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Reply To: The River Erdman,” with Dr. Diane McGhee”

#74511

Thanks for your questions, Stephen. Please permit me to answer them one at a time.

What sacred spring, metaphorically speaking, served as your entry into the field of dance?

My attention and affinity for dance evolved through childhood and adolescence. My native Irish aunts heartily encouraged me to imitate traditional dance jigs and reels when I was merely a toddler. Additionally, like other American girls of my time, I participated in a neighborhood after-school dance program. For me, formal training began in the first grade. I excelled in ballet and tap activities and was surprised to find myself top in my classes. After the fourth grade, the program ended. Yet, in my mind, I continued to choreograph dancing bodies in my mind. Perhaps these early experiences were predictors of my future career, but I pursued other ideas and activities, especially art and music.

I was a New Jersey tom-girl and part of my daily exploits, besides baseball, competitive swimming, and basketball, was adventuring in the forests and swamps. I could be found scouting from a treetop or trailblazing in the wilderness as the indigenous tribes might have done before the colonial presence. I built shelters and collected supplies of blackberries, wild onions, and asparagus. I imagined myself in survival mode with nature.

I acquired a strong desire to explore from my father. In his early career, he had sailed the world as a merchant marine. He had tours in the Middle East and into the ports of India. Our home was filled with artifacts from his trips. Images of Hindu gods and goddesses were ever-present. With my parents, religion was constant but not stressed. My paternal great grandfather, a Protestant preacher, traveled through the cornfields of Illinois before establishing his own church in Chicago. Since my mother was Catholic, with my father’s permission, I was also raised as a Catholic. My great-great-uncle, Michael Augustine Corrigan, had been the Archbishop of New York in the 1800s. He was responsible for building St. Patrick’s Cathedral as we see it today. I had an internal calling to understand these varied religious approaches and I was interested in how people of diverse beliefs practiced them. This was the environment, mindset, and interests of my youth. Unbeknownst to me, I was circling the labyrinth of my future career.

How old were you when you knew this is what you wanted to study? 

I stepped over the threshold of the labyrinth and found myself in the dark regarding my career path. In high school, I was determined to be a mechanical engineer. In the late 1960s, females were highly discouraged from that male-dominated profession; instead, I was directed toward the medical field or a teaching career, which were considered more “respectable” for women. I was not in favor of either direction, but nevertheless, I began a medical technology track with studies in anatomy and physiology; these studies served me well later in the dance profession. As a freshman, I realized I did not want to work in a medical laboratory. I began to round out my experiences and seek a profession that would include the arts; an educational track would permit that option. Thus, I began the formal start to my interdisciplinary pursuits. I still did not know that a dance career was an option.

During the first week of my second college semester, I had an event that changed my life. I mistakenly entered a college dance class being led by a non-English speaking choreographer. I was invited to stay and learn numerous dances of Mexican states and cultures. I had “found my bliss” and immediately signed up for every dance class offered at this Virginia college. I suddenly realized that dance was the ultimate synthesis of the arts combined with the physics of the body. I sometimes experienced “resistance” to my choice of what seemed to be two disparate professions, education and dance. I had no preconceived notions of such delineated lines.

During the summers of my college years, I was a paid dancer and assistant choreographer for Anheuser Busch. I also did professional voice-overs for their television commercials. Upon completing a bachelor’s degree in education with a minor in dance, I was ready to join my family in South Texas and desired to teach immigrant children; however, the cosmic powers devised a different arrangement for my life.

I was surprised again when a former college professor offered me a position to teach college classes and to perform, choreograph, and tour with a professional dance company in residence at the university. I was also offered free tuition to earn a master’s degree. Additionally, I pursued deep dance studies of Israeli, Ukrainian, Southern Appalachian, and Italian Renaissance styles. By age 23, I was employed as full-time faculty at a university in Maryland. I taught every course in the dance curriculum and directed the dance company. My duties included teaching classes in the modern styles of Graham, Cunningham, and Hawkins. I also taught repertory choreography and ballroom dancing. Eventually, I changed academic and performance jobs but continued to earn wages as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher/professor for the remainder of my years.

I added value to dance companies by organizing bookings, teaching workshops to adults and children, choreographing, and offering artistic residencies. I was first introduced to the spiritual concept of a mandala when I became a resident choreographer for the Mandala Folk Ensemble, a 35-member Boston troupe of singers and dancers with orchestra; the company primarily toured along the east coast and sometimes in Europe.

What prompted you to follow an academic track – was that always a part of the plan, or did your experience of dance prompt you to look deeper into its origins and influences? 

I believe you can now see how my academic track was integral to my education and career selection. My work was artistically satisfying. I was fortunate that academia offered a myriad of dance study opportunities and research-related projects. One early project involved studying the indigenous dances of tribes across the southern continental United States. Along a “Trail of Corn,” I followed the corn motif in dances, regalia, customs, foods, and art. Another project permitted me to travel through Kenya by invitation from Kikuyu tribal elders, who were also prominent religious leaders. I learned about their creation myths and the history of the tribe. I discovered connections between traditional tribal dances, colonialist influences, and popular dances. These understandings gave me an informed view of cultural fusion, which I studied within the reverential dance of contemporary East African Christian churches. In a project that took me to Egypt, I was inspired by the ancient mythologies and the belief system found in the Book of the Dead. Also, academic research permitted me to investigate cultural variations of labyrinths, from which I created a lengthy contemporary dance, Entering Samsara.

I’m also curious – did your interest in mythology and religion and dance in other cultures lead you to Jean Erdman, or was it your interest in her work that opened the door to these fields of study? 

This is kind of a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” question.

I became intrigued with the work of Campbell after I became aware of Jean Erdman’s artistry. In 1983, I was at the presentation of the Heritage Award given to Jean Erdman by the National Dance Association. In 1988, I was one of the millions of American television viewers who saw Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth series with Bill Moyers. Although Campbell mentioned his wife was a dancer, I missed the connection that it was Jean Erdman – the dancer – who was married to Joseph Campbell – the mythologist. Still, I was astounded at the implications of Campbell’s observations and theories of comparative mythology with their profound implications for my own work.

In the late 1990s, in collaboration with the American Dance Legacy Institute, I advocated to preserve and disseminate important but lesser-known American modern dances of the 1930s through 1950s. Dances were selected and reformed into student studies known as etudes. The repertoire was created by members of the New Dance Group, a collaborative known for its social-justice activities. Early members included Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow, Eve Gentry, and Donald McKayle. Elders of the Group gathered at the National Museum of Dance where I wrote curricula about their dances. Later, I disseminated the etudes and curricula to public school dance teachers and programs in the Carolinas and New York. Jean Erdman had been a member of the Group for a short time, but I had not yet studied her dancing.

I was deep in curriculum work when, in 2003, I was blinded in a car accident. I spent much time healing my soul and body in a monastery where contemplative prayer took precedence. New meanings came to light from Campbell’s works, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Pathways to Bliss, and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. My miraculous recovery was in the hands of the doctors and the gods.

I returned to the dance profession and academia about 2007. In 2013, I met Nancy Allison at a dance conference in Miami. Nancy is the “keeper of the keys” to the Jean Erdman archives at the New York City Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division. She pointed me in the direction of investigating the life and dances of Jean Erdman – Joe Campbell’s wife. That was the “V-8” moment when my life’s studies suddenly and sensibly converged! Immediately, I felt compelled to learn as much as I could about Jean Erdman. I was able to access the archival collection in 2014. I was grateful for my extensive studies on Campbell, for I could not have fully appreciated Erdman’s life choices and choreographies without them. I am now completing the process of writing a biography about Erdman. I am finally exiting the path of the labyrinth that began decades ago.