Aaron Wood stood on the stage where he accidentally started his career and gathered his dancers around him.
His dance students huddled around their Casper College instructor — arms linked over shoulders — and went through the plans for last Saturday afternoon’s rehearsal. They’d go through the entire dance concert, change into costumes and run through the full program again.
“Take care of your bodies today guys,” Wood told his students. It was OK if the first run-through was a little light to save energy, he said.
It was less than a week before the opening night of the Casper College dance concert “A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy” — Wood’s first show where he acted as both choreographer and director.
The performance also marks Wood’s return home. His dance career began two decades ago on the same stage, though he didn’t know it at the time. He landed a role in a musical his freshman year at Casper College. He wasn’t a dance or theater student at the time — he was considering becoming a nurse but wasn’t sure.
But the musical introduced him to the world of dance, and he was hooked. Now, after earning an advanced degree in the art and performing across the West, Wood has returned to the town where he grew up to teach.
Beyond helping his students perfect their turns and leaps, the 37-year-old has tried to share with his students what he sees as the power of dance.
“I think one of the main purposes of dance is the celebration of each other’s humanhood,” Wood said. “I think that we need more of that in our world now. We need more celebration and understanding and acceptance of one another, and I think dance is a great modality for that.”
Wood didn’t expect to discover a passion for dance when he showed up with a friend at the Gertrude Krampert Theater in 1998 to audition for the musical “Damn Yankees.”
He landed a part and soon found himself in a ballet class in the middle of the semester. He’d never trained in dance before, so Jodi Youmans-Jones, dance instructor and choreographer for that show, invited him to the dance class to learn some fundamentals.
“But the raw talent was in there,” recalled Youmans-Jones, now his fellow dance instructor at the college.
Youmans-Jones recalled having to convince a sophomore dance major to perform a duet with Wood. He wasn’t experienced enough, the sophomore said. But to this day, they performed one of the best duets Youmans-Jones has seen in the composition class.
Looking back, his love for dance began in childhood in his hometown. He and his grandmother would push the furniture aside for a dance space, and she played organ or joined him, he recalled.
“I’d show her dances that I created,” Wood said. “We’d put on music and dance around together.”
He performed in more plays and took more dance classes at Casper College. He switched his major to musical theater and then dance and graduated from Casper College in 2000, the first graduate of the new dance program Youmans-Jones started.
At the time, the dance classes and shows met in a gym in the former administration building, Wood said. Now there are two dance studios in the theater building and the program is the only nationally-accredited dance program in the country at a junior college, Wood said.
Wood went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in dance at the University of Wyoming and a master’s degree at University of Utah. In between, he spent a year dancing in New York City. For seven years after graduating, he performed in Utah’s Repertory Dance Theatre, the country’s oldest repertory dance company, and he’s been a guest dancer for other professional dance companies and performed in Beijing, China. Wood taught at the University of Wyoming and most recently at Idaho State University.
“To bring that information back home with me and to be able to share it with these students has just been a delight,” Wood said. “And I have to say my colleagues are incredible.”
He was thrilled for the opportunity to continue his career here, where he’s buying a house.
“I’ve come home,” Wood said. “There’s something about the universe that tells you when it’s time to go home.”
“I made it!” Shayla Mellen told him, high-fiving the director during a rehearsal last week. She was recovering from a stomach flu, but danced through rehearsal anyways.
Wood instructed her and another student with an illness during rehearsal last week to drink extra water and rest as much as possible when they go home.
Later, he read through his suggestions for the dancers, demonstrating a graceful leap, called a grande jatte, arabesque and other dance moves. He laughed with them, praised dancers, gave instructions on improvements. He asked them how they thought it was going. He talked with his colleagues as they made final tweaks to the lighting, costumes and other behind-the-scenes pieces of the upcoming show.
“My process is extremely collaborative so I’ll come into rehearsal with set movement,” Wood said. “But like I tell the dancers, if something doesn’t feel right, then communicate that to me and we’ll adjust it accordingly. I’ve said it before with my colleagues but the dancers of this show are the true stewards of it, they bring the life and the energy to the stage and to the rehearsal process. It’s just been complete blast.”
Mellen said she enjoys working with the instructor during rehearsals and classes.
“He’s always asking us our opinion about what we think and what we like about it which I really enjoy,” she said. “It’s putting us in the process as well and also helping to create the show.”
He always makes them laugh with his jokes, but he also knows when it’s time to get serious, student Gabriel Hernandez said.
“It’s teaching us how to critique,” Hernadez said. “And as performers and choreographers we need to be able to do that.”
Woods started preparing for his debut concert months ago. He was asked to create the scheduled concert based on Styx music and early 1980s rock and roll. The rest was up to him to build the concept and choreograph the dancing before directing the show.
“He’s done a great job, it’s beautiful,” Youmans-Jones said.
Whether he’s researching movements for a concert or in the dance studios with his classes, Wood said he’s excited to come to work in the morning.
The best part is the seeing those “ah-ha moments” when students absorb a new idea or make a connection to the movements they’re learning, he said. Then they become excited and tell him and their fellow students about it.
“Dance is one of those things where it kind of fills all of the boxes — it’s an athletic experience, a spiritual experience, and it’s a self-discovery experience and it’s a way to communicate your experiences with people,” he said. “And to teach dance, it’s a really cool experience to show your students to embody the ideas that you’re helping them explore with technique.”