Dance at 100
Until a few years ago, it was widely accepted that the history of dance instruction at the University of Michigan began a few decades before the department was formally established in 1974.
But extensive research conducted by Jessica Fogel, U-M professor of dance, has revealed that the university has maintained a deep social connection and commitment to teaching dance since an aesthetic dancing course was taught in 1909, putting U-M among American universities with the longest history of dance instruction.
“The university has had a lively, and widely unknown, national presence in dance in terms of teaching, as a concert venue, and as a showcase for a long list of prominent guest artists and students,” said Fogel, who joined the dance department in 1985, a decade after it had been established within the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Over the years, notable guest artists have included the legendary Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Jose Limon.
In recognition of its century-long commitment to the teaching and perpetuation of the art of dance, the U-M Department of Dance presented a series of performances and events in June, collectively entitled “Dancing at 100.” Performers included dance faculty, students, and U-M dance alumni.
“U-M has played a vital role as an advocate for dance,” said Fogel. “The celebration, ‘Dancing at 100,’ has drawn attention to the long impact we’ve had on American dance.”
For the last 100 years, dance at U-M has paralleled the evolution of American dance—from the early days of so-called “aesthetic dance” to its emergence as a distinctively provocative 20th-century art form, she said.
U-M’s century of teaching dance sheds new light on the university’s longstanding dedication to human rights, which, in the early 1900s, meant supporting women’s rights to a university education. At the time, offering dance classes was a symbol for support of women’s health and provided women with opportunities for academic advancement, said Fogel, whose choreography has been produced in New York and around the country. She is also a founding member of Ann Arbor Dance Works, the resident professional dance company of U-M.
“We’ve gone from dance classes with women wearing bloomers in 1909 to women showing naked legs by the time we hit the 1920s, and in a 100-year evolution of dance we can see a continuous physical and social transformation of women,” she said.
Fogel’s research has been fueled by the meticulously documented scrapbooks kept in the U-M Bentley Historical Library archives, including photographs, manuals illustrating dance, recital programs, news clippings, listings of club activities, and instructors’ notes.
The archive also documents the seminal contribution of Esther Pease, who in 1950 became coordinator of the dance program. During Pease’s tenure, dance was taught through the Department of Physical Education for Women until the dance department was established and chaired by Elizabeth Bergmann in 1974. Under Bergmann’s leadership, dance blossomed into a program with professional degrees, and has continuously trained dancers who have gone on to significant careers as performers, choreographers, teachers, and scholars.
In the past two years, the U-M Department of Dance has earned accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Dance and has reformulated its MFA program to include an emphasis in practice-based research and choreography employing new technologies.
“In the last 100 years at U-M, there have been many changes in the teaching and performance of dance, but also constancy,” Fogel said. “We’re continually searching for ways to integrate social and topical issues into our creative research. It’s part of making dance a lively, socially relevant art form.”