, in 1984, hired Walker. The newly appointed dean closed her studio and embarked on the next phase of her career.

Being the ninth dean of the Conservatory of Dance ushered in high-stake challenges and possibilities of professional prominence. “Change never freaks me out,” Walker says. But a less stalwart person would have trembled upon arriving at Purchase. Some dance faculty members, who came from pinnacles of the dance world, doubted her abilities. Rather than keep her head down, Walker instituted weekly faculty meetings that focused on students’ needs. She reached out to incoming freshman with a semester-long seminar devoted to teaching them about the prestigious faculty they were learning from (and to let them know they could always come to her office.)

Then three years into her deanship, Walker took a student group to Hong Kong’s international dance festival. As the sole U.S. representative, the Purchase Dance Corps impressed, and it soon embarked on 11 more international touring opportunities for the faculty and students.

Walker’s determination to put Purchase College on the international dance map continued. She developed exchange programs with dance schools abroad; now there are five. She fund-raised for tours and scholarships and for the reconstruction and presentation of works by Bill T. Jones, Paul Taylor, and George Balanchine, along with those of emerging, cutting-edge choreographers. Young dancers from all over the world began coming to Purchase for their dance education. In 1998 Walker created a MFA program with faculty member Kazuko Hirabayashi. Walker became dean of the School of the Arts, a new position responsible for overseeing all art departments, and won handfuls of awards from the dance community, the college, and New York State.

“One of the things I am most proud of is how the faculty works as a team,” said Walker when she retired as dance dean last summer. For a diplomat like her, that remark sends the right message: She acknowledges those who she works with immediately. Her habit of putting others forward is not lost on those around her. “Carol is a mother first,” says professor Larry Clark, who was given his first teaching opportunity at Walker’s studio. “She was like a fertilizer for a lot of us.”

Although Walker stopped teaching dance technique when she became dean, her interest in students remained passionate and strategic. Atlanta Ballet dancer Peng-Yu Chen remembers how Walker traveled to Philadelphia to see her perform with her Taiwanese high school. Walker personally handed Chen her visa papers so that she could matriculate at Purchase. “She believed in me from day one,” says Chen, who continues to seek Walker’s advice.

Mexican-born choreographer Ofelia Loret de Mola will never forget Walker’s commitment to help her at Purchase. When de Mola could no longer afford tuition, she says, “Carol got on the phone, made three phone calls and told me I was staying.”

For Jonathan Riedel, a former Limón dancer and a Purchase graduate who is now artistic director of the fledging Riedel Dance Theater, Walker is a role model for networking in the arts and business world. “Watching Carol work,” says Riedel, “is almost overwhelming.”

At age 70, Walker’s verve and chutzpah continues to move her life forward full throttle. Since retiring as dance dean she has traveled to Singapore and Taiwan to address dance organizations and to Australia to judge a dance competition. And Purchase’s president, Thomas J. Schwarz, who did not want to see Walker leave, says that he and the new dean have roles in mind for Walker in the future, besides her post as co-chair of Friends of Dance, the supporting organization of the Conservatory of Dance.

“It’s a wonderful life,” says Walker about her myriad connections to the dance world. At dance performances at The Joyce Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and City Center, she is flooded with familiar faces in the audience, onstage, and in the wings. She underlines the fact that her life couldn’t have happened as it did without her husband’s support. When Peter proposed, he promised his future mother-in-law that he would “never take dance away from Carol.” Peter, who is the dance department’s director of operations, kept his word and then some. His 50-year-long backing of his wife is remarkable.

“I lived in an era when women were not trained for or considered to have careers,” says Walker. “We were supposed to be housewives. I’m so lucky because my husband and my parents were very cool about me working.” Walker’s encouragement from her loved ones allowed her to develop from a “jock” dancing in gym shorts to a dance professional, addressing an international consortium on its pedagogical future. Walker isn’t only a groundbreaker for women who are determined to have both family and meaningful work; she is a model for anyone interested in becoming a leader in her field. Her combination of stamina, savvy, and confidence makes her uniquely powerful. Otherwise she couldn’t have, as she says, “made my own resume.”

Walker began her life journey as a dance-struck teen who discovered music and movement. Today she is a terpsichorean diplomat, working in all walks of the dancing life.

See the article at Dance Studio Life

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