Whitley Setrakian Hill

By Maureen McMahon

Dancer, singer, and choreographer Whitley Setrakian Hill is well known to many in Ann Arbor for her role as the founder and head of People Dancing for 14 years, as a writer for The Ann Arbor News, and also as a singer/songwriter playing places like The Ark and the Ann Arbor Summer Festival with her band, Whit Hill and the Postcards, or with her husband, Al Hill. Some may also know her as Madonna’s junior year roommate, a story she tells in her 2011 memoir Not About Madonna: My Little Pre-Icon Roommate and Other Memoirs (Heliotrope Press). The memoir is largely set in Ann Arbor and describes in great detail her life as artistic director of People Dancing. Hill, now a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, returns to Ann Arbor often, a place that embraces her fondly. She is a founder and organizer of Nash Bash, a country music festival that takes place every August at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market.

 Hill graduated from the U-M School of Music, Theater & Dance in 1979. After a short time in her hometown of New York City, she returned to Ann Arbor to find her way in the local dance scene.

 She recalled the inspiration for People Dancing came after she auditioned to be the artistic director of Dance Gallery, a role that was given instead to J. Parker Copley, a choreographer who would also become a prominent figure in Ann Arbor’s dance scene. Losing out on the role made her ask herself, Why wait for them? Just a few years out of school, she decided to start her own company.

 Soon she met Diane Rosenblatt, a woman who would become her chief administrator and would play a major role in the company’s success. Together, they secured non-profit status and a board. Rosenblatt helped her win many grants. She recalled that People Dancing was one of the most well supported dance companies in Michigan in the eighties, a time when the then-Michigan Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts generously funded modern dance. Hill, who served as artistic director, and her dancers “even received a salary for a couple of years,” which is not the case for many companies.

Operating mostly out of the rambling collection of studios at the Performance Network space on Washington Street (now the YMCA), People Dancing came to life under Hill’s direction. She said it was easy to find dancers, that she was happy to work with dancers of all different body types, and she wanted to make it fun and inclusive. The company performed in Chicago and later in New York at the Cunningham Studio, but mostly performed locally at the Performance Network and Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. The company made several appearances at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival.

Hill noted that making a dance company last 14 years was an enormous accomplishment by a large group of people. In addition to dancers, staff, and board members, “There were interns, volunteers, designers, photographers, cheesecake-bakers, and so many more, working together to make it happen…. Everything was accomplished without email. We had postcard stamping parties.”

 It was a time in Ann Arbor when there was a large audience for modern dance, with at least four major companies performing regularly around town. Hill fondly recalled hosting a weekly open stage at the People Dancing studio called “Fine, Be That Way. Every Friday, a crowd would gather; performers could try out new works in dance, music, performance art, and spoken word.

After her years of leading People Dancing — and many injuries — Hill passed on the dance company to Christina Sears-Etter, in 1999. Hill continued to choreograph and perform with the company occasionally over the next years, before she moved south with her husband to pursue her music career, in 2008. Since moving, she published her memoir, teaches dance, and makes it a priority to return to Ann Arbor frequently. Asked about her time running People Dancing, she said, “Wow, there’s so much to say. I made lifelong friends and have kept in touch with most of the people who danced with me. It was an honor to work with them, and to be a part of Ann Arbor’s incredible arts community.”

Whitley Setrakian Hill can be reached at: whithill@umich.edu.