By Miriam Landru
Photos by: Jen Tarbox www.jentarboxphotography.com
"You alright over there? Be careful!” exclaimed Avis Hatcher-Puzzo, as two dancers practiced a difficult move. Wanting her students to move on to something that won’t result in a twisted ankle she firmly requested, “Okay guys…please start with your plié series.”
She knows how to take command of a room and the students pay attention. Relatively new to Fayetteville State University, the Connecticut Yankee was brought down south in 2008 when her husband’s job with Baer Pharmaceuticals transferred to the Triangle area.
One afternoon, I lounged with her on the wooden floor and she told me of her journey to build one of the most up and coming modern dance programs at a historically black college or university (HBCU). With a graduate degree in Theatre, Hatcher-Puzzo was hired to choreograph musicals at FSU. “And they also wanted me to teach the dance class as part of the physical education curriculum. There were no specifics…it was just called DANCE.”
Hatcher-Puzzo soon learned that the main forms of dance being taught in the course were “stepping” and liturgical. As a trained ballet and modern dancer, she knew that if FSU were to become to competitive and include a dance major or minor, proper dance technique would need to be put into practice.
“I was thinking…you don’t major in that. So, I always start off my story, I was going to do musical theater dance, jazz, all of that…then students kept coming to me and asking me about Alvin Ailey. That’s the Modern dancer they had all heard of,” she shared. “You can now minor in dance here, and in modern dance you actually have to train. You need to have that foundation.”
To start building the program, Hatcher-Puzzo worked with students who either had no dance experience or dance training from studios where sometimes she had to re-teach them proper technique and liturgical dancers. “I would rather have eclectic, artistic dancers rather than have them all look the same. They all have great stage presence,” she explained.
Modern dance is not the only form the students study in the program. African jazz and hip-hop are also taught. Different modern techniques such as the Horton method, Cunningham and release technique are also practiced and performed. Realizing the importance of ballet as the foundation of all forms of dance, Wei Ni, former professional dancer with the Carolina Ballet and Assistant Director of Charlotte Blume School of Dance, teaches the students weekly. Hatcher-Puzzo chuckled, “In Connecticut, I was the alternative teacher, I would go to the ballet school and teach hip-hop and modern…then in the urban areas I would teach ballet.”
The dancers have performed at various events in Fayetteville and all over the state, including a special performance at the North Carolina Museum of History in Durham celebrating African-American culture. The dancers have also traveled out of state for performance opportunities in Atlanta, taken classes at acclaimed mega-studio Steps on Broadway and have even visited the Lone Star State to participate in the Black College Dance Exchange at Prairie View A&M College.
As a former member of a professional modern company led by the late Paul Hall in New Haven, Connecticut, Hatcher-Puzzo realizes the importance of having a way to perform after college. This is one of the reasons she founded Koffee Dance Company headquarted in Durham. Members of the company hail from North Carolina State University, Appalachian State University and even a few dancers from FSU take part. “I thought once these students graduate…where will they go? I wanted them to understand what it’s like to work in a company. There are demands. It is serious work,” she explained.
Deon Releford is a graduating senior with a minor in dance and is also a member of Koffee Dance Company. “I love the freedom of dance. When I started dancing, I was going through a lot, just not sure of myself…I never had an outlet for my energy until dance.” It is evident that all of the students respect and have a deep admiration for Hatcher-Puzzo as a teacher, dancer and encourager. Deon explained, “When we went to Texas for the Black College Dance Exchange, I didn’t want to do it but Ms. Avis made me. I auditioned for scholarships…and I received three out of four that were offered.”
It is obvious that Hatcher-Puzzo is building a successful program with talented dancers who are ready to perform and show the community what they’re made of.
Their next performances will be at 7:30 p.m. on March 21 and 3:00 p.m. on March 22 in conjunction with Charlotte Blume School of Dance and the North Carolina State Ballet at Seabrook Auditorium.