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The River Erdman,” with Dr. Diane McGhee”

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    Dr. Diane McGhee, who not only teaches at the University of South Carolina and serves as a Coolidge Fellow with A.R.I.L at Columbia, but is a professional dancer and choreographer in her own right, has graciously agreed to join us in Conversations of a Living Order (COHO) to discuss her latest MythBlast essay, “The River Erdman” (click on title to read).

    Given Joseph Campbell’s popular appeal, much of which was the result of the posthumous airing of The Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers on PBS some six months after his passing, many in the broader public are unaware that, for most of their marriage, Jean Erdman was the better known half of this creative coupling. There is no doubt each influenced the other’s work.

    After Campbell’s death, Jean Erdman established the Joseph Campbell Foundation to carry on his legacy. It should be no surprise that after her own death (at age 104!), “Remembering Jean Erdman” proved one of our most animated conversations in COHO (though no longer active, you can find it in our Creative Mythology forum).

    Today’s discussion is not an interview; though I’ll pose a question or two to get the ball rolling, this is your opportunity to ask Dr. McGhee questions about her essay, the intersection between Jean Erdman’s work and the mythic imagination, and the dynamic nature of Jean’s and Joe’s relationship.

    Diane – thank you for coming to play with us this week! Given the Christmas holiday whirl, we weren’t able to follow up your December essay with a discussion (“Creative Mythology: The Choreographer and the Spectator” – well worth the read!).

    Your portrayal this week of Jean Erdman as the embodiment of the River Liffey, her best known “character” (a kinetic interpretation of Anna Livia Plurabelle, from Finnegans Wake), captures the essence of her art and the way she flowed through life.

    But, given this is your first time participating in COHO, before we discuss Jean, let’s take a moment for forum participants to get to know you. What sacred spring, metaphorically speaking, served as your entry into the field of dance? How old were you when you knew this is what you wanted to study? And what prompted you to follow an academic track – was that always part of the plan, or did your experience of dance prompt you to look deeper into its origins and influences?

    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?


    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.


    Thank you, Diane, for such elegant, rich, and detailed responses to my questions – so many thoughts come to mind! Like so many on creative quests, yours is not a linear “A leads to B leads to C” path, unfolding instead like, well, a dance!

    I especially appreciate how, even when it seems you were diverted from following your bliss, you still discovered tools and experiences helpful to the path you ultimately followed (such as the anatomy and physiology studies on that medical technology track which served you well in the field of dance). Yours is also a wonderful example of how doors do open “where you would not have thought there would be doors,” to paraphrase Campbell.

    Shifting focus to Jean Erdman, I am curious how her innovations were initially received – particularly her emphasis on story in dance, and willingness to move beyond a focus on “pure” dance to embrace other elements of the performing arts in her presentations. Did she face face much resistance and criticism after starting her own company?


    Diane, what a glorious myriad of experiences you have had in your life!

    I loved reading your journey above!

    It is like a jeweled labyrinth!

    Now it feels as though there should be two myth blasts! One for your journeys in the world!

    And another for your introduction to and knowledge and love of Jean Erdman!

    I am loving this!

    When you mention taking a “wrong turn,” in your adventures and how that led to other adventures you did not expect to have…it reminds me of the recent myth blast written by Kristina Dryza “The Myth of Missteps.” It is almost synchronous with it…that sometimes that “wrong turn” becomes the journey itself! But rather than regrets that turn led you to a deeper love of dance.

    And when you mention wanting to be a mechanical engineer…I laughed because my Mom wanted to do something similar (I think work on helicopters) but she faced similar barriers. She did work punch cards at Lockheed back in the day but went into her other loves: astronomy and art.
    Thank god for Lockheed though or she wouldn’t have met my Dad!
    I strayed only a little from the field…found a love in dance. Thanks to my Grandmother suggesting it might be nice for me to take it for balance and coordination. Though in my first class at 4 one would not have guessed I would love dance. I stared at my feet in the air for the whole pre-ballet! 😅

    Those feet have done a lot of tapping since and bared  the burden of some years of point. And enjoyed modern and free form. And sharing steps and guidance with students.

    But this is exciting!
    I am so thrilled that you are a part of CoHo!

    Love the metaphor of Jean Erdman as the River Liffey but it’s also true as she choreographed and performed that role!

    I know it’s not quite the same, but since you mentioned Ireland, Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance” and “Feet of Flame” come to mind.

    The little fey flute girl I believe is supposed to represent the Spirit of Ireland or the land.
    So I’m fascinated to see these types of connections translated into dance, which bring an extra radiance to these stories and images!
    What you write about Jean and the River Liffey, reminds me a little more of a work of fiction based on the Finn McCumhal legend in which the authors imagine Brigid (the Goddess of smith craft, inspiration, poetry and fire) to be a part of the land.  Bonfires are lit all over Ireland or Eire and they conjure Brigid’s image and energy as a Goddess of the land.

    One of the things I really love about both your journeys (Diane and Jeane) is how much freedom each of you had in those adventures! It’s very beautiful!

    And yes believe me I know there was hard work as well!

    But I take in mind that if one chooses or is privileged to go far say in a ballet company, there might not be as much freedom. One can be beholden to the artistic director’s paintbrush. And even very good dancers might not always move beyond the Corps.
    There was a time when ballet dancers needed to be more uniform in appearance in order to not stand out. Thankfully some of that is changing. And I’m thankful for the ballet I’ve had and the teachers (it is a backbone of dance) but I’m also aware of it’s “shadow side.”

    But every time I read more about Jean Erdman, I am impressed with all she did and within her time! Even in the thirties and forties! And it’s remarkable! Of course the director of a modern company has the first say so too…

    But to me, it feels like it would have been a freer experience for those who danced as part of Jeane’s company. And if she choreographed a piece on someone, I have the impression that she would be taking all she knew about their qualities of movement in mind as well as encouraging inspiration. And that it would feel like one of those wonderful and challenging mentors on the best journeys rather than a “guru of dance” who needs dancers to be “mere paint on a canvas,” rather than something dynamic as a living breathing person or living breathing people being part of the work…the art.
    Not that there aren’t beautiful ballets as well. And not all artistic directors are so “static.”
    My mind was blown, when I found out that Joseph Campbell’s wife was a dancer! Did not find out until after reading Reflections of Living. 
    At 10 or 11 I was too young to appreciate the “Power of Myth” series though I sort of knew who Campbell was through my Mom.

    Then when it re-aired, at 17 I was ready! And had to find as many Campbell books as possible!

    Then to find that Jean Erdman had danced with Martha Graham! And started her own company! Too brilliant!

    After a few summers taking classes at Alvin Ailey, I learned appreciation and humility for the style of Martha Graham as well as Lester Horton.

    But enough on me…

    This is what I love so much about your journey Diane! How all those twists and turns bring these crossroads and synchronicities and connections!
    So then you come full circle and meet Nancy Allison! And meet that River Liffey (The River Erdman)through her!!

    I completely agree with you and Stephen that anything on Joe Campbell is not complete without Jean Erdman who was well known and respected in her own right!
    And I have to laugh at her “taking off” and leaving Joseph Campbell to hold the fort as “she went on her own journeys!” Oh Goddess that’s fantastic!

    Have to wonder if he ever mentioned being the one waiting behind? Or was he too stubborn to do so? (Hehheh)

    Or perhaps I need to go back to the Ecstasy of Being again (which was a treasure in Campbell’s works I never expected to find!) I can certainly see how Jean influenced more nuanced perspectives (grin.)

    But what is so cool is that Jean travelled the world! And thanks I imagine in large part to her Joe Campbell extended his travels!

    This is why the story of The Two of them is important!
    For a while, I have had the impression, that most surface readers of Campbell assume he was some kind of professorial armchair mythologist who read dusty old tomes by old authors rather than someone who experienced world journeys himself.
    Or someone who was married to this Dynamic dancing river who freely danced her own powerful course across history!
    But I should have expected that dynamic when Campbell said “Jean is the one who drives the car.” Hehheh. I think it was a wee bit more than that!

    And I think it is absolutely glorious all the paths that you Diane have experienced in your life and Jean in hers!

    I wonder if Jean were in the prime of dance now…would she do anything differently?
    I can tell that both you and Jean had great respect for learning dances from other cultures including indigenous ones and showed respect in incorporating those dances into new inspired pieces. Sort of as you said a fusion of dance.

    From what I have read of Jean (as well as from you now) it felt like she was welcomed when she traveled to foreign places and that her dances were well received. It felt like glimmers of cultural exchange that kept growing across time. Love it!

    But I also take in mind that things are more complicated now. In Jean’s time it’s incredible what she did and achieved. But many cultures have become very protective of their traditions. So it feels that one would have to not only be respectful but ask permission for “using inspiration.” I certainly understand!
    And I’m sure Jean would follow through! But I also know that some cultures who feel they have more of a voice today want to be the ones who speak about and perform their own traditions. And they may not want outsiders involved at all beyond just watching and learning about those traditions from those cultures themselves. They might see fusion as too much “borrowing.” Or “philosophizing” as “misrepresenting” their own words or experience of being a living members of certain cultures.

    I think that would be a challenge for Jean and Joe as well. But thankfully Jean was able to make all those beautiful works of living art in her time and shared them with us!

    Of course there is always Robert Mirabal the Pueblo musician (who had experience with traditional and modern dance and was a world traveler) And he enjoyed opening the barriers to share his work with everyone, while still remaining deeply respectful of his Pueblo traditions.

    I think there was a CoHo participant who had the privilege to see Jean perform live and it brought her to tears!
    (maybe Marianne? Stephen. Can’t remember now.)

    Okay sorry for this long and winding road Diane. But wanted to thank you again for not only your lovely essay on Jean Erdman, but also sharing adventures from your own life story!






    I am honored to be a part of this conversation, Stephen.  Thanks to you and all members of the Joseph Campbell Foundation for celebrating the life of Jean Erdman! I greatly admire the unfolding story of Erdman’s artistry as it evolved over more than half of the twentieth century. Erdman is an early model of an enterprising modern woman who trailblazed creative approaches to dance making and theatrical performance.

    I appreciated your observations about my personal path, Stephen. My career journey has followed the focused path of a labyrinth; it is unlike the structure of a maze, which offers numerous choices. No matter the challenges or dangers or the journey, I remain energized to follow its course! We may often imagine a labyrinth to be two-dimensional, however as you have implied, my path was intricately folded and twisted rather than linear.

    Redirecting the conversation back to Erdman, I believe it was young Jean’s determination, courage, intellect, and phenomenal physical abilities that earned the attention of Martha Graham, both at Sarah Lawrence College and during the summers at Bennington College School of the Dance in Vermont. While at Bennington, Erdman had opportunities to study with contemporaries of Graham, many of whom were fiercely independent women and dance pioneers in their own right. Each choreographer advanced a personal theory and approach to dance-making and the training of the body. Young Erdman associated with these strong women, models of the feminist lifestyle. Graham specifically encouraged Erdman’s speaking talents and used them to the fullest in the revised masterpiece Letter to the World (1941). Erdman was confident in her vocal abilities due to skills already developed through performances of ancient hula chants learned in Hawaii. Although Martha Graham did not wish to lose Erdman from her troupe, Graham was aware of Jean’s talents and independent track. Additionally, Campbell had much influence on the trajectory of Graham’s body of work. Subsequently, Graham, Erdman, and Campbell remained lifetime friends.

    Erdman’s curiosities were noticed and appreciated, especially by her academic advisor, Joseph Campbell. He introduced Erdman to deep studies in aesthetics, mythology, and philosophy. Campbell became Erdman’s most stalwart supporter at a time when Jean’s career began skyrocketing to stardom.

    Erdman took risks by performing with Merce Cunningham beyond the realm of Graham. She danced duets with up-and-coming modern star Erick Hawkins and performed in work by Anna Sokolow. Jean was fully engaged in the experience of being alive! The young dancer desired to learn as much as she could from as many sources as she could access. She was respectful to her teachers and kind to her peers. Other dancers were eager to work with her. Erdman’s early choreographies were welcomed and well-received for their ground-breaking insights. I do not see evidence that resistance stood in the way of creative growth at this time. However, after a brief stint teaching and performing with the New Dance Group (1943-1949), she painfully broke away to assert a more profound artistic direction.

    Ultimately, Erdman internalized and synthesized all that she learned from both the early modern dancers and various cultural traditional practices. By digging deeply into primordial and common connections, she explored a full range of human movement possibilities. Subsequently, she created her own theoretical approach intended to train all levels of dancers. Forming a company seemed to be a natural development that aligned with Erdman’s expanding explorations in choreography. Although she experimented with singular aspects of total theatre during that time, it wasn’t until 1960 that Erdman fully embraced the direction and renamed her company the Jean Erdman Theatre of the Dance.

    Erdman’s perspective on a choreographic subject or theme developed as she experimented with movement sensations derived from within the body. She explored psychological and emotional states to make them visible in human form. The abstracted results often revealed a psychological stance or archetype. If a narrative seemed present in a dance, that perception was most likely constructed by the viewer but not necessarily intended by the choreographer. Erdman’s dances did not dictate a line of thinking or meaning, rather, the actions, shapes, dynamics, symbolism, and metaphorical meaning often pointed to the sublime and transcendent.


    Hi Sunbug:

    Thanks for your sweet note. I hear your exuberance for Erdman, Campbell, and for everything dance! I see you are also quite the follower of Irish talent and lore. You stirred my interest regarding the prevalence of Irish bonfires.

    Interestingly, although I did not become a mechanical engineer, I am privileged to use all the same principles of physics; instead of using them for merely functional reasons, all dancers use them to create artistry with the body.

    I see we have had some similar experiences. I agree that Ecstasy of Being was an important release for the Joseph Campbell Foundation. I am also glad you mentioned Lester Horton. He remains a legend that is known mainly through the Ailey tradition. I love the Horton technique and have used it extensively when teaching youngsters in Boston. The urban students craved the physical challenges and the discipline it commands. They also identified with the members of the Ailey company and the work of Alvin himself.

    Jean was not one to borrow another’s tradition. From my own experience, sometimes one is given permission to participate or perform various rituals or traditions. For Jean, the differences in various world styles and their unique aspects were as spectacular colors selected from the entire spectrum of colors of the world’s peoples. Erdman diligently studied how the beliefs and values of a people informed the movements choices made visible in a particular dance or style. Erdman’s inspirations were derived from the primordial origins and stylization of the elements, which she often connected to images that arrive from the collective unconscious.

    There are quite a few dancers, musicians, production and other theatrical people who had the opportunity to work with Jean Erdman in the latter decades of her career. Many people who knew Jean came together in New York to celebrate her 100th birthday with a presentation of her dances.

    Thank you for the chat.


    Thank you Diane for your nice response to me as well!
    Love that you have trained youngsters in Horton! I am sure it meant a lot to your students!

    I remember being enraptured by the djembe style drums at Ailey. The live drumming in Horton classes! It was electrifying and elemental…loved it! Even a basic across the floor combo came alive with the beat of the drums.

    I have the highest respect for Jean Erdman and now you Diane!

    What you say in the quote below, I feel to be very true!
    And I love how Jean opened up dance into story and as you said experimenting with movements to evoke the energy of the elements.
    Last year when Nancy Allison presented a video celebration…I was thrilled to see the choreography of Hamadryad! Maybe those new Tolkien screen writers should take note dare they include dancing elves!
    Even in the photos of Jean dancing she commands a presence and energy!

    And here is your quote. THIS feels right: 🙂

    Jean was not one to borrow another’s tradition. From my own experience, sometimes one is given permission to participate or perform various rituals or traditions. For Jean, the differences in various world styles and their unique aspects were as spectacular colors selected from the entire spectrum of colors of the world’s peoples. Erdman diligently studied how the beliefs and values of a people informed the movements choices made visible in a particular dance or style. Erdman’s inspirations were derived from the primordial origins and stylization of the elements, which she often connected to images that arrive from the collective unconscious.”

    To me this represents a playful maturity and a deep inner wisdom…

    (from both you and Jean) 🙂

    something we need more of!

    So thank you to both of you!



    I am appreciative and grateful for your comments!

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