Dean of Music and Dance works to boost women in higher education

As a professional dancer, she traveled the world, but also performed in juvenile correction centers, inspiring disadvantaged young people.

Today, as Dean Phyllis and Andrew Berwick and professor of dance at the OU School of Music and Dance, Sabrina Madison-Cannon promotes the advancement of women in higher education by advocating for the gender equity and equality, and inspiring collaboration and empowerment.

“Celebration of the Uncommon Woman,” a ballet program featuring the combined work of five female choreographers, premiered in February at Eugene Ballet. “And Then There Were Five”, choreographed by Madison-Cannon, was part of this celebration.

Eugene Ballet director Toni Pimble first produced “Celebration of the Uncommon Woman” in 1992 to showcase women’s work in the predominantly male field of music composition and dance choreography. Although progress has been made, 30 years later, female choreographers are still struggling to be recognized, especially in ballet. A report of Dance Data Project found that most works are still choreographed by men.

Q: Do you think it’s been harder for women to break through the glass ceiling in ballet, and is it harder for women of color to break into choreography and leadership roles?

CMS: There seem to be more female choreographers doing contemporary choreography than ballet, but I don’t have any empirical data on that. I can’t really say if it’s been harder for women of color than our white counterparts, because I can only speak from my experience. I think women in general have not always been encouraged in this space. Just like in STEM fields, young girls were often discouraged from embracing a love of math and science. These times seem to be slowly changing, but it took a very long time. Too long.Q: What made “Celebration of the Uncommon Woman” different?

CMS: I believe this is the first time that I have taken part in a program that deals only with women’s work.

Q: How did the five pieces work together to represent the theme of the “outstanding woman”?

CMS: I don’t know if they were meant to work together as all the pieces are so unique from each other. I think they complement each other though. And it showed the audience what powerful voices we have.

Q: What did you like the most about the collaboration?

CMS: See my work on a program with a bunch of other very accomplished female choreographers.

Q: What was the audience’s response?

CMS: Cheerful and grateful.

Q: Your contribution among four other choreographers was “And Then There Were Five”, which was performed worldwide. You described the piece as “overcoming, supporting and surviving – putting one foot in front of the other”, and that all of your works are in some way based on a personal narrative. Can you summarize the message of the work and identify how the work expresses your own story?

CMS: I don’t usually share the storytelling details of my work because it prevents the viewer from seeing their own story. It’s important to me and it means a lot more to them than my story.

Q: According to your biography, your mentor and role model was African-American dance pioneer Joan Myers Brown, a trained ballerina who, after being denied admission to Philadelphia, started her own dance school. How important are mentors and role models and how can they inspire the empowerment of young women?

CMS: Incredibly important. Joan recently turned 90 and continues to give tirelessly to the Philadelphia dance community. She is a force to be reckoned with in every sense of the word. She continues to inspire me every day.

Q: There are so many women’s stories to tell. A diversity of voices on stage and behind the scenes is needed. As Dean of the School of Music and Dance, other than the courses offered in dance choreography, what advice would you give to students who would like to pursue a career in choreography?

CMS: As with everything…keep experimenting, find your voice, seek mentors, don’t give up.

—By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications

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