Derek Phillips ’77

One Day Apprentice: Derek Phillips ’77

By Drew Shonka

Performer and teacher Derek Phillips ’77 checks his business card to see how he last described himself in a formal way. “Independent dance artist,” he reads, then adds, “I’m a freelancer. I do storytelling-based theater with movement and dance.”

Phillips has been dancing for more than 40 years, but time hasn’t slowed him down. He’s light on his feet and small in stature, but he more than commands a classroom or a stage. He can be loud—raising his voice to corral a herd of seven-year-olds and then dropping to a whisper to get their complete attention. He  bounds around the Twin Cities from classroom to meeting to performance.

Phillips grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and attended school in a district that was hit hard by the racial strife and white flight of the late ’60s and early ’70s. He had a notion to study music or education in college, and he had a guidance counselor at Paseo High School with a knack for matching people and programs. “You’d get a note that said, ‘Come to my office,’ ” Phillips
recalls, “and she would sit you down and throw all this paperwork at you: ‘I found this scholarship that’s perfect for you. Here’s the application. Fill it out and mail it in.’ ” She knew us all as individual students, and sure enough she would find that perfect program. She sent my name to Carleton.”

Phillips ultimately majored in English with an emphasis in theater and drama. He took classes in modern dance, specifically in German expressionism, from legendary Carleton professor Mary Easter. After graduating from Carleton he moved to Minneapolis, where he became a performer and teacher with the Choreogram and Nancy Hauser companies.

“I would never have foreseen my path from Kansas City to Carleton to Minneapolis,” Phillips says. “Not in a million years.”

 

6:34 a.m.

Derek Phillips ’77Derek Phillips ’77 Photo: Drew Shonka On May Day each year, Derek Phillips ’77 joins a team of Morris dancers (called a “side”) at Mississippi Gorge Park in Minneapolis. Morris dancing dates back to 15th-century England. Phillips’s side of 20 dancers is called the Minnesota Traditional Morris.

 

8:08 a.m.

Derek Phillips ’77Derek Phillips ’77 Photo: Drew Shonka Part two of the May Day tradition involves the Morris dancers enjoying breakfast together at a St. Paul restaurant.

 

9:30 a.m.

Derek Phillips ’77Derek Phillips ’77 Photo: Drew Shonka A teacher for the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, Phillips drives to Barton Open School in Minneapolis, where he teaches movement to first graders.

 

9:41 a.m.

Derek Phillips ’77Derek Phillips ’77 Photo: Drew Shonka Phillips’s modus operandi is to engage students and keep them moving. He typically brings a drum.

 

11:17 a.m.

Derek Phillips ’77Derek Phillips ’77 Photo: Drew Shonka As a freelancer for the Children’s Theatre Company, Phillips uses puppets and a maraca to tell stories to pre-kindergarteners at Wellstone Elementary School in St. Paul.

 

1:11 p.m.

Derek Phillips ’77Derek Phillips ’77 Photo: Drew Shonka This past academic year, Phillips has been working with third graders at Lyndale Community School in Minneapolis. Today he is directing a rehearsal for the class play, an adaptation of the novel Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, about a girl who survived the Hiroshima bombing but later died of cancer. Phillips points out proudly that his students chose this difficult
play themselves.

 

2:35 p.m.

Derek Phillips ’77Derek Phillips ’77 Photo: Drew Shonka Still at Lyndale, Phillips teaches first graders about body awareness, action, space, time, and energy. He animates each concept with facial expressions and gestures.

 

6:52 p.m.

Derek Phillips ’77Derek Phillips ’77 Photo: Drew Shonka Phillips concludes his workday at the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis, where he teaches dance and movement to adults.  

 

8:37 p.m.

Derek Phillips ’77Derek Phillips ’77 Photo: Drew Shonka On May Day, the Morris dancers also practice “guerrilla dancing,” taking nursing home residents, office workers, even pedestrians on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis by surprise. Come evening, they reconvene to drink, dine, and dance at the Black Dog Café in St. Paul.

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