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April 2008

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Juilliard Dance

Published: April 5, 2008
Category: profile

The many dimensions of Wendy Oliver: dancer, educator, choreographer, scholar

By Rachel Straus

One doesn’t always think of the earthy, egalitarian, and nonsexist tenets of contact improvisation as leading to the hallowed halls of academia. But these indeed are the philosophical underpinnings for Wendy Oliver’s paper on body image that she will deliver to educators this month at the AAHPERD national convention, where she will be honored as National Dance Association’s 2008 Scholar/Artist.

The story of Oliver’s journey from English major at Grinnell College in Iowa, to Minneapolis dance teacher and performer, to Rhode Island based dance scholar, curriculum expert, and professor of dance and women’s studies at Providence College, demonstrates how far dance has come as an academic form of study.

Born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles and Princeton, New Jersey, Oliver describes herself as someone who intuitively follows her interests. She didn’t begin dancing until after college, and she was drawn to contact improvisation because “there were no prescribed gender roles, so there was this idea of endless possibilities.” As one of the founding members of Contactworks, a performing collective in Minneapolis begun in the 1970s, Oliver relished the call to collaborative creativity championed by the nascent field. “You had a sense of creating something together,” says Oliver. “It was enriching in the sense of building community.” As a young woman influenced by feminism, she added, “we were very much trying to be a new kind of woman dancer” that could “be equal with men–and we lifted them.”

Oliver’s first contact improvisation teacher was Marcy Cerny at Minneapolis’ Guild for the Performing Arts. She also studied with Nancy Stark Smith at the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), with Nancy Hauser, a Hanya Holm descendent, and later in New York at the studios of Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and Viola Farber. She taught contact improvisation classes at University of Minnesota, in private studios, and workshops at seven midwestern colleges.

But in 1983, after nearly a decade of performing and teaching dance in Minneapolis, Oliver felt stymied. “I was just dancing,” she says, “and I needed some perspective.” She found it at Temple University, where she earned an MFA and a presidential fellowship. “I got a whole spectrum of information around everything to do with dancing and culture and the body. I was so excited, like a kid in a candy store.”

Oliver also found a mentor in Sarah Hilsendager, who was then chair of the Temple dance department. “Her course got me thinking about curriculum development,” Oliver says, and becoming a “multidimensional” educator, who could draw from other disciplines, such as art history, writing composition, and psychology.

Oliver went on to receive an Ed.D. at Columbia University. Her research on how to teach students to critique and write about dance earned her the Teacher’s College 1993 outstanding doctoral candidate award. Today, the subject of her dissertation and three decades of experience–teaching dance technique, dance writing, dance composition, dance history, and pedagogy–is taking shape in a book tentatively titled Dance Writing Handbook.

Unlike some dance academics, Oliver never exchanged work in the dance studio for full-time lecturing in front of a chalkboard. “One thing I love about my job,” she says, “is that I’m expected to choreograph.” As the director of the Providence College Dance Company, her choreographed works number 50. As the chair of the college’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Film (since 2002) she oversees the development of an interdisciplinary arts curriculum that includes a dance minor. Though Oliver teaches fewer courses than in the past because of her chairmanship duties, her interests–developing new ways for K-12 to college-level students to appreciate dance, writing about how mass culture affects women, looking at female artists’ aesthetics, and continuously choreographing-are all a part of a larger piece: developing a passion for dance in the next generation.

What better place to employ that ideal than with her 100-plus Providence College students, whom she helps foster a healthy appreciation for their bodies–regardless of whether they correspond to the ideals of the professional ballet world.

At the NDA conference this month, Oliver will present her paper “Body Image in the Dance Class” (which will concurrently appear in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance), in which she addresses recent research findings of how dance students are affected by conventional dance training. This training includes continual use of mirrors, demands or pressures to slim down, and requirements to wear body-revealing clothing. According to Oliver’s findings, these aspects of the conservatory tradition foster a negative body image. “Some teachers may say,” explains Oliver, “‘it’s really important to me that my students dress a certain way in class so that I can see their bodies.’ Or there might be other people who say, ‘well, what’s most important to me is my students’ physical and mental well-being. I’m going to try to do what the research says and see where that leads me.’ This is where I’m at.”

We are all familiar with the litany of reasons that dance deserves a place at the educational table. However, there is one area where we cannot claim to have a definitively positive effect on our students: body image. While dance should enhance self-esteem, it more often correlates with problematic behaviors. Anecdotal evidence of negative body image among dancers abounds.

Our society places enormous pressure upon us to look and act in culturally acceptable ways. Although women are the main recipients of this pressure, men are not immune to it. Looking slim, well-proportioned, toned and young are all valued physical traits in our society–especially in the dance world. Research in dance medicine, psychology, somatics, and gender studies gives us a context for examining our own teaching practices.

Copyright 2008 Dance Magazine, Inc.


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