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May 6, 2014

Dance Professor Celebrates 30 Years as Director of Ensemble

Cynthia Thompson has been cultivating student choreography and performance as the director of the Contemporary Dance Ensemble (CDE) since 1984. Thompson “has been a fierce champion of student choreographers from the very beginning,” declares Kate Trammell, friend, fellow faculty member and business partner of 30 years. “Her mentorship has been a nurturing, challenging force for countless young artists, and is a big part of why JMU is known for strong student work.”

Starting in their sophomore year, all dance majors become part of the CDE. According to Thompson, a huge part of the curriculum comes to rest in the CDE through improvisation, composition and technique classes.

When Thompson began at JMU, the CDE and a folk dance company were already established. Trammell was just starting Virginia Repertory, a pre-professional touring dance company, which, at the time, she and Thompson both danced in with graduate and undergraduate students.

“Kate [Trammell] and I made a dance together the first week I was here,” exclaims Thompson. That “immediate connection and passion for choreography and performing” led to the start of Thompson & Trammell Dance Foundation, Inc. As part of that organization, Thompson and Trammell toured both nationally and internationally. While they are still enthusiastic about touring, in recent years, they have toured less in an effort to focus on family. 

Reflecting on her time as a professor and director, Thompson says the emphasis has always been on contemporary dance and that the number of dance majors and, therefore, the number of members in the CDE has fluctuated over the past three decades. “There were years when we had 20-25 majors, and years when we had 50,” states Thompson. The current number of dance majors is between 70 and 75, with that trend increasing in the last five years.   

Also increasing is the “level of technical prowess and performance,” reveals Thompson. “The student choreography has gotten so much stronger, and we’re able to bring in more well-known, sophisticated guest choreographers because our students are at a higher level.”

Thompson has had the opportunity to hone her choreography skills by creating at least one dance every year for the CDE for the past 30 years. And while she says she is “still growing,” Thompson believes her time with the ensemble has allowed her to really find her voice as a choreographer—and that voice “still has something to say.”

As the 2014 College of Visual and Performing Arts Madison Scholar, Thompson is busy planning a mini-retrospective of her work for the fall. The retrospective will include student work, guest artist work and her own work, which has shifted from a focus on dance technique to that of a more theatrical focus. 



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