This story originally appeared in Harker News in May, 2004
by Sue Smith, Harker Archivist
From the Harker School’s earliest beginnings, dance has played an important role. The 1903 catalog features dance instruction, offered to the girls for $20 per term. By the ’20s, dance became part of the curriculum, and one period a week was devoted to natural [interpretive] dancing and folk dancing. The dance curriculum was expanded to include clogging in the ’30s, which was thought to increase flexibility and a sense of rhythm. In the ’40s, creative, interpretive and social dancing were recognized as integral to the curriculum.
As the Miss Harker School expanded to include K-12 in the 50s, dance was introduced into the primary school curriculum. Kindergarteners practiced folk dancing every day, and additional dance instruction was available after school. Intermediate students learned interpretive dance, and the upper school students were exposed to a variety of dance traditions. Through the merger of the Palo Alto Military Academy with the Harker Day School in the early 1960s, dance was always part of the summer programs and of their annual Maypole celebrations. In the early days of Harker Academy, spring musicals provided the main venue for dance performances. However, when dance teacher Laura Rae came to Harker in 1982, the dance program really began to flourish! Laura’s earliest memories are of the spring musicals, in which all 7th and 8th graders participated, and each P.E. class selected dancers for specific routines. Rae recalls, “My first year, the musical was the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ and I choreographed the leads as well as the large group numbers. At the same time, I started making up little routines for students to perform at the awards assemblies. The first dance routine was ‘Shake It Up’ by the Cars.” So impressive was the performance that dance performances soon became part of every school assembly, as well as the annual Holiday Show and Spring Musical.
The after-school dance program began in 1983 with 50 students of various grade levels and skills. Dancers performed in a recital at the end of the school year. In the early years Dan Gelineau worked on sound, Mike Bassoni on lights, and Jack Bither was master of ceremonies. Within three years, the program grew to include 150 students who participated in the after-school program, parent/child dances and a faculty routine with a mother/faculty dance. By the late ’80s, Harker Academy dancers had developed a solid base of skills. Parents helped build sets and costumes were ordered through professional catalogs. Dance became a hit at Harker!
By now Rae was teaching dance full-time, and the dance program now included a required course in the K-8th grade P.E. program, the annual spring musical (required for MS students) and an after-school elective for performance in the dance show. Dance was taught in a small room which had an open dance deck attached (these rooms now function as Laura Lang-Ree’s room/Mr. Micek’s computer room). Rae remembers “first position feet” painted on the floor, flowers and a heater on the dance deck, and being part of the life of the boarding students. She remembers, “Many of the boarders danced in the program, since we were just downstairs. This opened the doors to ethnic dances and boys entering the program.” Student participation after school increased and Rae began to contract with outside choreographers to assist with the dance numbers. The annual show began to have standard routines that included jazz, ballet/lyrical, modern and a new style known as hip-hop. “At this point, I was still working with a phonograph and those big CDs known as vinyl records,” Rae laughed. “By the late ’80s I couldn’t keep up with the demand of student interest.” So the dance program further expanded in the 1990s as Gail Palmer came aboard. Rae and Palmer became a team that made the program what it is today.
Rae said the program has flourished as a result of the creativity and support of many, and she feels a special indebtedness to Howard and Diana Nichols: “I am amazed that the dance program has become such an integral part of the Harker community. Howard and Diana have always been advocates of the performing arts. To be able to work with wonderful, bright students, hire outside choreographers and collaborate with the Performing Arts staff has been a dream come true.”
The tradition continues as we celebrated our 21st annual dance production, “Let’s Show ‘Em,” this year. Lucky indeed are the Harker dancers, who as part of their legacy have created lifelong memories for all and experienced the thrill of performing at Harker!