Any student that has been involved in the dance program at MSU over the last 30 years knows Dixie Durr. Dr. Durr was, in a sense, the cornerstone of the program for all those years. Tragically, she passed away from cancer six years ago, but her vast and interesting collection of documents, photographs, letters, and dance materials is now processed and available for research.
The Dixie Durr papers contain dance and theater records dating from the 1950s up to the mid-2000s. Her academic materials comprise one box, which contains information about the
dance curriculum, as well as materials about the transformation of the dance major through its stages as a major, minor, specialization, and eventual merger with the Department of Theater.
Another box contains the records of the various workshops in which Dixie Durr’s students participated. There are over a dozen dance companies from across the country that Durr was able to bring to MSU’s campus throughout the last 30 years, as well as workshops that the students were able to travel to out of the state. The materials of MSU’s own company, the Repertory Dance Company, can also be found here.
Another three boxes contain a large assortment of photographs and slides from the last 50 years. These include individual portraits of student dancers, posed group pictures, rehearsal shots, and both dance and theater performances.
All of the materials regarding performances can be found in an additional box. The shows are separated by title, and include any relevant correspondence, newspaper clippings, show programs, or rehearsal notes about the performance. Programs from the dance department and the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts are also included.
(Parts of the following information are taken from Dixie Durr’s “History of Dance at Michigan State University Brief Outline,” Box 4136, Folder 42)
Dance has a long history at MSU, where it began under the jurisdiction of the Department of Physical Education, and was a regular part of the curriculum for female physical education students. There is no exact date for the beginning of dance being taught on campus, but there is evidence showing that the honorary organization Orchesis was presenting dance concerts in the 1930s.
The earliest dance program consisted of only the most basic dance courses. Demand for dance increased in the 1960s, however, and Jazz, Ballet, Methods of Teaching Dance, Choreography, and Dance Production were added to the curriculum. Students in the Methods class taught weekly dance lessons to local children. Then, the Men’s and Women’s Physical Education Programs merged in the late 1960s. Students and faculty were able to remodel Orchesis into the MSU Repertory Dance Company and eventually gain greater visibility. Dance concerts also started to be planned in conjunction with the sound experts, costume designers, and lighting professionals of the Theater Department.
In 1978, the dance major was introduced through Justin Morrill College. New programs allowed for the student’s dance education to be more incorporated with the world. Dance majors now studied Physiology and Anatomy, Philosophy, History of Dance, and advanced technique classes, in addition to their previous core courses. Unfortunately, the dance program underwent great upheaval again in the early 1980s. Due to poor economic conditions in Michigan, MSU was forced to cut multiple departments, including dance. Fortunately, the program was put under the auspices of the Department of Theater as a Specialization, where it has been able to remain and continue spreading the “gospel of dance” to students from every discipline.
Dixie Durr herself started at MSU at some point in the 1960s, where she taught dance until she retired in 2005. Durr received her PhD from Ohio State University, her MA in theatre from Michigan State University, another MA in the Anthropology of Human Movement from New York University, and her BA in dance from Butler University. She was also a certified teacher
of Labnotation. A number of dance journals have published Durr’s work, and she is also highly accredited for her choreography work while at MSU.
Her obituary states that Dr. Durr also, “was a member of the Professional Advisory Committee to the Dance Notation Bureau, a member of the Board of Directors of the American Dance Guild, and president of the Michigan Dance Association
from 1987 to 1989. The National Dance Association recognized her with a Presidential Citation in 1994. In 2004 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Michigan Dance Council. At MSU she was a member of the Faculty Professional Women’s Association, serving as president. Durr was the recipient of the Paul Varg Alumni Award for Faculty presented by the MSU College of Arts and Letters Alumni Association and recognized by the College of Education in
2006 with a Crystal Apple Award.”
Dr. Durr’s legacy of hard work and commitment lives on in her students, who have gone on to spread dance to the greater world by becoming professional performers, teachers, or just life-long lovers of dance.
The theater department is as active as ever on MSU’s campus. To learn more about their curriculum or performances, visit their website here.