Adapted from article written by Colleen Hooper, 2000; sources include GWU Alumni Review, June 1951; University Bulletin, 1938, et al; Cherry Tree, 1933, 1934, 1939, 1959, et al; Hatchet
Orchesis, a student group for advanced dancers, was founded in the early 1930s under the direction of dance instructors such as Dorothea Lensch and Ruth Aubuck Foster. The 1933 Cherry Tree states, “Although the designation of dancing as a sport may be questionable, it is included in the Physical Education curriculum and has grown steadily in popularity among G.W. sportswomen.” During the early 1930s, dance classes were held at the YWCA four days a week to help young women with the development of “grace and rhythm.” Each winter program was concluded with a performance in March that included Orchesis and members from all of the dancing classes. During this time, Rhythmic Dance was the most popular form, and it was, “based on free movement of the body,” On February 25, 1933, Orchesis participated in the first Symposium of the Dance at Pierce Hall with eight area schools including Goucher, Hood and University of Maryland.
In 1938, Elizabeth Burtner joined the Physical Education Department as an instructor in dance and the archery coach. After Burtner’s arrival, the course descriptions for dance were changed to include the title modern dance for the first time. In the 1938-39 Bulletin, dance was described as, “Folk, tap, fundamentals and methods in modern dance, music in relation to dance.” In 1938, Orchesis gave five public dance performances including two student recitals, the annual Symposium of the Dance, and performances for May Day and a June Luncheon. The 1939 Cherry Tree credited Burtner for working to establish dance as a, “major art form on campus,” and it contained pictures of outdoor performances held by the student dance group on the Campus Yard. In 1939, a junior dance group was established by Orchesis and junior members that were eligible for the advanced group were chosen at the end of the season.
By 1942, there were three student dance groups: Junior Orchesis, Orchesis and the Master Group. From this era, there were several GW dancers who went on to successful professional careers. In 1939, GW alumni Jerry Ross, A.B. 1939, began as an accompanist in Orchesis and he then went on to star in the CBS television series “Show of Shows.” Ed Lum, A.B. 1951, and Phyllis Sheppy, A.B. 1949, both joined the Martha Graham Dance Group while Greta Atkin Levart, A.B. 1949, worked with the Jose Limon Company. GW students Helene Ellis, Sherry Parker and Jane Thomson also worked with the Charles Weidman Group. This expansion of dance continued, and the 1955 Cherry Tree describes a vibrant dance community led by Burtner and assisted by Evelyn Loehofer and Tom Pence. The three previous student dance groups were combined under the title Dance Production Groups, but the Master Group retained its distinction as the group for advanced modern dancers. In 1955, the Dance Production Groups sponsored a number of events including Thursday evening square and folk dances in Building J and Friday evening social dances co-sponsored by the student council. In the modern dance program, “Top members of the University’s dance group participated in a master lesson in dance given by Louis Horst at Maryland University,” (1955 Cherry Tree). Dance Production Group members also gave modern dance classes at area high schools and participated in the “Pageant of Peace” on the Ellipse during the winter holiday season. In 1956, the Spring Modern Dance Concert was comprised of pieces choreographed by Elizabeth Burtner, Joan Masterson and the student dancers. Titles ranged from “Modern Fantasy” and “Boulevard of the Abnormal” to “Show Piece” which was accompanied by Leonard Bernstein music and “God’s Trombones” which was an arrangement of a traditional spiritual.
The 1958 winter symposium held on Dance Improvisation and Composition was co-sponsored by University of Maryland and Howard University and it featured Jose Limon dancer Lucas Hoving. The 1959 winter symposium on Dance Technique and Experimental Composition featured Modern Dance legend Merce Cunningham. In 1959, the Spring Modern Dance Concert was so popular that it was included in the Combo, which was, “a ticket to a medley of the most popular events of the school year.” This concert included Doris Humphrey’s Partita V as reconstructed from Labonotation Score and choreography by the graduate students. The Dance Production Groups also participated in the Summer Carnival and the May Day festivities during 1959.
The sixties brought about a new era in dance at GW, and the addition of faculty member Maida Withers in 1966 made a dramatic impact on the department. There was also a department wide interest in dance notation, and there was an article about dance notation written by Elizabeth Burtner in the spring 1967 edition of the George Washington University Magazine. She writes, “The long view toward the future indicates that dance as an art cannot fail to profit by building up a literature of its own for study, for stylistic comparison and deduction, for cultural stability and continuity.” Some of the changes that occurred during the sixties included the addition of summer intensive workshops held every June that featured renowned dance artists and culminated in performances. Some of the artists featured were Rudy Perez, Babara Roan, Yvonne Rainer, Al Huang, Elizabeth Keen, Don Redlich and Cheryl Gates McFadden. In a 1975 Spring Dance Concert program, it is written, “Since the GW Dance Programs began in 1965, nearly seventy men and women have graduated and are actively involved in a broad variety of settings...” This program note refers to changes that took place in 1965 that expanded degree options in dance. At this time, the degree programs in dance available for undergraduates were a B.A. in Education with a major (teaching field) in dance and a B.S. in Physical Education with an emphasis in dance. For graduate students, there was an M.A. in Education with a specialization in dance and an M.A. in Education: Physical Education with an emphasis in dance.
In 1973, the Spring Dance Concert included a work choreographed by guest artist Art Bauman entitled “Errands”. This work was first performed at the Dance Theater Workshop in New York City during February of 1966. The 1975 concert series included works by Maida Withers and the Dance Construction Company entitled “Time Dance” and “Yesterday’s Garlands and Yesterday’s Kisses”. Sara Rudner also presented a solo performance and Meredith Monk/ The House performed “Paris” and premiered “Venice/Milan.” During the 1975-1976 semesters, the dance program remained part of the School of Education but became part of a new department named Human Kinetics and Leisure Studies. This change did not dramatically impact the courses that dance students took, and it was still intended to prepare students for a career teaching physical education in elementary and secondary schools. Highlights of the 1979 season included a Falco Technique Dance Workshop with company soloist Shelley Freydont and guest artist Bobbi Baumann. The 1979 Spring Dance Concert featured guest artist works by Beverly Brown, Les Ditson and Norman Walker. During 1979, there was also a dance concert presented by Pat Catterson, who was a three time recipient of Choreography Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Maida Withers presented a workshop for teachers entitled “Creative Dance for Children” as part of the National Endowment for the Arts Artist-In-School Program during the summer of 1979.
During the 1987-1988 semesters, the dance program officially joined the theater department to form the Theater and Dance Department. The dance technique classes offered at this time included Tap, Jazz, Folk, Ballroom, Ballet and Ethnic Styles in addition to an emphasis in Modern Dance. During the nineties, the course work shifted towards modern dance. The graduate program in dance continued until 1994-1995, and the undergraduate program continues to grow and offer performing arts scholarships by audition. The late nineties have continued to be eventful for the GW dance program. Guest artists from 1997-1999 have included Ann Carlson, Claire Porter, Kirstie Simson and Russian modern dancer Sasha Kukin.