UCLA Department of Dance From 1960-1990

There are as many histories of the Department of Dance at UCLA as there are students that have passed through the program and faculty who were an integral part of the program. What follows is one point of view that attempts to encompass many of the important steps that account for the critical importance and influence of UCLA to bringing the presence of dance to the larger LA community largely through its Department of Dance. It is my hope in writing that many others will be inspired to do so also and add their own thoughts and ideas. What is clear is that UCLA had a major influence and effect on the environment of dance in Los Angeles starting in the 1960s and extending to this very day, this influence taking many shapes and forms.

At the center of this picture was the emerging importance of dance in higher education. The University of Wisconsin in 1926 established the first dance major within a Dept. of Physical Education. Bennington and Mills College granted degrees in Dance from the 1930s on but their concerns were performance, not theory. It was Alma Hawkins, at UCLA, who had the courage to turn a Department of Physical Education with a specialty in Dance (already quite cutting-edge) into a Dance Department. It was the first in a state university.

Alma Hawkins came west to teach dance in UCLA’s physical education department in 1953.  As she arrived Pia Gilbert and Carol Scothorn were already on the faculty. By 1962, she had established the prototype university dance department as part of the UCLA College of Fine Arts, equal in status to the Departments of Art, Music and Theater.

Alma saw dance as much more than just physical education. She felt it was a very essential part of creative education belonging to the arts, with a rich background in history and culture. She felt it should be studied from a humanistic as well as experiential point of view. The curriculum developed not just with technique classes but also with core classes that addressed both movement and the contextualization of movement– the creative element of movement, through the process of choreography, which became a statement of self. A student, over the course of this undergraduate study, would take classes in the history of dance, the philosophical basis and trends of dance, dance notation as well as kinesiology. This was all at the undergraduate level.

Alma went on to establish a graduate program, eventually offering degrees in dance therapy, dance history, esthetics and education as well as choreography and performance. Assisting her in both the teaching and the implementation of the program were now Juana de Laban, Shirley Wimmer and Emma Lewis Thomas.

She went after grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and others to establish a Graduate Dance Center and bring major dance companies to the campus to work with the students and for public performances in Royce Hall.  Joining her in the department for this were John Martin, as special Visiting Professor, who had helped her with the original Rockefeller proposal; Marion Scott who taught choreography; and special part-time time faculty such as Jack Cole and Mia Slavenska.  The Rockefeller grant also allowed major choreographers from around the country to join us for more limited periods of time such as José Limon, Merce Cunningham and Jean Erdman.

The graduate Center was a really unique experience involving 20 students who had been specially auditioned and were awarded scholarships through the Rockefeller funding. Many of these special students went on to found the professional company, Dance/LA, as the first steps towards significant professional dance careers. The Graduate Dance Center lasted only a short time as the Rockefeller monies ended but the impact of the philosophy on the total program was significant as it had impact on the continuing standards and the vision throughout the program.  Strengthening the quality of our producing was one result, which added Doris Siegel and Malcolm McCormick to the faculty.

Alma Hawkins’ department had begun with 48 students and since then has graduated many hundreds of dance majors who have learned to influence the way we think, feel, experience dance from many points of view and perspectives while also dancing, performing, teaching, thinking, writing, researching and leading dance companies around the world.

In 1967 she had the hope of starting the West Coast Dance Film Archive, a project that was soon subsumed by the larger and more comprehensive UCLA Film Archive, but Alma was committed to film and stated in The Los Angeles Times shortly after she began the archive “Dance cannot be understood or adequately appreciated . . . nor can it be accurately recorded for posterity except on film”.  Shortly thereafter she found an ally in Allegra Fuller Snyder — but more of that in a minute since it is I, Allegra, who is writing this piece.

The same year, Alma founded and headed the Council of Dance Administrators, an outgrowth of a conference sponsored by the U.S. Office of Education, Arts and Humanities.  Under her continuing leadership, in 1979, the council published Standards for Dance Major Programs, a guide for dance certification curricula still in use today.  Along with her dance education work, Alma was a dance and movement therapist and researcher at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute for 17 years.

After graduating high school I, Allegra Snyder, became a core dancer with Ballet Society which was the first phase of what was to become the New York City Ballet but I soon realized that for me it was not enough just to dance what others told me to dance.  Next step: a degree in Dance from Bennington College with an emphasis on choreography.  My very first piece utilized the Georgia Sea Island Children’s Songs and Games from Library of Congress, which led me into an interest in other form of world dance.  I became frustrated to discover how difficult it was to get any kind of information about the movement, the dance, particularly the moving image.  This led me to film (and, yes, Bennington gave me a year’s non-residence in NYC to work at the International Film Foundation).  And finally, at Bennington, there was a young faculty member, Edward T. Hall, whose work on nonverbal communication and intercultural relations was just emerging.  Later he wrote The Silent Language  (1959) and The Hidden Dimension (1966), and he encouraged me to follow my interests in the relation of dance to culture.

These three things:  dance, film and the cultural significance of dance became the foundations of my life and actions.


A little over ten years later — now married to an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, with two children and a move to Southern California — I found myself coming to interview Alma Hawkins, Chair of the newly founded Dance Dept.  In preparation for an article, I came to talk to her about her interests in Dance Therapy, as I had already worked with Mary Whitehouse and Trudi Schoop, important Dance Therapists in the LA Area.  My initial study of world dance had led to the awareness that dance often serve a critical role in healing in world societies. I felt it was an important area to receive both acknowledgment and recognition so thought it might be an interesting article for Dance Magazine.  Somehow that conversation led me to decide to come to UCLA and get my Masters Degree.

The first project I did at UCLA in 1966 was six evenings at Royce Hall demonstrating the many important dimensions and directions of DANCE FILM.

Alma was a person of vision and I think she was particularly appreciative of her opportunity to start this department in an institution such as UCLA. One of the departments that inspired her was Ethnomusicology.  She saw a connection.  Strangely, I was asked, along with Elsie Dunin, also finishing her Masters, to sit in on all faculty meetings while we were still students. We began to explore and evolve the first elements of what was to become to the Dance Ethnology program with the enthusiastic support of Alma Hawkins and, I think, the rest of the faculty.

1967— Along with Elsie, I graduated and became a Lecturer in Dance and Film Advisor, UCLA Department of Dance. This was the start of my association with UCLA, which was soon interrupted several times.  In the Spring of 1968 I took a leave of absence from UCLA to be a staff member of the National Endowment for the Arts, Office of Dance Programs, as an “Expert” to do an evaluation of the role films could play – and did play — in their connection with dance.

In the Fall of 1971 another leave of absence, this time travelling with fellow faculty member Shirley Wimmer, which took me to Asia for research and lectures under the sponsorship of United States Information Service.  (Countries visited:  Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Ceylon, India.)

About five years after the actual birth of the Dance Department, Alma asked Elsie Dunin and myself to develop a Dance Ethnology program for the department.  Elsie and I came from different but impassioned backgrounds in the study of dance forms of the world and the understanding of their place and role in the many facets of human society.  I started teaching a series of general college classes called Dance Cultures of the World in which I excitedly used a number of films, and two newly evolving classes at the graduate level.  By 1970 it had become a clearly structured sequence of classes, and by 1980 these included six quarters devoted solely to theory and methodology as well as courses in area studies and year long sequences of performance practices.

Over the years many joined us in this area:  Margalit Oved, Medha Yodh, Mr. Suenobu Togi, the Ladzepko brothers, I Nyomen Wenten, and Judy Mitoma (in the first stages of her transition from student to senior faculty).  UCLA was not only a pioneer in the founding of a department concerned with both the theory and practice of dance, but had pioneered the formal introduction of the field of Dance Ethnology to US education.

1972 – The campus was hit by student revolutions for “more relevant Education”.  I was now an Assistant Professor.  The Dance Department took a leadership role in creating an interdepartmental, intercollege program, contributed to by six departments and two colleges:  Dance, Ethnomusicology, Anthropology, Folk Lore and Mythology, Art, and Theater, all from both the Colleges of Arts and Humanities.  I took on the role of Coordinator of what was to be called the Ethnic Arts Program, which was to be administered through the Dance Department (renamed World Arts and Cultures in 1983.)

In 1974 I became an Associate Professor and was asked to Chair the Department of Dance as Alma had reached the age of seventy and the University was requiring that she retire. Irma Dosamentes-Beaudry succeeded her in heading the Graduate Dance Therapy Program.

In 1980 – I got to be Full Professor.  1982-1983 – I took a leave of absence from UCLA to be Visiting Professor in the Dept. of Performance Studies, Tisch School of Arts, New York University, as Colin Quigley had now joined the Dance Ethnology faculty.

July 1983 brought a very serious transition for me with the death of both my parents within 36 hours of one another.  I sought, and in the fall of 1983, was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, which was to locate me in London but allowed for research throughout Europe on “Carnival” and included my appointment as Honorary Visiting Professor, University of Surrey (83-84).

In the fall of 1984 I returned to active “duty” in the Department at UCLA, but tried to cut back a little on my schedule as I had started, with my son, the Buckminster Fuller Institute.  Carol Scothorn was chair of Department during all of this previous period.  We then began to pass the Chair back and forth at the wish of the rest of the faculty.  In the Spring of 1985, I served as Acting Chairwoman.  Carol Scothorn then followed from the Fall 1985 through Fall 1990 while, in the Fall Quarter of 1986, I served as Acting Chair of the World Arts and Cultures Program, succeeding Judy Susilo Mitoma.  I resumed chairing the Dance Department again in 1990-91 while also serving as Chair of the Faculty, School of the Arts from 1989-1991.

Only in the last two years of my actual time at UCLA did I finally have time to do a class on film called “249:  Dance in the Visual Media”.  I was excited to do that and hoped it would sow a seed.  I also taught a class in both 1992 and 1993 with Irma Dosamentes on “Healing: Therapy or Rituals: Western and Non-western Perspectives — Points of productive comparison”.

I had now come full circle with dance:  film and the cultural significance of dance had remained the foundations of my life and actions.  I took retirement in 1992, along with Carol Scothorn and Doris Siegel.  Judy Mitoma became Chair of the Dept. of Dance.  Shortly thereafter a lot of changes began to occur at UCLA (because of another period of financial crisis, it was said).  Dance no longer existed as a NAMED department and its faculty was subsumed under World Arts and Cultures.  That program had been changed from an intercollege, interdisciplinary undergraduate program into a department that was able to offer a PhD — a dream, I think, Alma had always had, which, in later years, many of the faculty believed should happen as well.

There is more to this story, but others will have to tell it.

© Copyright 2012 Allegra Fuller Snyder  All rights reserved