DANCE HISTORIAN OF THE MONTH
Welcome back to “Dance Historian of the Month”, where 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. As has been revealed in our previous interviews, there is no one way into the field of dance history/writing/researching/curating; and once in, the path is not delineated, its end goal is only the open window of discovery.
This month’s interview is with dance artist, scholar and educator Anne Flynn. Born and raised in New York City, Anne grew up going to Radio City Music Hall, and experiencing Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp performances by the time she was seventeen. These shows peaked her interest in modern dance and led her to train at The State University of New York (SUNY) Brockport where dance scholars Cynthia Novak and Susan Foster were on faculty. An unexpected job posting took her to the University of Calgary in the late seventies where she became part of the dance education faculty. At this time, alone and in search of a community, a hopeful look through the YellowPages led her to Lisa Doolittle’s studio Co-Motion. The two have worked together in many capacities since, including as co-founders of Dance Connection magazine, and are currently at the tail end of a SSHRC-funded book project examining multiculturalism and dance in Canada titled Assimilating Bodies.
Anne reflects on being hired to a non-fine arts faculty and being forced to get over self-proclaimed pretenses, going from the avant-garde 1970s New York dance scene to teaching dance on a football field to any student who was interested, alongside her “populist” colleagues. She credits this shift with redirecting her to where she happily is today.
Anne is a vibrant and insightful woman who has “walked the line” with professional dancers and dance enthusiasts alike and who is dedicated to examining how dance has and can enrich all lives. It was a true pleasure listening to her path this far.
Enjoy the interview.
Name: Anne Flynn
Place of birth: Brooklyn, New York
Date of birth: August 11, 1955
Current Employer: Professor, University of Calgary Department of Dance
SB: What was your path to becoming a dance historian?
AF: I started dancing at home in the kitchen in Brooklyn with my dad. He was an amateur vaudeville performer, although he was a banker by profession. He was born in 1915 and grew up in New York in an Irish-Catholic immigrant community – singing and dancing were just part of that environment. My dad was a really good singer; his two brothers were singers and he had a friend down the street who had a piano. Together they performed on amateur radio shows because you could win money. His claim to fame was that he came in second to Jackie Gleason in a competition. We also went to see the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes every Christmas and Easter, and to some Broadway musicals. I have such vivid memories of going to those shows. Soundtracks to Broadway musicals would be playing on the record player at home. I learned how to ballroom dance with my feet on my dad’s shoes as we danced together watching The Ed Sullivan Show and The Mitch Miller Variety Show on TV.
I took a few tap dance classes down the street at Miss Renee’s. Her son was a Broadway show dancer and we all idolized him. I really didn’t dance again until I was in university. I was a swimmer, I played tennis and I was a cheerleader at an all-girls Catholic school and we cheered for the girl’s basketball team – it was not typical. There was choreography involved and annual competitions for cheerleading squads – it was a big deal to make the cheerleading team. That’s where I learned about choreography and I loved it. I think I had a facility for it. It wasn’t until I went to college that I joined a modern dance club. Part of that came out of having been a high school student in New York City. I saw the Alvin Ailey Company, and the Joffrey Ballet performing Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe (1973) when I was seventeen years old. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, I want to do that.” When I got to my liberal arts college they had a modern dance club and I joined. The year I joined the physical education faculty of SUNY Cortland College, the member who usually taught dance was away and the replacement, Karen Potter, had worked at the Eric Hawkins Company and taught Hawkins technique. It was my first exposure to modern dance training and I took to it. Karen was very encouraging. There was a recital at the end of every year; she put me in a piece. She had brought her mentor in from Texas for the performance and afterwards there was a debrief, and the mentor said to me, “You should keep dancing. Is it possible?” I said, “Well I live in New York City.” He said, “So it’s not a problem.” After that I started taking classes. I worked all day at the J.P. Morgan bank on Broad and Wall Streets where my father worked, then went to Hawkins technique classes in the evenings. When September came, I went back to SUNY Cortland for two days, but they didn’t have a dance program. I called my parents and asked, “Can I drop out of school? I promise I’ll go back, but I have to find a dance department because this is what I want to do.” I started taking modern and ballet classes and researching schools. There was SUNY Purchase College and SUNY College at Brockport. Purchase had a required audition and I was too scared, but at Brockport you could go for a semester and then audition. So I went to Brockport. When I got there, Cynthia Novak and Susan Foster were teaching and Richard Bull was head of the department. There were fifteen or sixteen faculty members and it was a fantastic place. There were Limón and Cunningham teachers … I completely fell in love with it. For the rest of my summers and professional training I went to the Cunningham studio or trained with people who had danced in the company – June Finch, Melvin Wong, Viola Farber. I worked with Richard Bull’s Improvisational Dance Ensemble because I also took to improvisation; it resonated strongly with me.
A year after I graduated I was working with Richard’s company – it’s a bizarre story. Dianne Woodruff, who was teaching at York University in Toronto at the time, had come to Brockport to teach for a short period, and so knew about the Brockport program. When the University of Calgary (U of C) was hiring someone to teach modern dance in the physical education program, Dianne sent the notice to post on the Brockport dance department bulletin board. It said something like, “No one at York is interested in this! Maybe a recent grad in your program would be interested.” I know it is hard to imagine today that there would be an ad for a university dance job and not one person was interested, but there it was. I thought, “Oh. Well …” and I applied. At the ninth hour I got a telephone call. I flew there, taught, gave a presentation on my philosophy of dance and education and the next day they offered me a nine-month job. It was in the fall of 1978. I became part of the dance education faculty.
The focus there was on “dance and education”. There were two Laban-trained faculty members with a focus on creative and modern educational dance; another colleague with a Ph.D in dance anthropology (before it was fashionable) who was an expert in international folk and social dancing. I know that because I did not get hired in a fine arts faculty with an exclusive focus on modern dance, the course of my career was altered. I was part of a team whose knowledge and experience in dance was different than mine. It helped me to see, because I lived it, this “high” and “low” art divide. I had been trained through the 1970s New York avant-garde dance scene, but there I was interacting with colleagues who were populists. Working in that kind of dance education environment, I was perceived, by the dance profession, as not really being a dancer, though I was performing and choreographing and teaching. There were times in my twenties when it was challenging, but I am really glad that it happened. It helped me get over myself and whatever pretenses I may have had coming from New York. In 1979/80 I was teaching dance in the football field to anyone at the University of Calgary. We had dance appreciation days and we would be out there teaching class after class. I ran a huge program in the evening for people who were just interested in dancing. Those influences have stayed with me. I supervise a seniors’ program now in a multicultural environment in downtown Calgary. I have tried to walk that line with people who want to be dancers and dance majors, and working with people who will never be expert dancers but are just interested in dance.
I really had to learn to be a generalist. Although I was hired to teach modern dance I wound up teaching “The Fundamentals of Rhythm”, “Dance History”, “Dance Kinesiology”, “Dance Production”. In the late 1980s, when the Dance in Canada Magazine was winding down, I was president of the service organization Alberta Dance Alliance (ADA) and the trio of us who produced the ADA newsletter – myself, Lisa Doolittle and Heather Elton – said let’s make a magazine. We launched Dance Connection magazine in December 1987/January 1988. For the first issue, we had put the wrong date on the cover. We picked it up from the printer and there was the wrong date! We had completely screwed up. It was the early, early days of desktop publishing. Heather was on the cutting edge of Apple technology and it enabled us to experiment. This whole approach of not just focussing on theatrical dancing was the trademark of Dance Connection. We had cover issues on belly dancing and square dancing. I did graduate work at Wesleyan University in the 1980s where diverse thinking and approaches to dance studies were happening. Susan Foster, Cynthia Novak and Richard Bull were there at that time. I followed them. Susan’s Reading Dancing came out in 1986 – the whole field of dance studies was really developing at the time. Dance Connection was an opportunity for Lisa and I to experiment.
Becoming a dance historian wasn’t anything that I set out to do. It happened over time rather than me saying, “I want to be a dance historian.” When I was doing my graduate work at Wesleyan, I was allowed to transfer a course to my university and I took a Women’s Studies course at the University of Calgary in 1983/84 with Elly Silverman. She was part of an early generation of women to research women’s history. Elly became a real mentor and I made the connection of dance as being women’s history. The absence of the stories and the sense of all of this physical labour being completely unimportant with regard to recording it, struck me. There was a moment when I made the connection between dancers who had long careers and women working their whole lives without any recognition.
The fact that my own parents were getting older was a factor too. My father was a great storyteller, and it suddenly dawned on me that there will come a point when you want that story and you won’t be able to ask for it. I thought, “I need to start asking people about their stories.”
I began contacting dance people in Calgary who were elderly and asking, “Would you let me interview you?” I was invited, through Elly Silverman and The Humanities Institute at U of C, to a conference about feminist research methodologies in the mid-1980s. I used this as a beginning opportunity to collect women’s dance history. One thing led to the next and I became more and more interested in trying to document these dance histories before people died. No one knew anything about the decades these people had spent in the dance business. I feel like I didn’t come to it from a scholarly perspective. It struck me on a very personal level.
SB: What are you reading right now?
AF: I have a few things in circulation for research and teaching. One of them is the Postcolonial Studies Reader 2nd Edition (eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin 2006). I just bought Worlding Dance: Studies in International Performance by Susan Foster (2009). Another that is not directly dance related is a collection of essays, Moving Writing: Crafting Movement in Sport Research (eds. Jim Denison, Pirkko Markula 2003). I’ve been working on a piece about the history of dance and physical education in Canada. It is about Canadian dance education’s existence in dance and physical education programs. It is more of a theoretical paper than historical. It explores the easy and uneasy fit between dance and sport and about the differences in approaches. Movement is the commonality in each field, but the framing of sport and dance is different. There are stereotypes about sport and dance culture, but underlying those is a philosophical discussion. The paper asks more questions than it answers. I think that the expressive nature of sport is ignored. There is a lot being expressed in someone’s drive to a finish line. We have oversimplified the complexity of what is going on in sport pursuit. On the surface sport is about competition, and dance is about artistic expression, but there is a lot of expressiveness in individual and team sports activities and a lot of competition in dance. Certainly, I’m not a sports studies specialist. I’m sure people who focus on sport studies have written about this, but there are so few conversations that take place across disciplines. People move in their own circles, but we’re all relying on the same critical theory, it is the application that is different.
SB: What else are you working on right now?
AF: I’m on sabbatical right now and one of the things I’m doing is taking VHS recorded interviews that I did over twenty years ago and having them digitized. One of the interviews is with Ruth Carse, the founder of Alberta Ballet. I was looking through the videotapes and there was Ruth in her apartment living room in Edmonton!
Lisa Doolittle and I are still finishing the Social Science and Humanities Research Council-funded book Assimilating Bodies, a collection of studies on multiculturalism and dance and Canada’s choreography of nationhood. We’re at the stage where two of the case studies are coming out in the journal Discourses in Dance.
A third case study, which is about Blackfoot dance, called Performing Negotiations was accepted at The American Society for Theatre Research and The Congress on Research in Dance’s joint conference in Seattle in November. We have been invited, along with Troy Emery Twigg, to be plenary speakers. We recently had a ceremony at Red Crow College’s Blackfoot digital archives. Twenty-six hours of oral history interviews conducted by Lisa and Troy were presented on National Aboriginal Day. The transcripts, which are now being finalized, will be housed with the DVDs and uploaded on the Blackfoot digital archives.
One of the case studies for the book Assimilating Bodies came about in a really bizarre and unexpected way. The carpets were being replaced in my office; I was piling books into boxes and I was about to pack another stack and saw a tiny 6×4 inch yellowing program for The Great West Canadian Folk Dance, Folk Song and Handicraft Festival, March 19-22, 1930. The only explanation I could think of was that my colleague Sylvia Shaw had given me some books when she retired and the program must have been inside one of the books. I went to the phone and called Lisa and said, “The most bizarre thing just happened.” It was page after page of folk dancers on stage. Well … this is our SSHRC-funded project.
SB: Had you heard of the festivals before?
AF: Very little had been written. I now know so much. They were Canadian Pacific-sponsored festivals. We spent five years researching them.
The most uncanny part is that in March 2008 the Calgary Herald ran a full-page story in a weekly spot for Calgary history on the anniversary weekend of the festivals. I gave the art director the program and four photos were chosen for publication. Most of the dancers in the program weren’t named, just labelled “German dancers”, or “Dutch dancers”. I asked to have my email address included in case a reader knew anything. I got three responses from different parts of the country. That’s it, from the thousands of newspapers that go out! They were all referring to one photograph of four brothers called The Reich Brothers. They had performed in 1929 in Regina and the photo was used on the following year’s Festival program cover in Calgary. At the same time, my husband James’s mother called me up to say that his great-aunt Anne’s cousin had called her to say “there’s a picture of our father in the Calgary Herald”. Then one of James’s cousins sent the original photograph. I had complete verification. I wound up meeting many of my husband’s relatives whom he knew nothing about. He had no idea that these men had performed in these festivals.
SB: That’s unbelievable. Do you have things undone that you’d like to do?
AF: One of the things Lisa and I have been talking about is where does all the multicultural historical dance research lead us? We both come to dancing as practitioners. We believe so much in the action and doing of dancing, in the capacity of dance to make us feel well and transform our consciousness – as a tool for well-being and joyfulness. One of our ideas is to conduct action-based research – research that looks at the practice of dancing in relation to identity in Canadian culture today.
SB: How did you meet Lisa?
AF: When I came to Calgary in September 1978 I was completely alone. I got out The YellowPages and looked under “dance”. I saw something called Co-Motion, it seemed different than Betty’s Dance School or something like that, and I called and Lisa Doolittle answered the phone. She had just moved back from NYC and that was it. She had a studio, I suddenly knew some artists and Lisa knew all about the NYC modern dance scene. I’ve known her since 1978. We have a very long history. The companionship that Lisa and I have has been so tremendous. I feel like we think better together because we can talk things through.
SB: How do you approach your writing?
AF: We divide things up. I often take a stab at mapping out the whole plan and Lisa is just brilliant at filling in the gaps. We send it back and forth. Lisa is a very good writer. I think, I hope, we both feel that we’ve benefited from each other’s strengths. And, it’s so great to share with someone – to have someone else who is willing to dive in and to go deep. The communication has kept it lively. We present together and have someone to travel with. We’ve had some very pleasant adventures going off to conferences and in sharing excitement and publication. I feel incredibly fortunate. I know people are so amazed at how we write and work together. It also makes you accountable to someone else. It is not as easy to put off a deadline when someone is waiting for it.
At this stage I am interested in finding funding to make it possible for people to dance. The physicality of dancing is its heart. I’ve been reading about brain research and they’re saying that we are really wrecking our brains by not moving around and all of these scientists think dancing is the answer. I just want to use my time to make opportunities for people to be dancing.
I feel like I could stay doing what I’m doing for decades and there would still be so much more to do.
SB: If you could travel to an era of the dance past where would you go?
AF: The Savoy Ballroom. I would be dancing with Frankie Manning in the Savoy Ballroom. I would be his partner Norma Miller. I love his spirit of dancing. It has to do with New York too. My parents were hanging out in New York in the 1930s. The swing era really resonates with me. It was couple dancing, but women had a lot of freedom in that form and could just bust loose in terms of their physicality.
- Dancing Bodies, Living Histories: New Writings about Dance and Culture, Edited by Anne Flynn and Lisa Doolittle
- Anne Flynn is currently on the faculty in the University of Calgary’s Department of Dance
- At the U of C she was instrumental in the creation of the B.A. Dance degree and is Manager of the Department’s Urban Dance Connect, a community dance project
- In January 2015 Flynn created a piece entitled I Always Look Forward to Tuesdays as part of Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo arts festival. The piece features a group of 16 people with Parkinson’s Disease, their spouses, children and caregivers doing a swing dance. Flynn presented the show as “a unique form of performance research paper. It’s part of a federal grant she received to analyze the quantitative and qualitative benefits of dance on Parkinson’s patients”.
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