The History of Dance at KU
The study of Dance at KU did not gain full academic visibility until 1985 when it was officially encompassed within the Department of Music and Dance. However, Dance had played an important role in the university’s educational and artistic life for many decades prior.
The academic study of Dance at KU has a tradition of being guided by artistic visionaries, beginning first in the 1920s with the leadership of Elizabeth Dunkel.
Elizabeth Dunkel taught dance in the Denishawn style in KU classrooms during the 1920s and 1930s. Dunkel studied at the Denishawn Summer School of Dance with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, two founders of American modern dance.
Dunkel, a 1923 KU graduate, created an honorary dance society in 1921 named Tau Sigma. Tau Sigma served as the university's dance performance group until the University Dance Company formed in 1977, after which Tau Sigma remained a student club, providing master class opportunities for all KU students interested in dance.
During her teaching career at KU, Dunkel worked with Elizabeth Sherbon, an undergraduate at KU who later earned a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education.
In 1932 after studying at the Denishawn School in New York City, Sherbon received her master's degree from the University of Iowa. Following a successful, twenty-year career in professional dance, Sherbon returned to KU to teach in 1961.
While on the KU faculty, Sherbon wrote On the Count of One, which became a widely used college text. She co-founded with her twin sister Alice the American Dance Symposia (1968-1972), which the National Endowment for the Arts called the "most innovative and important summer program to surface since Bennington." The city of Lawrence awarded Sherbon the Cultural Enhancement Award in 1993 for her contributions to the city's artistic and cultural life.
When Sherbon retired in 1975, the first major dance degree program, a Bachelor of Science degree in dance, had just been approved although it was not implemented until 1978.
Soon after this implementation in 1979, former Director of Dance at Lake Erie College, Janet Hamburg, joined the KU dance faculty. During this time and under Hamburg’s direction, the department of Dance was moved from the School of Education and into the School of Fine Arts.
Hamburg along with Joan Stone, Willie Lenoir, Mary Halverstadt, Scott Morrow and Linda Muir taught dance through 1987. Hamburg, Stone and Lenoir continued on the faculty, and in 1989 were joined by Muriel Cohan and Patrick Suzeau, each of whom had successful performing careers in New York City before forming their own duet company.
Jerel Hilding, a former principal dancer from the Joffrey Ballet in New York City for 15 years, was hired in 1990. Hilding's wife, Krystyna Jurkowski Hilding, also a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet for 11 years, joined the faculty in 1992.
Joan Stone replaced Hamburg as director of the dance division from fall 1997 through spring 2001, during which the Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.) in dance was instituted.
Hilding stepped in as director of the program from 2001 until 2006 when KU dance alumna Michelle Heffner Hayes (Ph.D. in dance history and theory, University of California at Riverside), executive director of Cultural Affairs at Miami Dade College, was hired.
In 2009, The Department of Dance became an independent entity within the School of the Arts, a component of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, along with the departments of Visual Art, Theatre, Film and Media Studies.
The Department of Dance hired James Moreno (Ph.D. in performance studies, Northwestern University) to the faculty in 2012. His choreographic project human, next, a collaboration with video artist Benjamin Rosenthal, made its New York City premiere in March 2014, with Rosenthal’s video adaptation of the work presented in video/film festivals in Athens, Greece, Weimar, Germany, Holon, Israel, New York City, and Venice, Italy. In 2016, beloved faculty member and choreographer Muriel Cohan retired and additional instructors joined the faculty to teach courses in hip hop, rhythm tap, ballet, and modern dance.
The Department of Dance merged with the Department of Theatre in the fall of 2018. Jerel Hilding and Willie Lenoir retired in spring 2020. The department welcomed Visiting Assistant Professor Waeli Wang (MFA, University of California-Irvine) in the fall of 2020. Wang teaches modern/contemporary technique and choreography. Her collaborative interdisciplinary choreography and films have shown in internationally curated performances and screenings over the last decade. Building community, experiential learning, and a dedication to diversity are central to her art-making practice and teaching philosophy.
(Content adapted from "Dance," by Janet Hamburg, in Music and Dance: A History of Two Performing Arts at the University of Kansas, School of Fine Arts: Lawrence, KS, 2007.)