Senior Angela McNeal calls the Auxiliary Gymnasium home. Between her self-designed major in dance and her duties as president of Terpsichore and Dance Squad, she spends anywhere from six to ten hours there daily.
That time is spent choreographing, rehearsing, participating in critiques—and sweeping up the pollen, snow and rain that sometimes slip through cracks in the ceiling over the dance floor to make sure nobody falls.
“The Aux is very old,” said McNeal. “As much as they have tried to make it suitable for dance, in the real world, it’s not.”
She accepts the building’s quirks: an old heating system so loud it interrupts class discussions, chipping paint and several areas of exposed ceiling beams. But the dance department’s long-term future concerns her as the school considers how to apportion space left behind once the art department moves into the new Whitcomb Arts Building.
Driving past the construction site for the Whitcomb is a frequent reminder to McNeal that her department will not be receiving a space specifically constructed with dance in mind.
“It’s a soft spot for me,” she said.
When the Art department moves into its new home, the Dance, Theatre and Music departments will divide up the vacated space in the Ford Center for Fine Arts. According to Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Laura Behling, the current painting studios on the north side will be renovated, making room for dance rehearsal and performance space and adding extra bathrooms and locker rooms.
“We haven’t really put a timeline on exactly when that work would be done,” Behling said. “We’re really focusing on getting the art building up and running.”
The administration has brought in a Minneapolis-based firm, Schuler-Shook, to talk with the Dance, Music and Theatre departments and suggest uses for the space.
Associate Professor and Chair of Dance Jen Smith acknowledged that this process involves a certain amount of compromise as all three departments have hopes of expanding.
“It’s a challenge because every [department] has needs,” said Smith. “So we’re all trying to do the best we can to work together to meet our needs.”
She also noted that many other colleges house their dance departments in multipurpose spaces: Beloit, for example, operated their dance program out of the basement of a nearby church for years. Because dance departments didn’t commonly appear on campuses until the 1930s or 1940s, they were not included in most campus blueprints.
Constructed in 1908 to serve as Knox’s multipurpose gymnasium, the “Aux,” as it is affectionately abbreviated, has lived several lives. It was converted into a women’s gym after the completion of the Memorial Gymnasium in 1950 and housed dance classes around 1985. The wooden sign in its foyer reads “Knox Dance,” but the building hints at its multipurpose past.
When Smith began teaching at Knox 18 years ago, she found an old basketball court, rolling mirrors that are still used today, ballet bars and a portable stereo. The back room, where class discussions are now held, stored old athletic equipment. She would tape over the hooks in the floor where the badminton club attached their nets and watch as the kickboxing team hung their punching bags from the basketball hoops.
Since then, Smith has worked hard to change perception of dance as an extracurricular that requires no more than a “big, empty space.”
Most of all, dance requires proper flooring.
“Without a proper dance floor, it’d be similar to sending out your basketball team onto the court without shoes,” she said. “It’s the protection that dancers need to ensure their safety.”
The Aux’s main Marley, a vinyl flooring that offers some spring to dancers, is holding up. But the back Marley is scuffed and scratched and cannot be used like specialized wood flooring to diversify the kinds of dance classes and clubs offered at Knox.
A Marley doesn’t have a long life. Its foam gets compacted after five to seven years of wear and replacements go for around $4,000, according to Smith.
The open gym structure is also less than conducive to holding multiple classes or practices simultaneously. Scheduling conflicts are a daily source of frustration.
President of Ballroom Dancing Club senior Ned Babbott moved the club’s twice-weekly sessions out of the Aux due to such conflicts, and then back again, once “everybody and their mother” started booking the Trustee’s Room in Alumni Hall.
Both spaces accommodated ballroom’s needs, but Babbott thinks the Aux could do with some improvements. Its current condition, he said, makes dance look like a “minimized thing.”
“You could patch over some holes, put up a new coat of paint. It wouldn’t even have to be a massive renovation project,” Babbott said. “Because the dance program here is fantastic and it’s a really awesome space—or could be.
Senior Eric Crawford appreciates the secluded atmosphere in the building’s basement, which includes a number of private studios and larger spaces for visual artists like himself.
Still, he said the Aux’s basement conditions are not ideal. A few weeks ago, water began leaking out of the pipes onto the floor, touching some of the paintings. And with only two working bathroom stalls, Crawford and many of his friends run over to Seymour or CFA when nature calls.
Director of Facilities Services Scott Maust declined The Knox Student’s request for comment, referring all questions about building conditions to Dean Behling.
Behling acknowledged the problem with the pipes and recalled a heavy snow last winter that required prompt attention from Campus Maintenance to patch the roof.
“It’s not an ideal space and I think our dance faculty and our students have done what they can to really make it work for them,” she said. In the time before the move, Behling is counting on Facilities to ensure that the building is safe for student use.
But McNeal remains concerned about the department’s ability to expand, even after the move. Adding a Marley and new mirrors is not the same as building a dance facility from the ground up with specialized floors like the ones she has seen while performing at other schools, she said.
The only physical change she recalls seeing in the department since coming to Knox is the appearance of recently acquired couches and chairs for the back room, which came out of the department’s costume budget.
“People don’t even know what this facility is,” said McNeal. “We love it, we call it our home, but it could just be so much better.”