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A Legacy of Dance: Shirlee Dodge

Shirlee Dodge founded the dance program at The University of Texas at Austin in 1943 and built a legacy formed from two continents, the womb of modern expressionist dance and a lifetime devoted to true creativity.

Legacy is vital in dance. Passing from one generation of dancer to the next through the sweat and dedication of practice, dance thrives, evolves and sustains in the light of legacy. Shirlee Dodge founded the dance program at The University of Texas at Austin in 1943 and built a legacy formed from two continents, the womb of modern expressionist dance and a lifetime devoted to true creativity.

From an early age Dodge danced her way through life (tap and acrobatics) with her sister in Vaudevillian acts until she discovered a new way to move and express in the performances of Mary Wigman. An acolyte of Rudolf Laban, Wigman is considered by many to be the founder of modern dance in Europe. At the age of 21, Dodge traveled to Europe with her University of Wisconsin Dance classmates. She convinced her parents that she needed to remain in Europe to study with Wigman in Dresden, Germany. She graduated from the Mary Wigman Central Institute in 1939 with three degrees: Professional Theatre Dancer, Pedagogy for Laymen Dancers, and Pedagogy for Professional Dancers. Later, armed with international experience, an artistic pedigree from the leading edge of modern dance and a professional teaching and performing career spanning parts of Europe, New York and the midwest; Dodge was invited by Anna Hiss (Head of The University of Texas at Austin Department for Physical Training for Women) to found a creative dance program for the university in 1943.

Within two years, Dodge was able to bring the dance program to the College of Fine Arts under Dean E. William Doty. Dodge not only taught dance, but choreographed and performed as well. This began the dance education of university students, as well as the Austin community. In a 1946 program letter, she wrote:

“Creative Dance, like any art, is a matter of personal experience. This experience can be the act of the dancer or the act of the spectator. In a dance concert, a true aesthetic fulfillment is that performance throughout which a free and flowing communication is established between the dancer and his audience.

[….] It is impossible to describe dance with words. Dance is a language which must be met in terms of its nature. As sound is to music, as words are to literature…so is movement to dance.” (Shirlee Dodge, Dance Sketches, 1946)

Dodge achieved full professorship at the university in 1965. She and her colleagues B. Iden Payne, Loren Winship, E.P. Conkle, Jim Moll and Fran Hodge, were forces that shaped the department and the standards of excellence that the faculty and students relentlessly pursue to this day.

Taking a snapshot of the dance program today, it is inspiring to see the thread of legacy continue to be spun. The department’s dance faculty share with Dodge the philosophical perspectives of individual creativity, the professional experiences of working internationally, and making the teaching aspect of this art form a central part of the experience. The bachelor of fine arts in dance, which started in 1998, focuses on three fundamental elements of study to support students living life on a dancer’s journey: performance, creativity and pedagogy. All of these were fundamental to the creative life of Shirlee Dodge.

There are many ways to measure success. One is to look at the success of the pupils. While an educator cannot take credit for students’ innate talents, mentors like Dodge do play an undeniable role in nurturing talents to realize their fullest potentials. Possibly one of the greatest successes has been that of alumnus Tommy Tune, winner of nine Tony Awards and the National Medal of Arts, to whom Dodge was an important “haven of sanity.” (Tune, 1998) Tune is a hard act to follow, yet theatre and dance alumni continue to impact the field with great success from New York to Los Angeles; from Maine to Mexico; onstage, behind the scenes and in the studio.

Today’s university dance program is a true partner in the Department of Theatre and Dance, and is considered a model for other programs. The department has evolved greatly since the days of creative dance in P.E. programs. The dance program is developing scholarships, taking students to Europe to perform and study, presenting choreography at the Kennedy Center, and seeking ways to constantly improve the student experience through repertoire, facility improvements, and guest artist interactions. The momentum is compelling. Dance at the university stands to continue as a driving force in the department, the college and the nation.

Contributed by David Justin, Associate Professor of Dance

Photography courtesy of Pam and Edmund McIlhenny


The Shirlee Dodge Theatre and Dance Endowment was recently established by Shirlee’s daughter, Pam McIlhenny and her husband Edmund. This endowment will honor Professor Dodge’s legacy by supporting The University of Texas at Austin dance program and awarding scholarships to the most talented dance students.

To be a part of this meaningful tribute to Shirlee Dodge, you may make a gift online or by check made payable to ‘The University of Texas at Austin’ and mail to:

Michele Baylor, Director of Development
The University of Texas at Austin
Department of Theatre and Dance
1 University Station, D3900
Austin, TX 78712

For additional information, please contact Michele Baylor at 512-475-6291. 

Monday, May 7, 2012