Editor’s note: In celebration of Older Americans Month, LifeSpire of Virginia is featuring one resident a week from its four continuing care retirement communities who most embodies the characteristics of a “trailblazer” in wellness, community and hospitality.
By Ann Lovell
DALEVILLE, Virginia—Imagine rural Roanoke, Virginia, in 1955. The cost of a gallon of gas was 23 cents. The minimum hourly wage was $1.00, and the average cost of a new home was just over $10,000. It was a prosperous and peaceful time for many Americans, blissfully unaware that the turbulent 60s were just a few years away. For Paula Levine, 1955 marks the year she arrived at Hollins College — now Hollins University, an all-women’s liberal arts school outside Roanoke — to teach modern dance.
“Paula Levine pioneered the modern dance program at Hollins,” says Jeffrey Bullock, director and associate professor of M.F.A. Dance. “She brought modern dance to the Roanoke Valley.”
Levine, now 88, is a resident of The Glebe, a LifeSpire of Virginia continuing care retirement community in Daleville, Virginia, near Hollins. As a result of her contributions to modern dance, Levine is one of LifeSpire’s featured trailblazers during this year’s Older Americans Month. The U.S. Administration for Community Living sets aside May each year to recognize the contributions of older Americans. The 2016 theme is “Blaze a Trail.”
“Ms. Levine’s legacy as a modern dancer and dance professor reminds us of the importance of the arts to health, wellness and longevity,” says Jonathan Cook, LifeSpire President and CEO. “Her continued commitment to dance and to a younger generation of dancers is an inspiration.”
Ben Burks, executive director of The Glebe, agrees, “Ms. Levine demonstrates the ‘life in abundance’ we strive to provide for each of our residents at The Glebe. She swims, she travels, and she is an active member of our community. Her energy inspires us all.”
FINDING THEIR VOICE
Modern dance began in the early 1900s in part as a rebellion against ballet, which in comparison is rigid and codified, and in part as a reflection of changing social mores at the turn of the 20th century. Modern dance pioneers like Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham, whose work significantly influenced Levine, “made up the rules as they went,” Bullock says. The form, which includes dancing barefoot with a focus on natural movement, ushered in an era of individual expression through dance.
“Women found their voice in modern dance outside the confines of ballet,” Bullock says.
Although Levine majored in English Literature at Brooklyn College, she began dancing at age 13 under the tutelage of Katya Delakova.
“Katya Delakova sparked my love for modern dance,” Levine says.
Later, the young woman also studied under Sophie Maslow, another modern dance pioneer who helped set the course of Levine’s life work. After a brief stint at Julliard, Levine received a teaching fellowship at Bennington College in Vermont where she received a Master of Arts.
“I wanted to follow my passion and do something I loved,” Levine says. “It wasn’t always easy.”
The young woman’s father didn’t want her to be “a parasite,” Levine explains. He didn’t think she could earn a living in the arts.
“Later, though, when I became a professor at Hollins, he was proud of me,” Levine says with a smile.
In most colleges and universities at the time, dance came in through the “back door” of physical education, Levine says. At Hollins, dance was part of the theater program. This focus on modern dance as a performing art gave Levine opportunity to pursue new forms of artistic expression that took her around the world and allowed her to develop life-long friendships in the process.
“The late 60s were heavily influenced by Asian ideas,” Levine recalls. “In 1969, I took a sabbatical to study Asian dance forms.”
She traveled to Hawaii, Japan, and Bali before making her way to Bangkok, Thailand. A Thai student at Hollins whose father was a diplomat arranged for her to study with a dance instructor in Bangkok named Lawan. The two women became good friends and developed a professional dance collaboration that lasted many years.
“We combined modern dance and Thai dance,” Levine recalls. Together the two women produced Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in Thai style.
As their friendship and collaboration grew, Lawan visited Levine many times and offered master classes and performances throughout Virginia. Levine has traveled to Thailand 21 times since that initial visit in 1969. Lawan’s son, Top, attended North Cross School in Roanoke and lived with Levine from 1990-95. Top and his children are like family to Levine, and though she thought she had made her last trip to visit them in 2013, she visited again in 2015. Though traveling around the world is sometimes difficult, she enjoys spending time with her friends and watching the children grow.
INSPRING FUTURE GENERATIONS
Levine no longer dances, but as professor emerita of Hollins, she continues to help young women express themselves through modern dance. Bullock established The Paula Levine Choreographers Contest at Hollins to honor Levine’s continuing legacy. The contest awards prizes for the most developed solo dance composition submitted by sophomore or junior girls in high school or preparatory school.
“My students who come back tell me that dance enriched their lives,” Levine says.
Although Levine no longer dances, she swims almost every day, enjoying the saltwater pool at The Glebe where she lives.
“People comment on what a beautiful swimmer I am,” Levine says. “I think it is because I was a dancer. People seem to think I have a lot of grace in the water.”
“I find that amusing,” she adds, “because I’ve never had formal swimming lessons.”
Ann Lovell is Corporate Director of Communications for LifeSpire of Virginia, formerly Virginia Baptist Homes. For more information, email email@example.com or call (804) 521-9192.
LifeSpire of Virginia operates four continuing care retirement communities in Virginia: The Chesapeake in Newport News, The Culpeper in Culpeper, The Glebe in Daleville and Lakewood in Richmond.