Panel Discussion Nov. 9 to Feature “Amish Escapee” and Author Torah Bontrager

Ordung an amish ballet posterIndiana University of Pennsylvania’s Dance Theater, along with devised theatre students from the Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance; guest artists; community members; and the Mahoning Valley Ballet, will premiere Ordnung, An Amish Ballet, on November 10, 11, and 12.

This collaborative work is written, choreographed, directed, and produced by IUP dance professor Joan Van Dyke, based on her original research with co-investigators Christian Vaccaro and Melanie Duncan, faculty in the Department of Sociology, with devised performance co-directed by Richard Kemp, head of acting and directing in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance. Devised theatre is the collaborative creation of a work without a pre-existing script. The show will be presented on the Waller Hall Mainstage.

The ballet begins in the Supreme Court courtroom in 1972 during the ruling of Wisconsin v. Yoder, which determined that children within Amish communities were only required to obtain up to an eighth-grade education. Lena, a young Amish girl, is seven years old when the story begins. Fast-forward 10 years and Lena, now 17, wants to pursue a career in the arts—but has to do so in secret.

“This project attempts to increase awareness and help facilitate a bridge to education and career goals for the Anabaptist (Amish and Mennonite) communities,” Van Dyke said. The show comes from Van Dyke’s original research, which includes a survey designed by Vaccaro and Duncan.

There will be a panel discussion about the project and the show, “The Right to an Education,” on November 9 from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the Stapleton Library atrium with special guest Torah Bontrager, founder of the Amish Heritage Association. The panel discussion is free and open to the community, and refreshments will be provided.

Bontrager is a self-described “Amish escapee, author, Ivy League alumna, and children's rights advocate.” She will share her experiences as a girl who had to leave the Amish community at age 15 so she could attend high school.

Panelists will discuss education rights, the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision, and the long-term impacts of that decision on the Amish community.

Bontrager will be joined for the panel discussion by Van Dyke; Kemp; Vaccaro; Lingyan Yan, director of Women’s and Gender Studies; Jeffrey Lundy, esquire; and Tina Lewis, licensed psychologist. Kelly Heider, acting assistant vice provost for the IUP Libraries, will serve as the panel facilitator.

The show runs for three performances: November 10 and 11 at 7:30 p.m. and November 12 at 2:00 p.m.

Tickets are available online through the Lively Arts at IUP; limited seating is available, so advance ticket purchase is recommended by calling 724-357-2787 or emailing The ticket hotline is 724-357-1313 and is available noon to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The show includes a screening of Ordnung, A Dance, a short film by IUP Communications Media Professor Jeremy Waltman, produced by Van Dyke. The film won dance finalist in the Paris Play Festival in August 2021 and was invited to be presented to World Dance Americas Conference and the International Conference of Arts in Society in Galway, Ireland, both in 2021. The film is on YouTube.  

Waltman also designed video projections that create “virtual scenery” for the show.

Ordnung, An Amish Ballet, was set and rehearsed at and by the Mahoning Valley Ballet over the pandemic and premiered in spring 2021.  “The ballet was very well received with approximately 900 in attendance,” Van Dyke said.

The show was created using the “cast-based” approach to choreography, Van Dyke said.

“This means that the cast is briefed on the sociological and psychological topics of the storyline and has the ability to explore these topics through dialogue, journaling, drawing, and working closely with experts in the fields,” she said.

In addition to the show bringing awareness of this topic to a larger population through performance, it is also designed to alert the cast members to societal issues addressed through the storyline, including propinquity, monophyly, moral holiday, isolation, and identity, Van Dyke said.

“It has been 50 years since the Wisconsin v. Yoder decision, and we have seen many changes in the Anabaptist and English communities, including the impact of the environmental movement and human disruption of animal and plant habitats on the lifestyle of the Amish,” the research proposal noted.

“Many Anabaptist people are being compelled into the English workforce without the formal education and training they need to be competitive in the job market. This verdict was highly argued and questionable, many saying that this should have never happened. The results of this law have impacted individuals raised in Plain communities for the last four generations, with tens of thousands of individuals being denied a high school education. Today this law has continued to be questioned and debated among many states,” Van Dyke said.

Following research and attending the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabeth Town College Conference, Van Dyke contacted the Sociology Department at IUP to explore opportunities related to providing education to the Anabaptist community. Van Dyke, Vaccaro, and Duncan, along with several other members of the IUP community, formed a committee to explore educational and career goals of the Anabaptist communities in Pennsylvania, she said.

The research proposal notes that there is a strong history of Anabaptist communities in Pennsylvania, and that Pennsylvania has the second largest Amish population in the United States, but the lifestyle is facing changes.

“Since 1972, the culture of the Amish lifestyle has transitioned from agrarian to lumbering, building, retail business, and furniture making, with very few farms in some of the most highly populated areas of Pennsylvania. This shift in lifestyle has led to more blending of the cultures and integration in the workplace. The verdict of a limited education no longer serves today’s society to prepare them to survive and thrive in the workplace,” she said.

“Access and opportunities to advanced education and training would prepare this highly disciplined and motivated workforce for technical jobs of the twenty-first-century economy and increase productivity in traditional occupations. As more off-shore manufacturing of electronics, pharmaceuticals, and computer components are repatriated, the Amish community could play a vital role in providing workers for these jobs,” Van Dyke said.

“Given the ongoing momentum to this project and it being the fiftieth anniversary of the court ruling, Dr. Vaccaro and I continue to explore the educational and career goals of the Anabaptist communities throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to initiate reform.”

Following a four-year period of research and collaboration, Van Dyke and Vaccaro have started distribution of a survey to the Anabaptist communities within a 25-mile radius of IUP, designed to explore educational and career goals of these communities.

In addition to assessment of the continuing education needs of the Anabaptist (Amish and Mennonite) communities, work will take place to determine what educational services IUP may be able to offer members of these communities.