Musical theatre instructor takes to the stage for a different purpose

University Park, Pa. — Spence Ford has been head of dance for Penn State's musical theatre program since its inception in 1994. She previously had a successful career on Broadway as a dancer/singer/actress in such shows as "La Cage Aux Folles," "Peter Pan" and "King of Hearts." While at Penn State, she has choreographed and directed a number of mainstage musicals, in addition to choreographing special musical revues and creating a one-woman show, "Taking Chances." But Ford's resume has been missing something you might expect to see listed among her job experiences and accomplishments — a bachelor's degree.

That will change on May 17, when she graduates from the College of Arts and Architecture with a B.A. in integrative arts and minor in kinesiology — and a 4.0 grade-point average. She'll leave the student ranks in time for her son, Ford DeCastro, to enter Penn State this fall as a bio-engineering major.

"When I started taking classes in 2001, I promised my son I would graduate in 2008, when he would graduate from high school," she said. "My mom played a big part in my decision to go back, because she always said she wanted to see me walk across the stage and receive my diploma."

Although this will be the first time she walks across the stage to receive a diploma, the stage is a place where she's quite comfortable. A native of Richmond, Va., Ford enrolled at the University of Virginia as an undergraduate in 1972, but dropped out because she "had to dance." She immediately moved to New York City, where she lived at a YWCA and waitressed to make ends meet. "I really learned from the 'school of hard knocks,' " she said.

Lots of rehearsing and auditions, plus some cases of being in the right place at the right time, allowed Ford to establish a solid career as a Broadway performer. She spent nearly 20 years in New York City, working with Broadway legends such as Bob Fosse, Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon.

In 1984 she got married, and in 1990 gave birth to her son. When her husband got a teaching job at Penn State in 1991, they moved to State College. Although the marriage did not last, Ford's newfound relationship with Penn State did. After teaching a few classes at local dance studios, she was hired by the Penn State School of Theatre in 1994 to oversee the dance component in the newly established musical theatre program. "I never imagined I'd be teaching in a college," she said.

The transition from city life to rural central Pennsylvania was not easy, though. "State College felt like one block in New York City," Ford joked. "But now I love it. It has been a great, safe place to raise my son."

Ford had been thinking about getting her bachelor's degree for some time before taking her first class in fall 2001. She went on to take one class each semester and two classes every summer.

For the most part, Spence said, she felt comfortable as an adult student among classmates who were closer to her son's age. But she admits she always got a kick out of the instances when the other students thought she was the teacher. "They would sit up straight in their chairs when I walked in, and then I would see them slump down again when I took a seat. It always made me laugh."

She decided to major in integrative arts because the program would allow her to craft her own interdisciplinary curriculum. "I knew that no matter what I majored in, I would do it in a theatrical way," said Ford, whose coursework focused on movement and human development. "It just made sense for me to pursue a degree in the College of Arts and Architecture … all my sensibilities come back to the arts."

As a newly minted college graduate, Ford will take a sabbatical from her teaching position in fall 2008 to research collaborative techniques in the development of new theatrical works with the Complicity Theatre in London. She will return to her faculty position in spring 2009, and later hopes to write a book about her life and to revamp her one-woman show.

"I have learned so much about myself throughout this journey. It's stimulating to challenge yourself to learn, no matter how advanced in life you might be," said Ford. "Penn State has become very dear to me … I am proud to be an alumna."
 

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Last Updated November 18, 2010