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Catherine Fellows: Champion of Dance at CCSU

Catherine Fellows is pictured with some of her students at the Greater New Britain Art Alliance's 20th annual meeting at which Fellows received the Lifetime Contribution to the Arts award.

By Amy J. Barry

Dance performance and dance instruction have interfaced like an exquisitely choreographed ballet throughout the long, accomplished career of Catherine Fellows, who recently marked her 40th year as the director of the dance education program at CCSU.

Continually taking dance to higher levels, Fellows not only made the dance education major a reality and secured dance education teacher licensure, but more recently she initiated the construction of the new Dance Education Center and established the Catherine J. Fellows Dance Scholarship Fund with an initial gift of $25,000.

Fellows explains, “The scholarship is not just to give people once they’re here. I’m interested in providing support to recruit new dance education majors who demonstrate outstanding potential in their fields and enhance the quality of the university dance education program.”

Michael P. Alfano, dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies describes Fellows’s tenure at Central as “nothing short of remarkable.”

“In education we often speak about ‘transformational leadership,’” Alfano says. “Catherine is one of those very rare and exceptional educators who literally has transformed an entire educational landscape as an outcome of her work.  She has been a tireless champion of dance and dance education in Connecticut and beyond for her entire career.”

In Her Words

It all began in the shoreline town of Stonington where Fellows grew up.

“I loved swimming and became a competitive swimmer at a very young age and was used as a demonstrator, which gave me a taste of teaching,” Fellows recalls. “And, as the oldest of five, you become a teacher really quickly with a mother who is counting on you. I knew that I would [eventually] put dancing and teaching together.”

Meanwhile, Fellows started attending American College Dance Festival Association summer dance programs at Connecticut College in New London as a teen. 

When it came time to choose a college, Fellows found CCSU to be the right school for someone with her ambitions.

“CCSU was formerly known as a teacher’s college prior to becoming Central Connecticut State College prior to becoming a university,” Fellows says. “With my strong desire to become a teacher and my weak pocketbook, I totally trusted it was a good fit. I knew that it was not only affordable but that it would also afford me a great education, and indeed it did.”

Fellows started out in the Elementary Education program, but she quickly learned that life behind a desk was not for her.

“I already innately knew we have to stay moving to stay healthy, to stay alive,” she says.

She changed her major to physical education because the program offered two dance courses.

“Luckily I did that, because I then had the opportunity to go into the sciences: anatomy, physiology, kinesiology — all necessary for a dancer’s background.”

Her dance teacher at Central connected Fellows with dance instructors in New York City, where she went “right up the family tree” working with dance pioneers like Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, and Twyla Tharp, while creating and choreographing performances as a student at Central.

After she graduated from Central, Fellows went to Boston University to pursue a Master’s in Dance Education. The following fall Fellows was hired to teach dance at CCSU, and immediately she began writing and offering new courses in the dance program.

“And then I realized, ‘What’s wrong with dance? Why are we the ugly stepsister?’” she asks. “There’s the art degree and music degree, and certification for those [existed] forever in public schools, but where were the dance teachers?”

Starting in 1989, Fellows partnered with several dance professionals in the community to write a proposal to the state legislature requesting a dance education certification.

“It took 14 years to do, but we did it,” she says.

At the same time, Fellows played an instrumental role in creating first a dance education minor at Central and then the dance education major.

A proper dance space was next on Fellows’s wish list.

“You can’t have a Division I football team running around a Little League field,” Fellows says. “So we had a big push, a lot of deliberate, dynamic work to create a Dance Education Center.”

The former Pump House, one of the oldest structures on campus, was renovated in recent years to house the center. Fellows is thrilled with the results.

“It’s a beautiful space. We have high ceilings, lots of beautiful light,” she notes.

She stresses that she has always brought renowned professional dancers to campus not just to perform but also to work with students.

“It’s so great for our students to be on the same stage as the Jennifer Muller dance company. It makes them realize that there are no limitations except what you put on yourself.”

Bigger Picture

Fellows’ philosophy of art and education is characteristically direct.

“Art is a necessity, not a luxury. Period. And all people should be afforded the opportunity for art,” she says.

That’s why Fellows strives to make diverse, affordable, professional dance experiences available to families in New Britain and the Greater Hartford area.

She is also pleased that the definition of dance has become wider and more inclusive in more recent years.

“When you merge those kids standing in the street dancing — and they’re just fabulous — with classically trained dancers, it makes for amazing art,” she says, “because you’re getting to share so many different perspectives, cultures, and different ways of thinking and upbringing.”

Fellows lives in Bloomfield with her husband, Jaimoe Johnson (yes, the legendary drummer and founding member of the Allman Brothers Band). From 1993 to 2000 Fellows was bandleader and drummer for Angel Fire, a popular Connecticut blues band that she created. Their daughter, Ciajai Fellows Johnson, is a professional dancer and visual artist.

Over the years Fellows has stacked up a pile of proclamations and awards, many with the National Dance Association. This past spring, The Greater New Britain Arts Alliance presented Fellows with its Lifetime Contribution to the Arts Award “in special recognition of her exceptional accomplishments as a performer, instructor, and administrator.”

“It’s a humbling experience for me still,” she says. “I have a lot of awards, but each one is extraordinarily meaningful.”

And even after 40 years as an educator, Fellows remains committed to the continued evolution of the dance program.

“If people don’t know what’s going on here now, they definitely won’t know after I’m dead and gone,” she says, “so I want to encourage the continuation of the dance program and make sure I’m cultivating and shaping people that will be capable of continuing the work…but, who knows? I might be here for another 20 years.”

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