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Lifelong Dancer Elizabeth Gow adapts from ballet to modern at Mills

Elizabeth Gow (left) studies with Professor Holley Farmer (right) to perfect her craft of dance.
Elizabeth Gow (left) studies with Professor Holley Farmer (right) to perfect her craft of dance.

In November, second year psychology student at Mills College, Elizabeth Gow, had the opportunity to perform in the Merce Cunningham MinEvent that formed the final portion of the Mills Repertory Dance Company (MRDC) production, In Flux.

In Flux was a modern dance performance that took place in on the Mills College campus, and in San Francisco, at the Oberlin Dance Collective Dance Commons.  The MRDC production featured three premiers in addition to the Merce Cunningham MinEvent.

Gow began dancing when she was three. She said that she first wanted to dance because her sister, who is two years older than her, was learning the art.

Though Gow trained mainly in classical ballet until she was 12, modern dance was part of her curriculum as well at Harley Ballet Theater, in Berkeley. She said it was difficult, as a classically trained dancer, to embrace the form of modern dance which requires the dancer to release, because classical dancing is so strictly structured.

“Letting go is hard,” Gow said. “You learn to have all of this proper form. That is really a metaphor for the rest of my life. I am having to trust my own abilities.”

One of the main reasons that Gow chose to come to Mills was to have the opportunity to work with her very first modern dance teacher again.  Now Associate Professor of dance at Mills, Sonya Delwaide first taught Gow when she was eight at Berkeley Ballet Theater.

“I had to work with Ms. Sonya again,” Gow said. “She is just so creative, and funny, and she really wants you to be yourself and be unique. That was a struggle as a little girl, being a ballerina and needing everything to be structured.”

Delwaide recently reflected upon her first meeting with Gow.

“I was very fond of her because she had this incredible glow when she danced,” Delwaide said in an email. “I always thought that we should add an ‘L’ to her name (Glow instead of Gow).”

Delwaide said that Gow took to the Cunningham technique quickly when she first began to learn it.  Cunningham technique, according to another Mills faculty member and former Cunningham dancer, Holley Farmer, is recognizable because of the torso shifts and the fact that the torso often appears isolated in movement from the lower body.

“She took to this new approach right away and was so hungry for it,” Delwaide said.

Gow said that, since a very young age, she’s been stimulated by art — from dancing to opera and that she is so happy to be back in the dance world now.

“I love that I have this opportunity right now to do In Flux because dancing on stage is a whole other experience than just being in the studio,” Gow said. “You’re giving your art to other people. I would love to keep dancing after I graduate, just to be on that magic box — the stage.”

Though dancing is her passion, Gow wants to work with kids. Her goal is to work in  an infant mental health program.  She said she would also love to work with kids and movement, but if she can’t incorporate dancing into her career, she’ll take ballet classes for the rest of her life, to keep moving and let her body be free.

Dancers are prone to injuries, said Gow, who hurt her ankle during the first on stage run-through of the In Flux performance. Though not a severe injury, she said it was painful and she employed ice, natural herbal therapies, and acupuncture to get back to 100 percent by opening night.

“Injuries are hard, and they happen,” Gow said. “I think what’s difficult for dancers is that you have to really be in tune with yourself and not push the injury.”

By taping her ankle properly and getting the necessary help, Gow was able to make it through the three days of In Flux. 

“I have to listen to what’s good for me,” Gow said. “The other women in the Mills Dance Department cater to that energy. They are very supportive. You can tell that they’re all on their own journey while collaborating with one another.”

The biggest challenge, Gow said, about In Flux, has been that the dancers have had to practice without music, since the music for the event will be live. As a ballerina, she said that she was very thrown by the lack of accompaniment, but that she is also very excited.

“This work by Merce Cunningham is very fast and very challenging,” Gow said. “The energy is exhilarating. I’m creating the rhythm for my movement with my breath, and counting in my head. I’m hearing my breath since there isn’t other music.”

Gow performed all three days that In Flux was shown: the first two shows at Lisser Theater on the Mills College campus, and the third in San Francisco at the Oberlin Dance Collective Dance Commons. More information about upcoming MRDC events can be found on the Mills College website.