Dancing Queen

    Alumni Award recipient and Alberta dance trailblazer Dorothy J. Harris, ’46 BA, tells us why “to dance is to live.”

    By Erica Viegas, ’06 BCom on August 8, 2014

    “To dance is to live,” laughs Dorothy J. Harris, ’46 BA, realizing that she has just quoted Snoopy. The 89-year-old has devoted her life to helping others discover a love of movement — a love she brings to every day. Even while gardening, she purposefully stretches, bends, reaches and sways. To Harris, if you can move, you can dance.

    One of this year’s University of Alberta Alumni Honour Award recipients, Harris initiated a wave of creative dance in Alberta. In 1964, Harris, then a professor in the U of A’s Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, drew inspiration from Margaret H’Doubler, her dance mentor at the University of Wisconsin, and founded the U of A campus’s Orchesis Dance Group. The group’s aim was to provide U of A students with an opportunity to dance in a vibrant, creative atmosphere outside of the classroom, regardless of their dance training. For most students, Orchesis was a first glimpse into modern dance, a way to convey emotion and tell stories through deliberate body movement without the defined structure or specific footwork prevalent in other dance forms.

    “Modern dance is wide open, with incredible variety,” says Harris, who still attends each of Orchesis’s annual performances. “It can be what you want it to be.” Orchesis students encouraged Harris to create even more dance programming. She helped to develop the Alberta Dance Alliance and the Dance in Canada Association, as well as Dance and the Child International, which encourages international dance leaders to help children around the world share their dance experience.  

    Harris, who retired from the University of Alberta in 1990, was instrumental in laying the foundation for the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation’s dance program, which today includes academic classes in modern, jazz, ballet, folk, and the study of dance for children, to name just a few. In 1988, she received a Rutherford Undergraduate Teaching Award. Later, the Dorothy Harris Dance Award was endowed in her name by alumni of Orchesis Dance Group. Berkley Laurin, ’90 BPE, the 1989 award recipient, had the honour of personally studying with Harris: “Dorothy saw in each individual their potential. I learned more about me from Dorothy than I did about dance.”

    “I think sometimes the way you skip along the street when you are happy or just in a hurry is itself a beautiful dance.” 

    Harris’s passion for dance also inspired the creation of a number of other modern dance programs and companies now flourishing in Edmonton, including Mile Zero Dance and the Good Women Dance Collective. Their success isn’t a surprise to Harris: “Dance is such a natural human thing. People are drawn to self-expression because we see ourselves in dance.”

    Many of Harris’s Orchesis students have gone on to become renowned choreographers or dance professionally in international touring companies. Tamara Bliss, ’96 MA, current Orchesis dance director, continues to maintain Harris’s philosophy and vision for the group, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2015. “Dorothy is a pioneer in Edmonton’s modern dance scene. She has influenced hundreds of dancers,” says Bliss. “I am humbled by her conviction for something as basic as the human right to dance.”

    Spending time with Harris, it is easy to feel inspired. “You don’t have to be able to move everything. I can sit here and dance my chair,” she says, joyfully tapping her feet and swaying her arms in the air. “I think sometimes the way you skip along the street when you are happy or just in a hurry is itself a beautiful dance.”