Denison University Department of Dance History

Dance at Early Denison

Dance is rarely mentioned in the first 45 years of Denison documents. In fact, the Adytum (the yearbook) makes no reference at all until the 1900s, but by the 1870s, we see a nod toward its occurrence on and off campus.

In May 1878, the men were bragging about a May-pole dance having been replaced by early dawn musketry. The fact that the long-standing tradition had been replaced indicates without doubt its earlier existence. It might, however, have been a response to the independence of the Young Ladies Institute …

In the 1880s and 1890s, nearly 20 references document dance as a social affair, and just as often the women were throwing dances for the men.

20th Century Denison Brings Aesthetic Dance

Aesthetic dance arrived at Denison University’s companion school, Shepardson College, contemporaneously with the art form’s inception in the United States. The schools’ joint yearbook, The Adytum, documents Shepardson was already teaching Grand Marches, Highland Flings and Irish Waltzes in the early 1900s, and men’s gymnastics dance was taught at least as early as 1912. Between these two dates, Denison seem to have hired one of the earliest “guest artists”: In April 1903, the Denisonian reported the community had “secured at enormous expense the Great Dance Artist, Mr. Bunyon Shifter in his latest clog and buck and wing specialty.”

Aesthetic Dance at Denison

The first to teach aesthetic dance was Ruth Atwell, a member of the women’s physical education faculty. However, Denison’s first full-time aesthetic dance faculty, Helen Badenoch, was hired in 1925.

In 1918, Ruth Harriett Atwell was a student at Shepardson, serving the Y.W.C.A. Committee as head of conferences and the Masquers (a group promoting dance drama) as secretary. By 1921, Denison had hired her as the director of physical education for women. Having attended both Wellesley College and Columbia University after her graduation from Denison, Miss Atwell produced a massive dance drama in 1923 called “Springtime in Hellas” which was highly praised as “the biggest of its kind in the history of Shepardson” (Adytum, 1923, 282). 

Then, in 1924, Helen Barr was hired to head a newly-forming Women’s Physical Education program. Barr brought in the first trained dance faculty Helen Badenoch, and the two set off to name, honor, and expand aesthetic dance as central to the physical education of women. It is largely to Helen Badenoch, Denison owes the existence of the dance curriculum, now just shy of 100 years old.  The current dance major reflects much of Badenoch’s ideas, including movement practice courses, dance studies courses and a performance group, then named ‘Orchesis,’ originating in 1927.

Badenoch died tragically of a terminal illness in 1942, Helen Barr at her side, but the community dedicated itself to honoring, maintaining, and developing Badenoch's love of the aesthetic dance.

Dance Becomes a Major

In 1950, Professor Helen A. Barr was on sabbatical for the year. The WPE faculty included the just-hired Associate Professor and Chairperson Natalie Shepard; Assistant Professor Julia Denham (BA, William Smith College; MA, Columbia University); Instructor Amy Turnell; and Instructor Virginia Northrop. Denham took the lead in revising the curriculum during her two-year tenure.

By Fall 1953, Virginia C. Northrop (who had taken a two-year leave to pursue her graduate work at Sarah Lawrence College) returned to Denison as a permanent member of the physical education faculty, now with academic rank, to teach “modern dance.”  In those early years, one of the first major public events Mrs. Northrop coordinated was the guest appearance of famed modern dancers José Limón, Pauline Koner, Lucas Hoving, Betty Jones, and Ruth Currier in 1954.

A Move to Fine Arts and the First Tenured Faculty

Under the direction of President A. Blair Knapp (the longest standing president from 1951-1968), Dance moved from Physical Education to the Fine Arts Division.  Prof. Northrop was tenured, and became Associate Professor of Dance. And so it was: the start of a new era for Dance, Denison embracing the discipline not only as an area of study worthy of a faculty line but also as belonging, rightfully, with the Fine Arts.

Dance Becomes a Major

In March 1972, a recommendation was made for Dance to be a “full blown dance major program ... structured within an autonomous Dance Department which will not be an adjunct to the Theatre, Phys. Ed, or other departments.” It passed with the full support of the general and teaching faculty. The first two dance majors graduated in 1973 with a much large class graduating the following year.

By 1979, the University had received a large endowment that made possible the Vail Artist Series. While conceived as “performing arts,” Denison simply had no appropriate space to present more than music. But with some ingenuity about space, Vail presented The Jazz Tap Ensemble (Oct 1980) and three times in the 1990s Vail sponsored dance concerts (Sweet Honey in the Rock, Mar 1990; The Red Starts Army Chorus and Dance Ensemble, Oct 1992; Rhythm in Shoes, Mar 1993). It was another 10 years before dance re-appeared in the Vail Series—an offering of Bobby McFerrin and Friends with dance students who had been rehearsed and honed as improvisationists by guest faculty Angie Hauser and Chris Aiken in Jan 2003. Four and a half years later, Natalie McMaster, a Cape Breton fiddler and step-dancer, bedazzled the audience (Oct 2007); and in Sep 2008, Cabello and Tizsa did likewise with their performance of Capoeira Angola.

Introducing the World Dance Program

The Dance major program developed and shifted over about 35 years until one trajectory gained traction and was amplified. The “World Dance” program was built on the heels of the guest artist faculty lines provided to the University by the same Vail endowment that had a provision for a “Minority Artist-in-residence.”

Noël Hall was the first to occupy this position at length.  His arrival at Denison was as an Artist-in-Residence for 7 weeks in Spring 1981, but Mr. Hall, exquisite at teaching both Graham technique and what was called “Jazz” (but quickly morphed to the title “Ethnic Jazz,”) stayed at Denison for seven years. By the time his successor, April Berry, who had danced with Alvin Ailey, had been at Denison for 7 additional years, the institution moved in the direction of a permanent position for an Africanist in Dance. To accomplish this, Denison added together the half-time ballet position and the half-time World Dance position and changed the newly-configured full-time position to tenure-track.

Currently the Dance Department joins with two other performing arts departments—Music and Theatre—to occupy the new Eisner Center for the Performing Arts. The space problems have been solved; the faculty lines have been solidified; the community has been invited to envision thenext phase of Dance at Denison.

All Tenured Faculty in Dance

  • Virginia Northrop, MA (arrived in 1950, left, re-arrived in 1953, tenured in 1966, retired officially in 1975, died in 2011)
  • Susan Alexander, MFA (arrived in 1971, tenured in 1977, left for sabbatical and never returned)
  • Gill Wright Miller, PhD (guest artist 1977, visiting faculty 1981, tenure-track in 1982, tenured in 1988, still here)
  • Sandy Mathern-Smith, MFA (arrived in 1988, tenured in 1996, retiring in 2019)
  • Currently tenure-track faculty Ojeya Banks Cruz, PhD, and Molly Shanahan, PhD.


1880s and 1890s
Nearly 20 references document dance as a social affair, and just as often the women were throwing dances for the men.
Early 1900s
Grand Marches, Highland Flings and Irish Waltzes were taught.
Men’s gymnastics dance was taught.
Denison’s first full-time aesthetic dance faculty, Helen Badenoch
Badenoch started the dance group, Orchesis.
Fall 1953
Virginia C. Northrop became a permanent member of the physical education faculty, now with academic rank. Contracted as Assistant Professor, to teach “modern dance.”
Dance moved from Physical Education to the fine arts group.
March 1972
A dance major program was formed
Noël Hall first Vail Minority Artist-in-Residence funded by Vail.
1998- 2008
The World Dance program.
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