Deans Letter: A Brief History Lesson on Dance at UT

Monday, March 11, 2019
a portrait of Dean Doug Dempster

From Arts Next, Spring 2019 issue

Who doesn’t love the monumentality and palpable confidence of universities? We carve our disciplines into our academic temples as though eternal verities: “Drama,” “Chemistry,” “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

For those who are not denizens of the university, you’re forgiven if you don’t see the constant contests of the heart and mind being waged behind our stately columns. Our university, our disciplines and principles, our educational mission and research ambitions are continuously reshaped by our evolving desires, challenges and conflicts—and by the abiding commitment to cultivating, not coercing, a shared body of beliefs.

Who or what drives that process? Courageous faculty full of conviction and discontent. Heedless, headstrong students. Indelicate visiting artists, scholars and researchers speaking their minds. Gadflies to dogma, impatient with anachronism. And maybe it’s just the enduring cedar-fevered weirdness of Austin’s Hill Country itself. 

Having fled the looming war in Europe, American dancer Shirlee Dodge was invited in 1943 by Anna Hiss, the head of the Department of Physical Training for Women, to teach the first dance courses at UT in the physical education program—in fact, in the women’s gymnasium that would later be named for Anna Hiss. Dodge graduated from the first higher education dance program in the United States at the University of Wisconsin, a physical education program for women that Hiss hoped to replicate at UT.

The 27-year-old Dodge, however, had a different vision. Young Professor Dodge was convinced that dance should be taught as an art form in the College of Fine Arts alongside music, drama and art.  She appealed to the dean of the College of Fine Arts to have her appointment and the dance curriculum split between Physical Education and Fine Arts.

For the time, that was a radical institutional repositioning of women’s bodies and a refiguring of academic unorthodoxies. Shirlee Dodge’s transforming conviction—and we have to believe considerable courage at standing up to the imposing figure of Anna Hiss—opened the door of modern dance to women and men at UT. In one of her early program notes for a dance concert at UT, Dodge wrote, “Dance. . . is the tangible medium for expressing those intangible ecstasies and pains common to all mankind . . . regardless of country, color, or creed.”

Shirlee Dodge was 25 years ahead of her time. Most universities in the U.S. didn’t migrate their dance programs out of physical education until the advent of Title IX in 1972, when women’s physical education transformed into women’s competitive sports.

Seventy-five years later, we’re witnessing another transformation of the UT Dance program driven by the vision of Professor Charles O. Anderson and his colleagues. They are reinventing the program for the 21st century, expanding our understanding of what counts as “concert dance” and refiguring whose bodies, movements and cultural traditions might fill the stage and our curriculum. You’ll get to read a great deal more about this and the relaunch of our M.F.A. in Dance in this issue of Arts Next.

The monumental façades disguise a more dynamic and far healthier reality of a university continually reinventing itself for a new day through a constant contest of ideas.

Excelsior!

P.S. You can read more of the fascinating biography of Professor Shirlee Dodge in "Dodge Days," written by her daughter and son in-law, Pamela and Edmund McIlhenny.

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