In the southern West Virginia town of Beckley, the state’s only traveling dance company flourishes with a mission to enrich the lives of many through professional dance and educational opportunities across the region. The West Virginia Dance Company (WVDC), founded in 1977 as the Appalachian Dance and Music Ensemble, produces touring programs each year that make the performing arts more accessible to Appalachian residents.

Emily Dodrill, a St. Albans, West Virginia native and a two-year WVDC member, felt a pull towards movement at a young age. She remembers seeing the company perform at school events and dance programs as a teenager, which ignited her curiosity for dance and cultivated a deep appreciation for conserving the artistic culture of the state.

“I saw the company perform when I was about 15, and I also danced at the Academy of Arts at January’s, and January Wolfe has employed WVDC dancers as teachers for years — I was lucky to have many of the company members as teachers training me,” Emily said.

Nash Dawson, another two-year WVDC member, now lives in Mountain State but he is from a different part of Appalachia – born and raised up north in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. His decision to join the WVDC stems back to his decision to attend West Virginia University (WVU) to pursue musical theatre. Alongside Emily, Nash trained in various dance styles and was introduced to WVDC director Toneta Akers-Toler during his junior year.

“I started dancing in musicals when I was a freshman in high school, and I pursued the double major in musical theatre and dance initially just for fun,” Nash said. “I never really saw myself being ‘only a dancer,’ but my experience with the WVU Dance Program exposed me to Toneta and we developed a connection that eventually led to working in the company.”

Though Emily and Nash come from different places, they both share a common thread in that they both started serious dance training as teenagers — making it all the more incredible that they’ve successfully built their career around dance. While both of them started to see a future with WVDC during their time as WVU students, Emily says she looked up to her instructors who came before her as she watched them pave their career in her home state.

“I remember idolizing my teachers and thinking, ‘If only I could dance for the WVDC, I would be set for life.’ When I found myself right out of college debating on whether to move to New York or stay in West Virginia, I remember thinking that my 15-year-old self would be slapping myself for not taking the opportunity to dance in a company I grew up admiring,” Emily said.

Emily for West Virginia Dance Company. Photos courtesy of Stephen Brightwell, WV Department  of Arts, Culture and History

The WVDC focuses on educational outreach and public performances, which includes work inspired by the rich heritage that exists in the Appalachian region. The company’s diverse repertoire includes work from nationally recognized choreographers like Gerri Houlihan, Doug Varone and Daniel Nagrin. The company performs annually across the state, with a heavy focus on performances at universities and public schools.

As touring company members, both Nash and Emily have learned the ins and outs of being traveling artists and educators – and it has taught them what it means to be a West Virginian. Being from West Virginia, Emily thought she had the state figured out, but she says she’s learned more than she thought possible.

“When we travel to some of these schools, we’re traveling hours on winding roads to places where they may be an hour from the nearest hospital and they don’t have any form of an arts community. I thought I lived in a small town, and it’s given me a much better appreciation for just how different our communities are.”

Nash (right) with a fellow company member on stage. Photos courtesy of Stephen Brightwell, WV Department  of Arts, Culture and History

The company travels to public schools as far as two hours from the nearest dance studio, giving the dancers a platform to make an impact in ways they never expected.

“For some of these children, this may be the first time they’re seeing dance in this capacity, and they look at us like superheroes — which is really cool,” Emily said. “We get to show movement and improvisation to these kids, and they’re getting it and being enthralled by it because they’ve never experienced anything like it.”

Many of the company members teach dance at local studios, and Nash was even able to teach a tap class for students 55 and older. While he didn’t have much knowledge of West Virginia prior to coming to WVU, Nash said his time with WVDC has expanded his understanding of the state’s diverse communities and the opportunities he has to make a difference in young lives.

“My adult tappers were getting frustrated when they couldn’t do a step, and I told them how you are only able to grow when you struggle with something you’re not comfortable with,” Nash said. “It’s interesting to see how that’s applicable to other dance classes and in life.”

Emily and Nash’s alma mater WVU is facing scrutiny for proposing program cuts that would eradicate several music and acting degree programs within the university. While the dance major was not on the list, Nash said he worries cuts like this can have a ripple effect on the lack of arts in public schools.

“It’s important to not just see what’s going on right in front of you at the university, but to look at what’s happening with these arts students once they go off into the world,” Nash said. “A lot of music education and performance majors go into schools who may not have had an arts program before and they get to share that with future generations.”

“For so many people, their strongest form of intelligence is their creativity, and they can use that to pave a valid career for themselves,” Emily said. “When we work with children, we can tell when someone has a creative brain, and you can see their eyes light up when they get inspired – and to cut programs that train these future educators and performers is limiting a whole side of humanity.”

Emily for West Virginia Dance Company. Photos courtesy of Stephen Brightwell, WV Department  of Arts, Culture and History

It was through access to artistic educational opportunities that Nash and Emily found their home in creativity, solidifying their desire to pursue careers. When asked to simply state why they chose this career, both dancers mentioned their innate need to be creative and to stay moving. 

“When I was first exposed to music and art, there was something that just made my brain work,” Nash said. “It made me feel like I could do something correctly, and I think that providing these opportunities to children while their young exposes them to a future they didn’t know they had.”

 “I took a year off between my first and second years of dancing in the company, and it showed me how movement is a necessity for my well being,” Emily said. “The fact that we can take class every day while inspiring the next generation of dancers on a regular basis, it’s an indescribable feeling and I’m very lucky to do what I do.”