Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Reflections: Dorothy Harris

I know I kind of left things hanging with my last post and that you're all desperately wondering about the fate of the silkworm. Fear not, the conclusion is still coming  I'm about halfway through composing it and, let me tell you, it's an emotional roller coaster. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll get grossed out and say "eeewww" over the close-up photo of a big, fat, worm. 

But before all that happens I wanted to post something that has nothing to do with houses, trees, or the fair treatment of insects (I get the hankering to do that sometimes). This is an entry I wrote while manning the Feats Festival of Dance blog back in July 2013. It's about the illustrious Dorothy Harris  Edmonton dance pioneer and guest of honour at this weekend's fiftieth anniversary gala for University of Alberta organization Orchesis. The blog I originally wrote the following for is no longer in existence, so I thought I'd give it a second life and once again send a big thank you into the universe for Orchesis, Dorothy Harris and the magnificent art form that is dance.

Because the University of Alberta's Orchesis has been such an important part of my own life, I wanted the first "Reflections" post to focus on Dorothy Harris—the dance group's founder. I had the pleasure of meeting Dorothy at an awards luncheon, where she regaled me with tales from her past lives—and I use the plural here because, when it comes to dance, she's done it all. Performer, dance educator, dance advocate—Dorothy is the reason Orchesis is nearing its fiftieth birthday and, because of what she created, modern dance at the U of A continues to be a positive force for students, alumni, staff and the larger community.

Dorothy Harris,
circa 1939.
Dorothy began studying dance at a young age and she notes that, as a youth, she didn't even know modern dance existed. It wasn't until moving to Wisconsin to study kinesiology that she was exposed to this particular (and sometimes peculiar) form of expression. There, she met Margaret H'Doubler, who in 1918 had created the first Orchesis dance group. Though Dorothy never completed her degree at the University of Wisconsin, her time spent with Orchesis made enough of an impression that—when she began teaching for the University of Arkansas' physical education department—she decided they needed an Orchesis program of their own.

After finding a husband in the young man who took care of Orchesis' music (she laughed as she told me, "I married an Arkansan!"), Dorothy headed to Edmonton for a job with the University of Alberta's Office of the Registrar. But dance quickly called her back when an opening arose in the Faculty of Physical Education. In 1964, Dorothy began an Orchesis dance group at the U of A and credits Maury Van Vliet, the Faculty of Physical Education's Dean at the time, for his support of dance education. "He really turned me loose and said 'go ahead.'"

Dorothy (far left) with a late 1960s Orchesis class.
From there, Dorothy—along with various colleagues, contacts and friends—spent the next several decades ensuring that dance had a place in Edmonton and beyond. They created the Alberta Dance Alliance and ensured dance academia was included in Canadian physical education conferences. According to Dorothy, there was always a strong dance presence in this province, but her focus was on creating connections between different styles and different individuals. In essence, to create a community of support and mutual respect. "The arts seem to draw such wonderful people. Everything we ever tried... if we believed in it—it worked."

A page from the program for
Orchesis' Dance Motif 1972.
As for Dorothy's thoughts on Edmonton's current dance scene, which she retired from over twenty years ago? "I think there are some wonderful things going on right now, but—about dance—I feel like I did that." Dorothy admits the only dance event she currently attends is the U of A's annual Orchesis performance, Motif. She still loves dance and all it represents, but has other interests now—such as gardening. Not to mention her children and grandchildren. "I've had the most wonderful life that anybody could have. It's all been very worthwhile—not just for me, but for all the people I've worked with and played with. I'm the luckiest person alive."

And now for something I think is pretty darn cool... While visiting the "Dance Dungeon" (a storage room at the U of A where the Orchesis archives are kept) with Orchesis' current director Tamara Bliss, I was able to obtain a video clip from Dance Motif 1972. The older Motif performances have yet to be digitized, which means I got to dust off my VCR (and if you're reading this and don't know what a VCR is... go ask your parents). I filmed the following video with a digital camera as it played on my TV screen, so please excuse the quality. Still, I think it's worth viewing, particularly in the spirit of this year's Feats Festival's theme. So, take a gander—and reflect for a little while.

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