From Calculus to Curtain Calls

By Mary Koepke — September 01, 1989 3 min read

Picture a bare stage. An agile woman rushes out and shouts all the things she must do in a day. Then, in a burst of motion, she tackles the chores, her powerful body moving in a stylized, animated pantomime. Each step of the way, she sings and screams key words that will help her remember what to do amid the whirlwind she has created.

Debra Wright Knapp, a performance artist with the nationally renowned Bill Evans Dance Company, is playing to her second audience of the day. Earlier, Knapp delighted her biggest fans, the students at the Albuquerque (N.M.) Montessori School, where she teaches a combination of physical education, theater, and dance.

From April to October, Knapp’s double life as teacher and dancer kicks into high gear. These are the months in which she works out nightly with the Evans company for the modern dance performances that have drawn enthusiastic audiences in a number of cities nationwide. “Whether on-stage or in rehearsal, it’s like playing tennis to win,” she says. But being fit is only part of it. She also has to communicate a message to the audience.

The messages in contemporary dance are as varied as the techniques used to express them. Knapp uses the sound of her own voice, traditional dance steps, and pedestrian movements, such as running and skipping, to capture both the extraordinary and the banal in everyday life.

Audiences would never have had the opportunity to see Knapp’s unusual style had it not been for a chance encounter one cold, November day during her freshman year at Indiana University, where she was studying to become a mathematics teacher. “I loved math because when you found an answer, you knew if it was right or wrong, and you got instant feedback,” she explains.

But after playing tennis in the gym that autumn afternoon, she discovered a whole new meaning to math. She heard music coming from a nearby room, and walked over to take a look. It was a dance studio.

“I peeked inside and watched a group of dancers improvising to live piano music,” she recalls. “I thought: `This is math. This is rhythm, timing, division, addition, subtraction—the kinesthetic experience of mathematics. But they’re also expressing the spirituality of the human soul.”’

Although she had, as Knapp puts it, “never danced a step” in her life, she enrolled in a class and immediately switched majors. “I planned to become a phys. ed. teacher and try to find a school that would let me include creative movement in the curriculum,” she says. But it took her a little longer than she expected to reach her goal.

During a rehearsal for a production at the university, the artistic director of a local dance company saw her onstage and asked her to join the organization. She accepted, and gradually picked up the education classes needed to get her teaching license in physical education.

In the meantime—with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts—she took teaching assignments as an artist-in-residence in Indiana public schools. In addition, she and a partner launched a performance company.

After seven years of teaching and dancing with her company, Knapp was ready for another challenge. It came in the form of Bill Evans, who was then directing the dance department at Indiana University. The choreographer met Knapp, admired her talents, and asked her to become a principal member of his company. “I was given the most technically challenging work I’ve ever done, and it was so exciting to prove to myself that I could handle it,” Knapp says. “Suddenly, I was no longer just a regional dancer and choreographer—I stood up in the professional world.”

Now, in addition to working and touring with Evans, Knapp produces, creates, and performs solo concerts in the Albuquerque area, where she lives today. Watching them, it is clear that Knapp the dancer draws inspiration from Knapp the teacher. One of her most popular pieces is based entirely on the fears, games, and dreams of children.

“I really believe teaching is performing, and vice versa,” she says. “It’s making either my students or the audience look inside themselves to find answers. That’s what I love about modern dance—it isn’t spelled out. I give my audience a vision, and they have to interpret it.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as From Calculus to Curtain Calls