Welcome to DCD's newest online addition, “Dance Historian of the Month”. For the next twelve months, a brief interview with one of Canada's dance writers/historians will be posted here, in question and answer format.
The hope is to illuminate something about the person, their craft, the field, and to provide a peek into what inspires those uncovering and rediscovering our dance pasts. The interview is accompanied by a photo, giving a face to the names seen in the bylines. Often hunkered down in front of computer screens, surrounded by the papers, photos and ephemera that, hopefully, hold the answers to their questions, or sitting in the darkness at a performance, historians and writers are an anonymous force buried beneath their writing. Here is your chance to meet them.
This month's inaugural column features a mentor to many in the dance writing and history field, Selma Landen Odom. She is a guru, with a breadth of knowledge -- not only in dance but also in music -- that is astounding. After thirty-seven years on faculty in the Department of Dance at York University, Selma is retiring. It is the end of an era for certain, but as her list of current projects reveals, it is also the beginning of another.
In May, the keynote address at Selma's retirement dinner was given by Grant Strate, founder of the York Dance Department, with further commentary by a former student of Selma's, DCD's Director of Research Amy Bowring. These speeches are added to Selma's interview for our first Dance Historian of the Month posting.
We hope you are as excited as we are about “Dance Historian of the Month”. The final question I have asked of each person is: If you could travel anywhere into the dance past, where would it be?” I am looking forward to the answers and still trying to decide where I would go. If you know your chosen destination, share it with us on our Facebook page. We'd love to hear from you.
Enjoy the interview.
Name: Selma Landen Odom
Date of birth: August 4, 1943
Place of birth: Peoria, Illinois
Occupation: Professor Emerita, Department of Dance, York University
Teaching: University of Michigan 1970-72; York University 1972-2009; Continues to teach graduate level seminar courses
SB: What was your path to becoming a dance historian?
SO: I took a dance history course with Selma Jeanne Cohen at the American Dance Festival, then at Connecticut College in New London when I was nineteen. She directed us to what little there was to read, and I remember going to the library and thinking how tiny dance was in print compared to the literature and history I was reading as an undergraduate English major at the time, 1963. What impressed me most positively was writing she herself had published and the creative work she had embarked on as editor of Dance Perspectives. I began to imagine the possibility of a career in dance research.
She introduced me, in person, to the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library when I was an MA student in theatre history at Tufts University. Through her, I attended the first CORD (Congress on Research in Dance) conference in 1967, an experience which opened doors to many dimensions of dance research beyond history - movement analysis, ethnology and anthropology, therapy, science and education. It was exhilarating to meet a large network of people passionate about their work. Selma Jeanne somehow convinced Lydia Joel that I would be capable of doing a report for Dance Magazine since I was, by then, reviewing in Boston; so at the age of twenty-three, I did a report. Looking back, it amazes me that she had so much confidence in the young people she was encouraging.
We kept in touch, and I invited her to do a guest lecture on women in eighteenth-century dance at the University of Michigan, where I first taught. Soon after that I'm certain it was her recommendation that helped me move to York University in 1972 where Grant Strate was also willing to place faith in the inexperienced.
SB: What are you reading right now?
SO: I do a lot of reading online looking for research and teaching-related articles. Reading online is a tedious reality. I keep up with:
Arts Journal and Ballet UK to have a big picture of what is happening in dance - mainly in England and North America. Arts Journal is divided into different categories by artistic discipline with three or four links to newspaper articles from around the world every day in each field - I read music, dance and media; The New York Times, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star for general information; various post-secondary school, archive and library websites to track things for personal research, teaching and my students; websites for companies and events that are in the current news, for example: The Canada Dance Festival, The Cunningham Foundation or The Banff Centre; certain writers from The New York Times, Deborah Jowitt of the The Village Voice, Marcia Siegel of the Boston Phoenix, Toronto writers such as Paula Citron, Michael Crabb or Susan Walker and various British critics. I enter name searches about once a month on their newspaper websites to catch up on their writing.
I keep up with Dance Research Journal, The Dance Current, The Dance Current website, Dance Collection Danse Magazine and several other dance publications through subscriptions, but I read quite a few others at the library.
I'm usually revisiting about twenty to thirty books in some depth. I don't read them consecutively, but consult them for research and teaching by reading chapters at a time. For a sample, this is what is on my work table right now:
SB: Do you know how many volumes you have in your own collection?
SO: Have I counted them? No, but I should do that sometime. I recently donated half of my Ballet Review magazine collection to the Ryerson University Library. Ballet Review began publishing in 1965 and I have a full set. I am looking for replacements for a few gaps in the second half which I will also donate. I need to make plans for donating gifts so that other things I have will get to where they will be used in the future. I don't want to sell books and journals if they can go into libraries.
SB: When do you do all of this reading?
SO: I read constantly. It is what I spend most of my time doing. I get so into things on the subway that I forget to get off at the right station.
SB: Where do you read?
SO: It depends on the kind of reading I am doing. If it is student writing, I need to be at a table with light where I can read carefully. Academic writing requires a certain kind of attention, not only to the content but to the framework and methodology of what I am reading. I save biography and other easier reading for bed. I have a secret spot at a favourite library where the light and ventilation is good and it is quiet. I've done a great deal of writing there.
SB: Do you mark your books?
SO: Sometimes I use little Post-its. If I am reading something that is photocopied I may make a few notes on the pages. I like to write my notes in longhand on old-fashioned notebook paper. That's how I began long ago and it's how I make connections. My notes are a combination of my own thoughts and the writer's words. It is an active way of reading.
A couple of years ago I was given a tour of the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) by a friend who teaches there. I was pleased to see that in addition to the most modern technologies they still have blackboards in the lecture halls. My friend explained that many professors insist on teaching with blackboards because they are convinced that the time it takes to write out information by hand is equal to the time it takes students to absorb how to solve an equation or work out a concept.
SB: What are you working on right now?
In the next few weeks I will be presenting two different papers. The first is a talk I'll give at the University of Michigan's 100 Years of Dance Celebration. My title is “The Dance Knowledge Expansion: Generations of Research and Teaching”. I will survey the growth of dance as a discipline in the last fifty years. I started my career at the University of Michigan in 1970, so I'll reflect on what it was like to be teaching then. The second is a paper for the Society of Dance History Scholars conference “Topographies: Sites, Bodies, Technologies” at Stanford University in Palo Alto. My presentation is on Deborah Hay's 2008 work which premiered in the restored Hellerau Festspielhaus building in Dresden, Germany.
I'm currently working on my book on people and practices connected with Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a music education method which incorporates body movement. It builds on dozens of articles I've written over a long period of time.
I'm also in the midst of writing or researching several articles on topics in Canadian dance. My profile of choreographer Peter Quanz was in the March issue of The Dance Current. An interview and additional writing are online about the making of In Colour, his new ballet for the National Ballet of Canada. I'm trying to wrap up an article co-written with Johanna Householder on 15 Dance Lab. It is a collective memory of people who were there as audience members and performers. The article will be a chapter in a book being edited by Allana Lindgren and Kaija Pepper.
SB: If you could travel to an era of the dance past where would you go?
SO: I'm glad I became involved in dance writing in the 1960s. There was a lot of dance available to be seen, great ballet and modern dancers, and they were undoubtedly the reason I felt compelled to stay in the field. There's the early 20th century too, but it probably wouldn't be interesting to do what I do if I had lived then. I have built a career at the same time as the expansion of dance studies. I still remember what it was like to work in the 1960s. It was you and only a few books. Now it's a much richer and more complicated scene, and people from other disciplines are more interested in dance. There is so much more to read!
I don't know if I would do all of this now if I were young and just beginning. Computers have made other paths available to people who aren't math geniuses or neuroscientists. For me, humanities and the arts seemed the safest place to go. It was not as clear when I was starting out that you could make a career as a young woman going into the world of science or even social science. I feel glad I did what I did, but perhaps I had certain potentials that were ignored because I didn't follow those paths.
It seems strange to me to know so little about my ancestors. How would I have fit in? My parents were the first generation in their families to go for graduate degrees. I don't come from a long line of musicians or university graduates. It might not have been possible to do the things I've been very curious to do if I had lived long ago.
A connector of people, a meticulous researcher, writer and editor, a generous teacher. Selma Odom has been a seminal influence on so many dance professionals, students and colleagues and I am privileged to speak about her tonight alongside another heavyweight in Canadian dance: that would be you Grant.
When I first began my undergraduate studies in the dance department in 1990, Selma was on sabbatical so my initial encounter with her was in name only. Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt, our history teacher, kept referring us to materials in the Scott Library that were on reserve under Selma's name and I kept thinking, “Who is this Selma Odom … and why does she have so much stuff on reserve in the library?” Two years later I would get my answer.
I met Selma at a pivotal point in my dance life. Recovering from an injury, I decided to take a year off from technique and since I was already interested in history and writing, I opted to take every possible theory course offered by the dance department. I had Selma for dance writing in the first term and dance history in the second term and my mind began to explode with possibilities. After a year with Selma, the hole I had felt by my absence from the studio was filled. And her history course had created a turning point in my life when I knocked on the door of the archives/publisher Dance Collection Danse for the first time. I made sure her course assignments kept me going back there and eventually founders Lawrence and Miriam Adams let me hang around permanently.
I eventually took all the undergrad theory courses offered by the department but I still had a degree to finish so Selma let me into her graduate courses. It probably wasn't a major thing for her to do but it was catalytic for me. That boost of confidence from someone I respected so deeply focused my determination that come hell or high water, I was going to make a career of writing about dance and its history. And when the time came for me to choose a graduate school, Selma, putting aside her hat as director of the graduate program in dance, selflessly said, “I think you need to go to journalism school.” Ever the consummate pedagogue, she knew what I needed before I did. So ever the dutiful student, I went to journalism school and it was brilliant advice.
When I came back to Toronto, MA in hand, Selma was there - generous with her advice and connections. I got my first job in the dance community through her referral. We also picked up the threads of a project that had begun during my last year at York: the Canadian Dance Studies readers. Working as production editor on this project with Selma and Mary Jane Warner, as well as editors Carol Bishop and Kathy Fraser, was an amazing learning experience. I remember early meetings listening to these four women discuss style guides and which one to go with. I sat there taking notes and nodding politely but I was also thinking, “What the hell are these people talking about?” It had never occurred to me that usage, spelling and punctuation had different styles nor that they had to be consistent. Now I'm obsessed with such things and I blame them. Eventually the Canadian Dance Studies readers evolved into the anthology Canadian Dance: Visions and Stories, published by Dance Collection Danse; it is what I consider to be a very pivotal book in dance publishing in Canada. It's even had a second printing - a special distinction for a dance book.
If you have ever had the chance to read Selma's CV, you will no doubt be impressed by the sheer magnitude of her published articles and book chapters. I think she basically saw everything that was happening in dance and then wrote about it. She also has a stellar reputation for giving other writers the chance to be published. One of my biggest early writing opportunities came when Selma connected me to the editor of the International Dictionary of Modern Dance. After this tome eventually came out, I couldn't afford to buy a copy, even with the writer's discount, so Selma graciously offered to photocopy my articles for me. We went into Selma's basement office of her home and I saw, for the first time, her personal library. “Kid in a candy store” perhaps captures my expression. It was like being at the reference library but these were all hers and as I strolled through the rows of shelves bowed with weight, it occurred to me that she had read every one of these books.
I feel privileged that I get to continue my relationship with Selma through our roles with Dance Collection Danse. Selma is a long-serving board member of DCD and is a valued member of the board's education committee. In that vein, the two of us recently took a workshop at the Royal Ontario Museum about how to build education kits and discovery boxes - an exhibit-in-a-box, so to speak. During the break, I focused my attention on a piece of copy editing I had to complete. Meanwhile, Selma was working the room. Before I knew it, she was introducing me to someone she had just met - a fairly new immigrant to Canada who happened to have a dance background. That's Selma - ever the connector.
Selma's breadth of knowledge and her unwavering generosity in sharing that knowledge is legendary. During the course of nearly four decades at York, she has impacted the lives of so many people, creating networks, infusing generations with knowledge, inspiring curiosity. I feel lucky to have been one of those people.
Of the many memories I took away with me from my years as a York student, two key ones involve Selma. One is Selma's delight in a well-deserved treat. After a long editing session in a tiny room at the top of the fine arts building when we were working on the Canadian Dance Studies readers, Selma would break out the chocolate-covered cookies. She always seemed to feel a bit devilish in this indulgence but justified the choice given the dedicated hours we had just put in. When we were at our ROM workshop recently, we both picked up a chocolate cookie as part of our cafeteria lunch and I saw that old devil in her eye as she remarked on how good it tasted.
My second memory involves a dinner that Selma organized at the end of a grad course she taught on women in dance. I was 22, the youngest in a class that included mature graduate students and experienced artists. I had a quiet moment during that dinner as I took in the women around the table, strong women, creative women, intelligent women. And I had a moment of undeniable affirmation as I realized that this was the community I wished to belong to. And there was Selma at the centre of it all, bringing people together, making things happen, all in the service of dance.
The news of Selma's retirement came as quite a shock to me. It was a reminder that time really does fly. I still regard Selma Odom as a youngster but, of course, I still think of myself as a youthful man. As they say, everything is relative. From my experience, I am sure that Selma will find that retirement isn't exactly that. I have often thought that I needed a full-time job to get a rest.
When I was invited to attend this gathering in honour of Selma, I began to think back to how she first arrived at York University and the circumstances that surrounded it.
The year before the Dance Department was added to the list of Fine Arts to complete its roster of departments, I had been asked by Joe Green, Chair of the Theatre Department, to teach a course on dance history. Apparently, a committee had been formed to investigate the possibility of founding Canada's first university degree-granting dance program at York. I was not a member of that committee but Betty Oliphant, the director of the National Ballet School, was. She had been asked by Joe to suggest someone who might be willing to teach dance history and she replied“I can't think of anybody who could teach the course, but Grant Strate might be crazy enough to try.”
Well, I was crazy enough, so to prepare myself, I immediately fled to hole up for a week in the Dance Section of the New York Public Library. It was there I first met Selma Jeanne Cohen, the doyen of all dance historians. She took me under her very expansive wings and steered me through the bibliography I would need for the course. I managed to get through the year OK by the skin of my teeth, but the best thing I can say about it is that, had I taken the course myself, I would probably have passed.
Following that one dance history course, which I taught at my peril, the Dean of Fine Arts, Jules Heller, asked me if I would be interested in making a proposal for a full dance department at York. I said “no” and he asked “why not” and I arrogantly replied, “I did not think that anything about dance taught at a university would benefit the dance profession.” This very smart man then said, “Well if it doesn't contribute to the profession, we would not want it anyway.” I was hooked and asked if the university would send me to New York and London to consult with some people I highly respected, not the least being Selma Jeanne Cohen. He agreed and I set out to talk to Selma Jeanne, among others, who gave extremely good advice. The last person I spoke to was Lincoln Kirstein whom I had met before. He was not in a very good mood and after I posed the question about dance in a university setting, he answered, “Hell no! Universities never taught me Latin or Greek.” Totally puzzled by his response, I reeled out of his office knowing that I was damned well going to try. So I made a proposal to York which was backed by Dean Heller and passed by the Senate with the usual caveat “if sufficient funds are available”. The timing was right - there was money.
Although a dance history class got me into the university system, I was fully aware that I was not really qualified to continue teaching it. Selma Jeanne Cohen had already highly recommended Selma Odom, a graduate of the Ann Arbour dance department, for this task. Part of the proposed curriculum was to establish a master's degree in a Dance History and Research component in the future. For this, it was anticipated that Peter Brinson, director of the Gulbenkian Foundation in London, England, would fill the leadership position for this component. But as fate would have it, this plan did not work out. Fortunately for all of us, Selma Odom was already with us and highly qualified for the position. She took it on and as far as I know, the York U. graduate degree program was the first one to exist anywhere in the world.
During the many years that followed, Selma has proven to be a remarkable teacher who has given more to her students than any teacher I have known. She set the bar high, perhaps higher than some wished for, and she has contributed greatly to the preservation and continuation of our past and present … with a continuing eye to the future.
She never fully joined the ivory tower. To her great credit she has always assumed her responsibility to the teaching of university students unstintingly, while engaging herself fully in the dance community.
So Selma, do not think you are now off the hook. We all expect you to continue to be active and productive in the cause of dance, the art form we all love.
On a more personal note, please know I will always regard you as my dear friend.
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