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Flagstaff's Gina Darlington: Educating and enlightening through dance

Rendered nearly speechless — or, at least, not as loquacious as usual — Gina Darlington paused a moment to take in the scene unfolding in the studio Wednesday night at her Canyon Dance Academy.

What Darlington thought would be just another rehearsal of the Canyon Movement Company, with her merely observing from a corner, turned into a celebration of her more than two decades promoting dance in Flagstaff, from working with kids in schools to professionals at the annual spring festival.

Goaded to move to center stage that night, Darlington looked on agog as, flanked by her dancers, representatives of the Arizona Dance Coalition and the Flagstaff Arts Council bestowed upon her a “Creative Connections” award for her work promoting dance. It was a lot for Darlington to take in. Tears welling, she removed her mask and admitted, “I don’t know what to say.”

One of her dancers piped up: “Say it with creative movement!”

“Interpretive dance!” shouted another.

And here Darlington, beaming, raised her head and arms to the sky, dramatically, in a physical manifestation of her joy and appreciation. After busting that move, she spoke warmly, but, really, the gesture was all that needed to be said.

In fact, a younger version of Darlington, before progressive arthritis ended her dancing career in her 50s, probably would have performed an impromptu full-blown interpretive dance and no doubt would have wowed all assembled.

Now, though, she is content to direct others and impart her decades of experience in modern dance, and other forms, from the wings.

Dance education is, after all, Darlington’s life’s work and passion.

A life dancing on stages and aisles

From the tender age of 2, when her mother took Gina to a modern dance performance in her native Utah and she spent the whole time dancing in the aisles, to being a student of noted dance educator Virginia Tanner in Salt Lake City, to teaching dance in classrooms ranging from elementary schools to Coconino Community College, to building the Canyon Dance Company and its adult troupe, Canyon Movement Company, into a staple on the Flagstaff arts scene, Darlington’s goal has been to share the wonders and self-expression of dance to all she encounters.

And, in the past year, such joy has been even more important, if more difficult to share, during the COVID-19 pandemic, which turned the annual spring dance festival into a “virtual” performance and transformed the wildly popular holiday production, “Nutcracker Suite in Bare Feet,” with the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, into a downloadable online film.

But normalcy is starting to return to Canyon Dance. Classes and rehearsals no longer are Zoom-only, though all pandemic protocols are in place in the studio and dancers still have the option of participating virtually. Darlington has announced that the spring festival, “DanCelebration” — the event that spawned her Arizona Dance Coalition award — will return on May 22 in slightly truncated fashion; it will take place outdoors, in a parking lot downtown.

It seemingly would take more than a global pandemic to stop a dynamo like Darlington from sharing her love of all things dance.

“My whole life experience has been to bring live performance to the performers and the audience, to make that connection with people,” Darlington said, when asked about the challenges of the past year. "Online you don’t quite feel it. You don’t feel that energy. Right at the beginning of the pandemic, I spent a lot of time watching Broadway shows and dances on TV, on YouTube, to get ideas, but it’s just not the same.”

This past year, her students and company mostly have been dancing by themselves and brought together only as a pixelated box on a computer screen. It has tested Darlington’s skill as an educator and her creativity as a director. She said she was particularly proud of the results of the “Nutcracker” film, made in collaboration with Velocity Dance Company, Momentum Aerial and TenOne Productions, though admits it paled compared to the live theater experience.

“It was interesting,” she said, “and I thought it was really successful for us being so new at figuring out that kind of technology. Let’s just say it was a challenge.

“Our Sugar Plumb Fairy this year was a senior in high school, an excellent dancer, and this was her role of a lifetime. She performed it for only four people: me, the filmmaker, her best friend and Cori (Wall, the director). Her parents were watching on Zoom and that was it. I mean, we were cheering as loud as we could, all four of us. But, well, it was really hard to have that be her final experience before going off the college.”

Philosophy: fun, inclusiveness

For Darlington, dance should be above all else a joyful, inclusive experience. Hers is not one of those companies in which dancers are required to audition for spots and in which competition is valued over collaboration.

Cori Wall, Canyon’s studio director and a dance teacher at the Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, studied under Darlington at Coconino Community College and was drawn to the style and substance of Darlington’s “develop the whole person” approach.

“Gina has a very collaborative environment,” Wall said. “We’ll ask for dancer input. That fosters communal feeling, as opposed to ‘You’re going to do what I tell you to do.’ Before COVID, we used to sit here before and after rehearsal and have ‘check-in’ time. It wasn’t anything formal. We’d just sit down and chat. One thing Gina’s really good at offering is opportunity to not just perform but to talk to each other. When you come in, it’s not that cutthroat, you-have-to-get-to-work attitude. It’s a family instead of a competitive environment.”

That’s the way Darlington was taught, so it seemed natural for her to adopt a similar philosophy when she set out to train others. Starting at age 4 in the mid-1960s, Darlington began training at the Virginia Tanner Children’s Dance Theater at the University of Utah.

“We called her ‘Miss Ginny,’ and she was kind of scary and loud,” Darlington recalled with a laugh “I had a lot of fun. It was very creative, not your typical studio experience. I didn’t do competitions. It was just about the creative and artistic aspect of dance.”

Tanner’s holistic approach worked for Darlington, who performed in many productions as a child and adolescent and received her degree in professional dance from Brigham Young University.

It was at that point when Darlington had to choose between pursue a professional dance career and join established companies, or become a dance educator. She married young — “the Utah way,” she said, wryly — and was raising a family, so the choice to forgo a career essentially was made for her.

Looking back, Darlington says she has no regrets. Her resume certainly bears out her commitment to dance education.

While teaching at CCC, she helped to implement the college’s dance degree and formed Encore, the college’s dance company. As part of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, she has completed residencies at many schools and also has taught residencies in Colorado, Ireland and elsewhere.

But the Canyon Movement Company and Canyon Dance Academy is her primary focus. Arguably, it’s where she’s been most successful implementing the principles inculcated in her by “Miss Ginny” all those years ago in Salt Lake City.

“It’s about educating the whole child through dance,” she explained. “We’ve had a lot of dancers come through our program. A few of them are (now) professional dancers, but most are not.

“But we believe they are better people because of having that dance experience. We have several doctors and scientists and river runners. It’s a huge spectrum. If my goal had been to train professional dancers, it would be a very small and different group. What really motivates me is the creativity and inclusiveness, using dance to make lives better and more fulfilling.”

To illustrate, she told the story of a withdrawn fifth-grade boy she taught at a Flagstaff school.

“He came in from Williams, had a single dad taking care of him,” she said. “He was very, well not rebellious, but he’d sit with his arms folded and kind of look at me in class. But I worked with him. Once I got him engaged — he became my helper — he loved coming to dance and opened up. Sometimes using your body to express yourself is great because you’re not good at expressing yourself verbally.”

Working with kids

Darlington, because of her arthritis, doesn’t do a great deal of hands-on teaching anymore. But when asked her favorite age of students, she doesn’t hesitate: 7- and 8-year-olds.

“They are at an awareness age in child development where they can separate fantasy from reality, their cognitive thinking is better than 5-year-olds, but they also aren’t intimidated,” she said. “Their bodies aren’t going through the adolescent changes yet, so they’re very expressive and creative, and I can get them to do just about anything and they do it. I love that they’re able to do it and brave enough.”

Working with adult dancers is more nuanced but, she said, also rewarding.

“You can take on heavier subjects and better technical level,” she said. “Now, I’m mostly directing, because I’m a little older and my body is a lot older. I deal with some arthritis issues that limit me a lot. As a dance teacher, it’s hard to give direction and not demonstrate that direction -- which is another reason I don’t teach much anymore.

“I’ve tried to make modern dance accessible, generally, in that it’s enjoyable to watch. My personal philosophy is, if my choreography evokes an emotion, then it’s successful. That could be humor or tenderness, sadness or anger -- any of those emotions.”

Darlington’s own emotions bubbled over upon receiving what essentially is a lifetime-achievement award from her dance peers in the state. The occasion prompted her to reflect on the choice she made decades ago to opt for teaching ahead of performing.

“I think,” she told those assembled in the studio for the presentation, “that I made the right decision.”


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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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