Dancer moves to a new stage

Stephens’ dance department says goodbye to the chairwoman who is credited with reviving the program
Thursday, May 3, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:05 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Mary Rotella, chair of the dance department at Stephens College, poses above the Harriette Ann Gray Dance Studio on Wednesday. She is leaving her position to pursue full-time professional dancing in New York City. “There’s an energy about New York, creatively, you know,” Rotella said.

Mary Rotella rose from her desk and ran down the hall. There wasn’t an emergency. No one was hurt. There was no fire — it was just a moment to be with her students.

It was time for her dance students to surprise the ballet instructor with a new costume sewing room. Rotella, Stephens College’s dance department chairwoman, knew how important this project was for her students and wouldn’t miss this moment for anything.

After five years as leader of Stephens’ nationally-recognized dance department, Rotella will leave Stephens to return to New York City and a life of full-time professional dance. She leaves behind a reputation of rebuilding a department and bringing a warm smile to young dancers’ as they transition into professional life.

“We (the teachers) understand that a dancer might come in as a freshman, and there’s a transition from studio dance to a dance program like this one,” she said. “Still, our immediate goal is to prepare them for a professional environment.”

“I’m sad to see Mary go,” said Lauren Oliver, a freshman who has only known Rotella for a year. “She was one of the reasons I came to Stephens.”

In 2002, Rotella, then a freelance choreographer and dance director, agreed to return to her alma mater for a year, “to see what happened.”

Her impact on the school’s dance program has been stunning, officials said.

“Mary rebuilt the program,” said Rex Stevens, vice president for academic affairs. “It was in a shambles, and she put in back together.”

Rotella, who graduated from Stephens in 1980, had planned to leave last year, but decided to stay after a disappointing search for a successor.

“There’s a tradition here we want to maintain,” Stevens said.

Now after another year of searching, they think they’ve found the right person in Bob Boross, who teaches dance at the University of California-Irvine.

Boross has a strong background in jazz, modern and tap dance and has choreographed musicals such as “Annie Get Your Gun”. Like Rotella, he has experience dancing on Broadway.

Boross isn’t looking to make big changes and instead wants to enhance what Rotella is leaving.

“Since I actively work in the jazz dance, there will most likely be a greater presence of jazz dance in the curriculum and concert programming than may have occurred in the past,” Boross said. “Mary Rotella has done a great deal to leave the program for me in excellent condition.”

He said he was impressed with the desire and enthusiasm of the dance students.

“They work hard and want to learn and succeed,” Boross said.

Before she joined the Stephens’ staff, Rotella had visited as a guest artist.

“I hope to come back after I leave,” she said. “I have a fondness for Stephens. I am thankful for my teachers and my mentors, for they have changed my life. I hope to have had that same impact on my students.”

Since she began teaching full time at Stephens, Rotella has bounced between New York City and Columbia.

Oliver said it will be good to have someone who can be there all the time.

“I know Mary really wanted someone who could stay with us,” Oliver said.

Rotella’s roots in New York are deep — going on more than 25 years.

“There’s an energy about New York, creatively,” Rotella said.”

Rotella said she’ll miss watching her students grow as dancers: “The ability to see a student come in freshman year and watch her develop.”

Now, when here, Rotella misses her friends in New York. “Of course, when I go there, I’ll miss everyone here.”

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