Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Endowed Chairs Support the Missions of Dance, Vocal Studies, and Professional Studies 

Endowed Chairs Support the Missions of Dance, Vocal Studies, and Professional Studies 

In 2017, danah bella came to the Peabody Institute to start a new undergraduate dance program. That first year, bella — who brought her background as a modern dancer who had performed in New York, Mexico, Italy, and more, and as an entrepreneur who founded her own dance company, danahbella DanceWorks, in 2004 — created the dance curriculum and traveled around the United States to recruit students. The BFA Dance program officially launched during the2018–19 academic year and this yearwelcomed all four years of students —44 total — for the first time.

Donor Sandra Levi has committed to supporting a named distinguished chair of dance, an endowed position that includes funding for the department, which could potentially be used for scholarships or to bring in renowned artists to work with students. “This gift really demonstrates that there is a future for the department here at Peabody,” bella says. “I appreciate the willingness to believe in this program and in how we take risks and in how we are trying to look at movement from a new perspective.”

danah bella instructs a male dancer at the barre
danah bella (left) will be named the new Sandra Levi Distinguished Chair of Dance.

bella is one of three inaugural recipients of endowed chair positions, along with Elizabeth Futral, the Marc C. von May Distinguished Chair of Vocal Studies, and Zane Forshee (DMA ’11), the Marc C. von May Distinguished Chair of Professional Studies. These endowed chairs, which allow Peabody to retain top-notch faculty and support the advancement of their departments, were made possible by Levi and von May and could potentially support financial aid, master classes and boot camps, summer internship and student work positions, and new courses and tracks of study.

Levi, who is president of her family’s Hecht-Levi Foundation, took dance classes at Peabody as a young child and later majored in modern dance in college. As a past member of the Peabody Institute Advisory Board for 10 years, she advocated for starting a dance program at the undergraduate level. Now the Hecht-Levi Foundation supports this program to ensure it continues for years to come. “In order to keep the dance program going, there needs to be an endowment, so I personally see this [gift] as supporting that,” Levi says.

Von May was drawn to support the Vocal Studies Department because of his long-standing interest in opera and the Professional Studies program because he appreciates how it is the first program of its kind in the nation that provides career direction to young musicians and dancers.

“When someone comes out of a [business] program, he or she often automatically goes into a consultancy and is told exactly what to do in that role,” says von May, who worked at Nestle and Citibank in Switzerland and as a tax consultant in the United States. “That’s not so in the artistic fields. But Peabody’s professional studies program is a career program to train, prepare, and support music and dance students to get or create jobs [so they can] share their talents with the world. And this is greatly needed.”

Another important aspect of the endowed chair is that it gives bella, Futral, and Forshee, all of whom have had impressive careers in their disciplines, the foundation to bring new ideas to their departments.

Futral — a soprano who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, Deutsche Opera Berlin, and opera houses in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and more — says her department has several ideas to enhance the Vocal Studies program. One is to create tracks for specialization within the voice performance degree, such as vocal ensembles, chamber music, and opera. This would enable students to pursue individualized paths of study and could potentially attract new types of students to the program.

“The endowed chair enables me to create and enact initiatives that my department envisions creating and enacting,” Futral says. “The endowed chair gives me that latitude, for which I am grateful.”

Guitarist Forshee has had the experience of forging his own path as a musician by drawing on his business, marketing, and storytelling skills — the same skills that he strives to pass on to students as endowed chair of the Professional Studies program.

For example, when Forshee decided he wanted to make his latest classical guitar recording, he worked with an audio engineer and recorded at FUNKHAUS Berlin, a space he found through a friend. He leveraged the work of his first self-produced album to get a distribution deal on Frameworks/Sony The Orchard. And he recorded his sessions, which he later shared in small clips on social media to build an audience. The resulting album, Valenciano: Solo Guitar Works of Asencio, Esplá, & Rodrigo, was released in 2020 and went to #1 on Amazon’s Classical Best Seller list and #6 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover Albums Chart.

In his new role, Forshee develops and coordinates a variety of courses that help students gain these same skills, including the three undergraduate courses required through Peabody’s Breakthrough Curriculum on exploring arts careers, building a portfolio, and pitching your creative idea. He plans to use some of the endowed chair funding to compensate students who are offered unpaid internships so they can take those opportunities and build valuable connections.

“We have a challenge in the arts in that there’s always a lack of funding, and this allows us to be able to create new opportunities for students to work with people in the industry and gain experiential learning,” says Forshee, who also directs Peabody LAUNCHpad, an office that helps students and alumni build fulfilling careers. “The endowed chair is a way of showing that people believe in that mission.”

-Jennifer Walker