Leslie Saxon West
Mendocino College Faculty in Focus: Leslie Saxon West
Who would guess that when Professor of Dance and Humanities, Leslie Saxon West, started teaching part-time at Mendocino College, she had never taken a dance class! Saxon West is full of surprises in her office on a sunny holiday, as she takes time for an interview before getting to work on the next dance production.
Not much surprises her students, though, who obviously adore her. When asked to describe Saxon West as a teacher, one student’s response was “Fun, fun, fun!” Another student says: “ I’ve learned to stop doubting myself and just go for it! She is one-in-a-million, really!” “Her enthusiasm is contagious,” says another student.
As a part-time instructor at Mendocino College, Lakeport, Saxon West was hired in 1981 to develop a certificate program for Special Education Providers. The program, which she called “Learning in a Familiar Environment” (L.I.F.E.), eventually became a model for the state of California. Saxon West was teaching part time and working on a master’s degree in rehabilitation administration at the University of San Francisco, when she decided to try a dance class at Sonoma State University. There she met her mentor and guide, Christopher Beck.
According to Saxon West, Beck “saw something special in me. He thought I had talent as a dancer, a choreographer, and a teacher.” Saxon West remembers the exact moment in class when it hit her: “I have to do this!” She says it was crazy in a lot of ways. She was 26, too old to ever be a professional dancer. She had just completed a sensible master’s degree and had a promising career under way. Beck encouraged her to pursue a career in dance anyway. “He gave me confidence,” says Saxon West.
Saxon West earned one of the earliest distance education master’s degrees in dance, in collaboration with Sonoma State University. Soon after receiving her second MA degree, she was hired to teach dance full-time at Mendocino College. She immediately started the Repertory Dance Company to challenge and showcase the more advanced dancers. Some of the original members were Susan Era, Pat Meek, Terri Hanson, Wendy Peterman, and Christie Scollin. (Scollin is now a member of the Mendocino College Foundation.) This November marked the 22nd Repertory Dance Performance, a production titled, “Sole to Soul.”
Repertory dancer Wendy Peterman says: “Leslie has always said to me, ‘Dance needs you.’” Although she now has a career as a scientist and an engineer in Corvalis, Washington, Peterman continues to teach dance and to produce shows for students of mixed abilities all over the world.
Lynda Coursey, started taking classes from Saxon West when the College was still located at the Fairgrounds. Coursey says: “Leslie has always been my strongest supporter and I tried to not disappoint her.” Now a 3rd grade teacher at St. Mary of the Angel’s school, dance continues to be a part of Coursey’s life. “For the past six years I have choreographed a dance routine for the faculty and staff to perform in our annual talent show. It’s one of the highlights of the teaching year for me.”
Saxon West enthuses that she loves traveling, and she is proud of the way her travels have broadened the dance program at MC. For example, her sabbatical travels to Canada and Alaska allowed her to research the Pacific Northwest Indian cultures firsthand, especially the use of masks in the Native dance ceremonies. As a result of her sabbatical studies, she was able to bring back a year of cultural experiences to the Ukiah Community, including the dance program, “Behind The Masks,” which featured college dancers performing with native dancers from Alaska. In addition, Saxon West collaborated with the Grace Hudson museum and the College Gallery to produce related exhibits.
A trip to China inspired the 2009 production, “Silk: Journey on the Silk Road.” Saxon West says that one of the dances in “Silk” was titled, “Bound,” referring to the Chinese practice of binding women’s feet. While creating the dance, West asked her students to think about what it means to be bound, in all its ramifications. The power of the piece came home to her when a student wrote to West that while watching the performance she realized how she had been bound in a cycle of abuse all her life. She told West that the dance empowered her to see who she really was, and that she did not have to take it anymore! “That is my job! West exclaims.”Can you imagine how exciting that is? How lucky I am?”
Wendy Peterman says: “I have no idea where Leslie gets all of her energy. We have made so many huge, amazing projects happen over the years, and I am always in awe of her creativity, strength, passion, dedication and sweetness through it all.”
“Dance changes lives,” says Saxon West, as she turns down the hallway to create another magical performance ...