All Middle School girls take dance at GPS. But rarely does one consider making dance her life’s work. One GPS alum says, thanks in part to her GPS education and mentor, her dream of working in dance became reality.
Amanda Byars ’99 might be hard to pin down. She maintains three different, equally engaging positions: adjunct professor in the dance department at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia; teacher trainer and curriculum specialist for nonprofit Moving in the Spirit that utilizes dance to teach youth development; and Pilates instructor.
“The hustle is real!” Byars says, laughing. “But I’ve crafted a life in which I get to do everything I want.”
Her professional responsibilities reflect her passion—to dance and to help others find their voice through movement. Through her college dance experiences, her graduate-level work, and now her work as an instructor, Byars shares her sense of community and her dedication to dance and movement that she first learned at GPS.
Dance as Expression
While Byars danced as a young child in studios, performing jazz and ballet, it wasn’t until she joined Terpsichord, the contemporary dance company at GPS, that she created her own work and learned to use dance as a medium for personal expression.
“Cathie Kasch taught me that dance was a form of expression, and she validated that there is an incredible amount of rigour and scholarly work in dance,” Byars says. “There is so much to investigate in today’s world and climate: our bodies carry so much social baggage, but they don’t represent our entirety. In my work now I teach students that our bodies are our medium for expression, and the choreography we create can encompass our whole selves and its complexities.”
Cathie Ault Kasch '72 helped guide Byars through her education beyond GPS and into a dance career. In fact, Byars says it was with Kasch’s encouragement that she could make a viable career going down this path. Singular in her pursuit of dance, she says she would have experienced huge regrets without Kasch’s support.
Resilience on the Journey
Byars’ first choice for college was the Five Colleges Consortium Dance Department in Massachusetts, a program that combines classes across campuses of Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, Hampshire, and University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“I didn’t get in when I first applied, and I was so upset,” Byars says. “Cathie asked me if I really wanted to go there, and she called the college on my behalf. Sitting in her office, I’ll never forget her telling them, ‘But you haven’t seen her dance yet!’. She helped me craft a plan to transfer, by taking my academics as seriously as my dance. She encouraged me to start summer school right after graduating high school.”
With a summer-semester 4.0 GPA from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga , and a fall-semester 4.0 GPA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Byars was admitted to the Five Colleges and started there spring semester of her freshman year. She went on to graduate with honors, find great success, and eventually pursue grad school.
“Cathie showed me that I could find success from what I felt like was failure—that a ‘no’ from my college of choice wasn’t the ultimate answer,” Byars says. “She taught me to be resilient, and dance teaches that, too. We’re not automatically going to get everything right, but we’re failing forward. Mistakes are allowed in the continual pursuit of achievement in the studio and beyond. Cathie demonstrated that in her approach to life and has changed the way I see things. That’s what I learned at GPS.”
After college she danced in NYC for two years, and then spent time in Oregon teaching dance and creating choreography for the small modern dance company she had there. She made money teaching Pilates and pursued dance as a hobby, but she wanted to flip that equation. Byars received full funding and a fellowship to complete her master’s in dance at the Ohio State University. There she learned labanotation, or the language and written component of dance, and became a Labanotion teacher trainer. These studies sparked her interest for building curriculum and teaching.
“I learned dance literacy in a different way,” Byars says. “Labanotation simplifies such a complex system of movement. Those experiences helped me see new ways to teach.”
A Close Community
Just as Kasch helped her dig deeper into the study of dance, Byars was eager to pursue that study with students of her own. She started a family and moved to Atlanta and is now a mother of two.
Byars now fully appreciates the incredible exposure Kasch and GPS gave her to the international world of dance, bringing impressive guest artists to the school and welcoming returning alums, and she hopes to mirror a similar model in her own work.
“Cathie makes the dance community seem small. She’s a connector and an amazing student advocate,” Byars says.
Since moving to Atlanta, Byars has visited GPS as a guest artist and is planning a performance with Laurel Moore Zahrobsky ’90 between Chattanooga- and Atlanta-area dancers. She loves the continued sense of community that she first experienced at GPS.
“Being back at GPS is like coming home,” she says. “I feel comfortable, relaxed, and safe. GPS always provided an environment that made it feel safe to take risks. It is one of the only places I’ve seen students truly supporting one another, not holding each other back but all moving forward together.”