Dancing on the Shoulders of Giants

Sabrina Madison-Cannon’s parents had a simple reason for sending their four-year-old daughter to her first dance lesson.

“My parents thought, ‘It would be great to put her in something that makes her more graceful, because she’s pretty clumsy,’” says Madison-Cannon.

They had no way of knowing that she was taking the first steps on a journey that would take her around the world as a featured performer with one of America’s most celebrated modern dance companies.

As a dance-obsessed teenager in the small college town of Iowa City, Madison-Cannon convinced her parents to let her attend an out-of-state performing arts high school for her senior year: the National Academy of Arts in Champaign, Illinois. Then, she headed straight to New York City in 1985 to try out for a competitive professional training program at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater—named after the legendary African-American modern dancer and choreographer who founded the company in the late 1950s.

“People come from all over the world to audition,” says Madison-Cannon. “There were about 150 women that auditioned on the day that I auditioned, and they took 14 of us. Everybody had some bit of aptitude toward performance, but I think they were able to sense a higher level of passion and grit from those of us they accepted.”

Madison-Cannon’s next stop was the Philadelphia Dance Company (affectionately known as Philadanco), where she spent seven years doing what she calls “the best job on the planet,” as a soloist touring all over the world. She performed a diverse repertoire that was created by a rotating cast of guest choreographers each season—a fusion of traditional dance techniques, such as ballet and modern, with African and jazz styles influenced by pioneers like Katherine Dunham and Lester Horton.

“I performed in great theaters in Europe, and I also performed in juvenile correction facilities in Philadelphia,” she says. “I performed in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and I also performed in the inner-city schools in New Orleans. And what I learned from that experience is just how much the arts can impact people from all backgrounds.”

Philadanco was another modern dance company that had been created by an African–American iconoclast. Joan Myers Brown trained to be a ballerina in the ’40s, when few ballet schools in segregated Philadelphia would accept black students. She couldn’t get hired at a professional ballet company, so she started her own dance school to nurture the next generation of African-American talent.

“I remember at the time thinking, ‘Joan Myers Brown, she’s really tough on us. There’s no pleasing her,’” says Madison-Cannon. “Looking back on it, I know now what she was pushing us to do—achieve everything she knew we were capable of. And when you did get those, ‘Hey, that was great,’ boy, did it mean a lot to you, because she didn’t just hand those out gratuitously. You had to earn that.”

After years on the road, Madison-Cannon went back to school in 1996 and earned a master of fine arts in dance at the University of Iowa, where her father had been a mathematics professor.

Her love of teaching grew with faculty appointments at Southern Methodist University in Texas, and then the Conservatory of Music and Dance at the University of Missouri–Kansas City (UMKC), where she became the first woman of color to be tenured and promoted to full professor in the conservatory’s 113-year history. She especially enjoyed pushing her students to explore the boundaries of their art form, including assignments to create public performances in unusual places.

“Their only charge was that it had to be on campus, and it had to be someplace where they had never seen anyone dance before,” she says. “I had students dancing on the stairs in the engineering building, and on top of the parking garage . . . everywhere.”

It wasn’t long before she got promoted to associate dean, with oversight of the undergraduate curriculum, faculty affairs, and other matters for music and dance.

“I wasn’t sure if it would take me too far away from the students and from the creative aspects of what I love about my job,” says Madison-Cannon. “But once I started it, I realized how much energy I got from supporting the mission of the institution and how much of an impact I really could have by doing that.”

Madison-Cannon says she was thrilled when she was chosen earlier this year to succeed Brad Foley as the next dean at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance. During the interview process, UO president Michael Schill posed an intriguing question to her.

“His question to me was, ‘What areas of the university do you think the School of Music and Dance can collaborate with?’ And I said, ‘Every area. I can’t think of an area that we couldn’t or shouldn’t collaborate with.’”

Her collaborative mindset comes from firsthand experience. When professor Steven Davis, UMKC’s director of bands, mentioned that his conducting students often developed chronic pain after wielding the baton for years, Madison-Cannon offered a potential solution, based on her work training dancers. Perhaps a personalized Pilates program, designed to strengthen key muscle groups and improve posture, could help prevent injuries, she suggested.

They needed data to support their theory, so they developed a pilot study with Gregory King, associate professor of mechanical engineering at UMKC’s Human Motion Laboratory. Digital sensors were used to track changes in the student conductors’ posture over the course of a 10-week Pilates regimen.

“Sabrina’s a great person to work with,” says King. “As an engineer, a lot of times we fall into the trap of being a solution looking for a problem, and so we try to find people to work with who can define the problem very well. Sabrina is definitely one of those people.”

It’s the kind of interdisciplinary research that Madison-Cannon hopes to foster at the UO, when she becomes dean this month. Other items on her agenda include increased integration with the Oregon Bach Festival, which moved under the auspices of the School of Music and Dance last year, and closer collaboration between music and dance with regard to curriculum and programming.

She’s also dedicated to the university’s goals of increasing student access and diversity. It’s a mission she understands from a deeply personal perspective.

“In 1956, when my father went to graduate school, there weren’t a ton of people coming out of inner-city Memphis, Tennessee, going into mathematics,” she says. “Today, we have far fewer barriers when it comes to engaging students from underserved populations. Since we have the opportunity to get our faculty into those neighborhoods or into those schools, we have an obligation to get instruments into the hands of those students.”

An obligation and an opportunity, says Madison-Cannon, to offer others some of the same chances she’s enjoyed throughout her career, thanks to the brave African-American arts pioneers who blazed a trail before her. Opportunities that, for her, began with a four-year-old taking her first dance lesson.

—By Steve Fyffe

Steve Fyffe is director of communications for the School of Music and Dance.