It’s tough to know where to begin when telling the story of Rebecca Rice’s journey to her current position of Director of Dance at Cushing Academy. In many ways the beginning is the end: Rebecca grew up running around campus, watching her mother teach and going to the dance programs. As Ms. Rice said about her own dance experience, “I had to go away to come back,” after quitting dance at age 14. The same was true about her time at Cushing. Luckily for Cushing, she did indeed come back!
Perhaps it really all started in the 1920s, when modern dance burst onto the scene. Ms. Rice’s grandmother was a professional dancer, commuting from Fitchburg, Massachusetts three days a week into Boston to take lessons. At the age of 22, she opened her own studio, which eventually grew to over 300 students.
“She was my role model in many ways,” said Ms. Rice. Ms. Rice’s own mother, Mona Rice, started the dance program at Cushing Academy in 1961. In the younger Ms. Rice’s early years as a dancer, she performed with her grandmother, mother, and aunt (a long time professional dancer). However, Ms. Rice was drawn to teaching, and she has enjoyed a distinguished career starting dance programs at Dana Hall School and Winsor School and teaching at MIT and for the Boston Ballet. Her own dance company is well established, performing for over 20 years.
Ms. Rice and her husband bought her childhood home and returned to central Massachusetts in 2005. As luck would have it, current Chair of the Performing Arts department, Julia Ohm, came calling, looking for Ms. Rice to teach a few private lessons.
“I told her I was available, and I loved it; I taught maybe two or three days a week. Then I saw what an amazing place Cushing is,” said Rice. “To be able to have someone [Julia Ohm] so accomplished at the school as the head of the performing arts...so professional and such a cool person. Julia is one of the most wonderful bosses I’ve ever had in my life.”
With the support of the department, Ms. Rice relaunched a full dance program at the school. “We did an advanced level class with two girls at eight in the morning, three days a week. I got so close to those girls and realized that Cushing was such a special place. This was just about education, it was about focusing on what is important. I’ve been really inspired about that work here,” explained Rice.
The dance program has a strong Denishawn influence from Ms. Rice’s own background. She focuses on ballet foundation as well as classical modern dance foundation. “It’s based on a pedagogy that is anatomically sound. We go over positions and vocabulary,” she says of her academic day courses. In her after school classes, she focuses on the abstract elements of movement, which is the foundation and composition of choreography, the creative aspect.
“That’s basically why I teach here, and why I’ve taught my whole life: I’m trying to connect with their creative place, trying to get them to be confident and disciplined so they can come up with material that comes from a very deep place, a very soulful place, that is their very own.”
One of her current seniors is working on a piece about justice, choreographed to a poem written by Toni Morrison. Ms. Rice explains, “You have to really connect with your heart and your insides, à la Martha Graham, to understand that what makes an artist. If you want to be an artist, or if you are trying to create, you create from your own experience. It’s important for these kids to open themselves up to new things.”
Sometimes you have to go away to come home again.