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Documenting Illinois’ Beautiful Dance Legacy

University of Illinois Department of Dance students Cecily Sommers, Jerry Teske, Taposhi Mazumder, Deborah LaMonte, and Bryan Carman performing Willis Ward’s “Rechants d’Amour,” 1983, Department of Dance Records.

The beginnings of dance instruction and performance at Illinois can be traced to the first annual May Day celebration of 1898.  This May Fête, according to Patricia Knowles, who served as the Head of the Dance Department between 1976 and 2001, was put on by the women who taught dance classes for the Department of Physical Training for Women.  By 1920, four courses in folk and social dance were offered to students through the renamed Physical Education Department.  When Ione Johnson was hired in 1929 to teach modern dance in the Department of Physical Welfare, the first student Orchesis dance production in 1930 replaced the campus’ annual May Day celebrations.

In 1948, Margaret Erlanger — who had earned degrees in chemistry and zoology from Wellesley College, physiology from the University of Rochester and a graduate degree in dance from the University of Wisconsin — was hired by Illinois’ School of Physical Education’s Department for Physical Education for Women to lead their dance program.  Unlike her predecessors, she provided a new unwavering vision for the development of Illinois’s dance program which focused on dance as an art form.

She successfully implemented a specialized Bachelor of Science degree in physical education with an emphasis on dance education in 1949. Ten years later, she established the University’s interdisciplinary Master of Arts in dance with courses in physical education, art, speech, and music, moving closer to her vison. In 1962, Erlanger laid the initial groundwork for the University’s Bachelor of Arts degree in dance performance.

Dance instruction, however, remained an integral part of the College of Physical Education until 1968, when Jan Stockman Simonds was appointed acting head of dance (1968-1971) and the department was transitioned to the College of Fine and Applied Arts. Erlanger remained an active member of the Dance Department’s faculty until her retirement in 1974, and her leadership and inspiration still influence today’s dance education and performance in Illinois.

Erlanger’s spirited transition of dance education from mere physical exercise to artistic expression continues to be reflected through the ever-imaginative instruction of Illinois’ dance faculty, students and resident artists that are brought to campus each year. Resident artists such as Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris, Rennie Harris, Elizabeth Streb, and Susan Marshall have inspired new artistic directions for Illinois’ dance faculty and students.  Their modern dance choreographies have included a reconstruction of Martha Graham’s Panorama, and such works as Twyla Tharp’s The Fugue, Alwin Nikolais’ Tensile Involvement, and José Limón’s The Unsung. The department’s faculty have included exceptional artistic educators such as Willis Ward, Joan Skinner, Beverly Blossom, John Rolland, and Patricia Knowles.  New dance works like Rechants d’Amour, Rehearsal for a Class Act, and State of the Union were created and premiered just for the department’s 1983 performance season by Ward, Blossom, and Knowles.

Patricia Knowles, who came to campus in 1973 and served as the department’s director from 1976 until 2001, was described in a 1983 article as a leader who “projects a kinetic calmness that is as powerful as unfiltered light streaming through a stained-glass window.”  Her dance colleagues who followed as heads of the department – Rebecca Nettl-Fiol, Sara Hook, and Jan Erkert – each described her as the “fiery guardian of the dance department.” When asked what characteristics the department seeks of its dance students, Knowles responded in 1983, “Humility. Genuine humility.  It’s something you see in the eyes – a certain openness, a passion.  These are students whose ego doesn’t get in the way.”

Today’s dance faculty and students continue to embrace artistic innovation through dance and celebrate new learning experiences that come from both the successes and failures of their wondrous experimentation. As part of an ongoing effort to document this history of innovative dance instruction and performance at the University of Illinois, the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music has recently acquired and preserved the Department of Dance Records, Jan Erkert Papers, National Academy of Dance/National Academy of Arts Records, and the Kathleen Hermesdorf Papers.  For further information about these rich dance archives either call 217-333-4577 or email sousa@illinois.edu.

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