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'Dancing Diplomat': Trollwood dance instructor, choreographer wants to see similar models elsewhere

Choreographer Aysha Upchurch leads a dance number during rehearsal for Trollwood’s production of “How to Succeed in Business.” David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
Grace Kidder grooves to the music during rehearsal for Trollwood’s production of “How to Succeed in Business.” David Samson / The Forum2 / 2

MOORHEAD - Aysha Upchurch refers to herself, half-jokingly, as a “dancing diplomat.”

It might seem like an odd mashup of concepts, but her logic is pretty sound. In addition to studies in opera and dance, she pursued an international relations degree at American University. Over her 10 years as a dance instructor and choreographer at Trollwood Performing Arts School, she has taught and connected with hundreds of students. Her stint at Trollwood will end after this season, and she will enter graduate school at Harvard with a goal to advocate for the arts in mainstream American life.

All of it stems from one basic fact, Upchurch says: Dance is her preferred way to communicate.

“Dance is my body’s way of going, ‘This is how you are; this is your release.’ I’m not afraid of words, but I think I would choose to dance something or make it a presentation or performance before words. I think I was just meant to do that,” she says.

Upchurch’s time with Trollwood began in 2003, when a friend heard of the opportunity to teach dance at what is now called Trollwood Academy, spending a few weeks teaching here each summer away from her home in Washington, D.C.

She made the move over to choreography for the Trollwood main stage show in 2010, and has choreographed the last four main stage productions including this year’s “Mad Men”-tinged presentation of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

She says her time as an educator at Trollwood has given her a new set of expectations to take out into her other work.

“I am in awe of this organization, its mission, and the caliber of instruction from both the faculty and the students,” Upchurch says, “I was just amazed this existed, and I drank all the Kool-Aid.”

That passion is reciprocated when Upchurch works with Trollwood students, says Trollwood Executive Director Kathy Anderson.

“She’s so personable and cares so much about these students,” Anderson says. “It’s a very student-centered approach. She’s patient, and she has the vision for what she’s looking for and she knows how to get it.”

“Plus, she works with a lot of different levels of students, some who haven’t had a lot of dance in their background, and she is able to pull out of them something that they didn’t think was possible,” Anderson adds.

Those students are even taking Upchuch’s instruction out with them professionally.

Grace Kidder, 17, just graduated from Shanley High School, and will attend Oklahoma City University in the fall to take up dance performance. She’s been working alongside Upchurch as a student leader, assisting her in choreography duties. In the process, Kidder says she’s been pushed to improve her dancing, particularly tap dancing, while picking up some behind-the-scenes skills.

“I learned how to be a leader while still maintaining an attitude of fun, having people respect you while still liking you,” Kidder says. “She’s taught me how to be more creative with my blocking and choreography, setting up people so everyone can see as opposed to just the center stage.”

James Hoselton, 17, will be a senior at Shanley High School in the fall, and is involved with his third Trollwood main stage show. He says Upchurch introduced him to hip-hop styles while teaching the idea of choreography and its “complicated” process. He adds that her expertise goes beyond dance.

“She’s given me so many life lessons. Knowledge is constantly spilling out of her, and I’m standing by with a bucket ready to catch it,” he says, laughing.

Upchurch says she’ll miss the interaction with the students of Trollwood, but, as she moves out into her career, she’ll be taking a lot of practical experience with her. She credits the wide embrace of the arts by the schools in the Fargo area and wants to see similar funding models put in place elsewhere in the country. As an educator, she also hopes to create more dancing diplomats.

“I love teaching dance because I love to be able to present my world to students of all ages,” she says. “I like giving them that opportunity to be in their bodies and be in touch with their bodies. It opens up something in people, I think, to be able to kinesthetically get to know yourself.”

IF YOU GO WHAT: “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” presented by Trollwood Performing Arts School

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. July 16-19; July 23-26; July 30-Aug. 2

where: Bluestem Amphitheater, 801 50th Ave. S., Moorhead

INFO: Tickets $15-$30; visit or call the box office at (218) 477-6502