Oberlin College History

Oberlin College, right from its beginnings in the 1830s, included women as well as students regardless of race. Oberlin College hired Delphine Hanna in 1885, making her the first Woman Professor of Physical Education in the United States. Using her medical and dance training as guides, Hanna developed a four-year degree program which promoted natural movement as integral to maintaining a healthy body and sound mind. This integration was important for the ethical pursuit of knowledge, one grounded in Oberlin’s motto of “learning and labor”. She brought in Swedish gymnastics; the women were doing parallel bars. The program was exclusively for women in its early days, many of whom embraced it as fulfilling the new feminist demands for physical outlets. At Oberlin, Hanna’s innovations included not just making movement part of the curriculum but calling it expressive dancing.

As a radical and integrated college in the 1960s, Oberlin College started to have much more of a push toward Black Nationalism and the Black Arts Movement. In the 60’s there was a movement to have an African Studies Department focusing on African American drama and dance and music. Margaret Christian, a student during the ‘60s, taught a number of Experimental College “ExCo” Courses – these are courses that are taught by students, for students. Margaret Christian taught jazz dance, Caribbean dance, and an African American modern dance course. Many different dance forms, from jazz to ballet to hip hop to blues and swing to Bharatanatyam continue to be taught by talented students.

Dance at Oberlin has continued to evolve, staying at the forefront of movement innovations from the advent of Graham and Cunningham techniques to the development of experimental dance in the 1970s. Contact Improvisation has been an integral part of Oberlin’s history since its conception in 1972. Today, the department comprises courses that focus on West African dance, contemporary approaches to movement training and composition, as well as ballet and improvisation. At Oberlin, the traditional separations between dance as a form of cultural representation and dance as a form of aesthetic expression are being questioned and the department is moving towards interdisciplinary and global explorations of movement as a critical form of cultural literacy.

The school has a long, impressive list of visitors who have shown students what’s going on in the wider world of dance. Some visits have profoundly changed the field of dance. Over the years, Oberlin has conveyed to its students a dance experience that is both inspired and deeply rooted in the liberal arts experience. Though many of the students become successful dancers and choreographers, the emphasis in the department is on encouraging students to create, perform, and think about movement in a manner that is consonant with their experience in the other fine and liberal arts. Oberlin currently offers a variety of classes, such as ballet, anatomy and alignment, choreography, performance, history, criticism, contact improvisation, and theater design. There is considerable emphasis on new dance in its many forms, and students can major in interdisciplinary performance. Dance majors are not required to audition for the program; many students bring in perspectives from outside of the dance world.


Delphine Hanna hired in 1885, making her the first Woman Professor of Physical Education in the United States. Hanna’s innovations included not just making movement part of the curriculum but calling it dancing.
In the early 1920s, aesthetic and fancy dancing at Oberlin gave way to the vigorous free flow of natural movement. The dancers had shortened their Delsarte tunics and were dancing outdoors with scarves trailing behind them and garlands of flowers in their hair. Class plans from the late 1920s show the influence of dance education innovator Margaret H’Doubler. Sessions began with students doing anatomically based curves, folds, and rolls that then developed into more complicated movements. Class participants crossed the floor with variations on folk steps and natural forms of locomotion, such as walking, skipping, and sliding. They experimented with the relationship of movement to musical rhythms, and they did choreography problems. Although students of the 1920s appeared in public regularly, their teachers were reluctant to emphasize the performance for fear of causing dance to become merely entertainment. Following H’Doubler’s lead, they saw dance as an enriching educational experience.
Inside the classroom, the students developed a strong, scientific basis of technique. They put on yearly pageants, often performed outside, which would allow the community to witness their dancing. The pageants were performed to classical music and often had natural or historical themes. Hundreds of students were involved in these pageants. The 1927 pageant “Our Lady’s Juggler” was so popular that a repeat performance was created in 1939.
By the mid-1930s, they were appearing on stark stages, wearing plain jersey dresses or leotards. They struck geometrical poses, cut through space with bold leaps and lunges, and called their work modern dance.
Oberlin College felt the reverberations of the Black Nationalism and the Black Arts Movements and the African American students organized their own dance collective.
Betty Lind took over from Sally Houston, Oberlin's last main exemplar of the primarily educational dance tradition. In keeping with a growing national trend, Lind demanded recognition of dance as a performing art and in 1970 moved it out of the domain of physical education and into the theater program.
The Dance Department was incorporated into Herbert Blau’s vision of Inter-Arts, where the fields of music composition, theater and dance were integrated. Herbert Blau’s students such as Julie Taymor and Bill Irwin followed him to Oberlin and were part of this Inter-Arts experiment, which refused the traditional venues of the proscenium stage. They were interested in process-based work; they would allow people to see their rehearsals, but they also refused to create paid-for evening events, in essence resisting the whole “bourgeois arts complex.”
Brenda Way, a former Oberlin student who replaced Lind in the early 1970s, turned the program’s sights on the experimental dance world. She and other dance faculty and students formed the Oberlin Dance Collective, a group of dancers, artists and musicians who traveled and performed together during the summers.
: Brenda Way got a National Endowment for the Arts grant to bring the entire Grand Union Collective to Oberlin, including such renown artists as Gus Solomon, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, David Gordon. They were in residency for a month in January 1972. Nancy Stark Smith, who was a student and danced with Brenda Way in Oberlin Dance Collective, took Steve Paxton’s early morning class, the beginning of an artistic collaboration which was very important for the development of contact Improvisation. This was the time when Steve made men dances, like Magnesium, this was the beginning of the kind of experimentation that later led to Contact Improvisation.
Brenda Way connected with some artists in San Francisco including Pam Quinn and Kimi Okada; in 1976 they established Oberlin Dance Collective, San Francisco.
mid 1970s to mid 1980s
Oberlin has a Theatre and Dance Department, but there were no full-time dance faculty; everybody was hired on one or two-year contracts. There were no tenure-track positions, and very few tenured Theatre positions. Stephanie Woodward and Wendy Perron taught here for a while, and kept up a lot of experimental work. Finally in the 1980s, Elesa Rosasco was hired in a continuing tenure-track position creating an area of stability within the dance program.
Oberlin College hires choreographers Carter McAdams and Nusha Martynuk, who teach courses in dance technique, composition, and improvisation.
In order to create a dance major that also included an academic component that focused on history and theory in dance, Oberlin College creates a new position, filled by Ann Cooper Albright. Combining her interests in dancing and cultural theory, she is involved in teaching a variety of courses that seek to engage students in both practices and theories of the body.
For the 25th anniversary of Contact Improvisation, there was a big event over the summer with over 300 dancers from sixty different countries, including a pre-conference event on Disability and Dance.
In the fall of 2010, Oberlin started a program called the Oberlin Arts Intensive Semester (OASIS) with 16 students from a variety of arts programs, 5 faculty, and 2 guest artists. Over the course of the semester, the students took 5 courses and made work which resulted in an evening length piece that was presented at Cleveland Public Theater.
Oberlin organizes the dance curriculum around four areas of study, allowing students to pursue dance from different perspectives: creation and performance, critical inquiry, physical techniques, and somatic studies. Choreographers often are involved in collaborations with musicians and composers from Oberlin's Conservatory of Music, as well as with media and installation artists from the art department. Courses offered in the dance department are often cross-listed with women's studies and with Africana studies, reflecting both the integration of scholarly and artistic pursuits, and the diversity of offerings in the dance curriculum.

Excerpts taken from http://acceleratedmotion.org/dance-history/modern-motion/natural-dancing-in-the-college-setting-local-case-study/ “Pioneers in Ohio” by Stephanie Woodard assistant professor of dance 1979 – 1984.

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