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One word Nancy Lyons uses repeatedly when she talks about her lifetime of dancing and teaching dance is "fire."

What's her creative philosophy?

"I'm open to whatever sets people on fire," she declares.

Lyons, now finishing a 40-year career at Sonoma State University, caught the creative spark early in life. Lyons' mother, a frustrated dancer and professional pianist, put young Nancy into dance classes at age 4.

A native of Albuquerque, Lyons warmed up to the idea of a career in dance as a college student, first at the University of New Mexico and later at UC Berkeley.

"When I graduated from Berkeley, I was in French literature, and I couldn't see myself going door to door selling French poetry," Lyons said.

While earning her master's at Mills College in Oakland, her passion for choreography burst into flame.

"What interests me is invention," Lyons explained. "I appreciate the traditional forms, but I like the creation of new patterns."

After dancing with small Bay Area companies and touring as a solo dancer, she started teaching at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, building a program with a strong focus on innovative contemporary dance.

Lyons had other offers. She might have gone to teach at Stanford or Mills, but she loved the energy at Sonoma State.

"When I first started teaching at Sonoma State, it was this kind of wild and woolly place. That was partly what attracted me to it, because I felt there was a lot of room for adventure there. It was an adventurous time — the late '60s," Lyons recalled.

"I realized I wanted to teach at a place where it wasn't all so set in stone already, where I had some opportunity to create curriculum," she added.

Now, at 65 and retiring as head of the university's dance program after four decades there, Lyons remains aglow with an inner flame, fueled by her love of dance.

"Dance reinvents itself each generation, and the vitality of that can't be missed," she said. "That's what I'm interested in — the sheer fire and desire to dance, and to move, in whatever form it takes."

That's why the weeklong "Nancy Lyons Dance Perspective," opening at the end of April at Sonoma State University, will include performances not only by Lyons' current and former students, but also by young students of dance teachers that Lyons trained.

"For this retrospective I decided that, rather than just do old works of mine, we're doing five vintage pieces and one new work," Lyons said. "I'm calling the new piece &‘Roots and Offshoots.' It's really about how dance gets transmitted, one generation to the next."

For "Roots and Offshoots," Lyons enlisted the help of two former students who now teach at Sonoma County high schools: Colleen Pettis of El Molino in Forestville, and Elizabeth Evans, head of the ArtQuest dance program at Santa Rosa High School.

Current students show great interest in dance, Lyons said, partly because of televison.

"Since &‘So You Think You Can Dance' and &‘Dancing with the Stars' got going on TV, young people are really excited about taking contemporary dance, because they see it on TV," she said.

Lyons has had so much fun working the young dancers that she's begun to think she may not spend all of her retirement at her tiny former chicken farm in Penngrove. She's single, she has spent her life with dancers and when she's working with enthusiastic students, she feels that old fire once again.

"I'm enjoying the process, and I love the idea of inter-generational dance," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://rts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.