By Allison Vernon
On August 26, 1940, the Salt Lake Telegram announced that the University of Utah had hired six new teachers for the upcoming school year, including Miss Elizabeth Hayes for the women’s physical education department. As Dorothy Stowe of the Deseret News reported upon her retirement in 1988, Hayes—the first modern dance teacher at the University of Utah—likely did not realize the profound impact she would have on the department and the university over her 48-year career. Additionally, it would have been impossible to foresee the impacts that World War II would have on the university and on modern dance in general.
Throughout twentieth-century America, modern dance has been heavily influenced by elements of context and history. The multicultural influence that occurred in the United States, particularly related to both world wars, had a profound impact on modern dance education, with many teachers incorporating styles and techniques that they learned from a variety of countries. While the world was at war in the 1940s, modern dance was becoming increasingly popular. During this time of conflict, instructors had to find a balance between preserving the diverse traditions of modern dance and establishing American contemporary dance as a unique entity. (Adams and Adams Strandberg, pp. 19-20)
“Behind the Scenes” photograph of Joan Woodbury, Shirley Ririe, and Professor Elizabeth Hayes, “Orchesis Plans Production,” The Utah Chronicle, April 5, 1955, 1.
When Miss Elizabeth Hayes began teaching at the University of Utah, modern dance was still a fairly new concept, and the university was just beginning to incorporate the style into its curriculum. According to an article from The Utah Chronicle on April 24, 1941, Hayes was able to include modern dance as a part of the annual Orchesis performance at the University of Utah during her first year as an instructor, despite the classification of modern dance as a “physical education” course. While opinions of modern dance at this time were varied, on May 1, 1941, John Whitney with The Utah Chronicle called this style a “Worthy Endeavor” and praised Miss Hayes for her innovation and artistry.
On April 8, 1942, Hayes was again heralded by The Utah Chronicle for her work as director in a review of the modern dance program. According to the article, this recital included a piece emulating the plights of the Mormon pioneers, an original folk dance choreographed by Hayes, a repeat of the popular “Age and Youth” number from the previous year, and many short dances choreographed by the students themselves. In this program, Hayes made it clear that modern dance was about using art to portray emotions and experiences, both as a method of exploration and education, which aligns with Adams and Adams Strandberg’s analysis of modern dance as an educational tool. According to an article in the Salt Lake Telegram on April 16, 1942, not only was this program educational for the dance students themselves, but also for the audiences who had not experienced this technique before.
The impact of the war was often shown in the choreography of Orchesis programs during these years. According to The Utah Chronicle on March 24, 1943, the group put on a performance that incorporated dramatic interpretations of poetry, including one piece about “the Nazi murder of the inhabitants of … Lidice.” As explained by Gottlieb in The Kenyon Review, this technique of utilizing stories to inform movement is a hallmark of modern dance, as is the incorporation of current events. (pp. 149-150)
As the war became increasingly impactful on the University of Utah, Elizabeth Hayes and the modern dance department became involved in the effort. As reported by the Salt Lake Telegram on September 10, 1945, Hayes was made a faculty member of the ROTC training program on campus. Members of the University of Utah faculty from all departments were recruited in order to utilize their various areas of expertise, and her experience as a health and fitness professor made Hayes an ideal instructor for the program. Whether it was through defiant choreography or participating in training naval recruits, Hayes and her dancers were not left untouched by the conflict overseas.
According to Stowe in the Deseret News, one of the biggest challenges Hayes faced at first was this physical education classification because she was forced to focus on the fitness aspects of her education rather than creativity. In 1966, Hayes was able to move the dance program to “fine arts,” and by 1974, students could focus on either teaching, performing, or choreographing. Hayes was incredibly passionate about teaching, and although she could have boasted of her impressive record in the modern dance department, the meaningful connections she made with her students were what meant the most.
Photograph of Elizabeth Hayes, Salt Lake Tribune, Sept. 15, 2007.
Elizabeth Hayes left a lasting legacy at the University of Utah, both in her actions as a professor emerita and as a modern dance educator. According to her obituary in The Salt Lake Tribune (2007), throughout her career Hayes contributed to the creation of a dance major at the University of Utah, the implementation of a high school modern dance certification program, and the development of modern dance programs in schools across the country. Hayes understood that modern dance was an ever-evolving art form that must be in conversation with the context of its time. To quote Hayes herself: “The technique may have changed, but the basic philosophy, that dance is an art experience to which everyone should be exposed, has not changed. Students should learn to love movement, and recognize its communicative possibilities.” (Deseret News, 1988)
World War II had a profound impact on the world, and modern dance was no exception. Where some educators struggled to find a balance between preserving tradition and pursuing innovation, Hayes was able to build the University of Utah’s modern dance program from the ground up with an understanding of the past but an eye for the future.
Allison Vernon graduated in December 2018 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Communication Studies.
“U. of U. Adds 6 New Teachers,” Salt Lake Telegram, August 26, 1940, 10.
“Dance Unit Sets Date for Revue,” The Utah Chronicle, April 24, 1941, 2.
John Whitney, “Worthy Endeavor,” The Utah Chronicle, May 1, 1941, 4.
“Dance Group Awaits Annual Recital,” The Utah Chronicle, April 8, 1942, 1.
“Patrons Hail Orchesis,” Salt Lake Telegram, April 16, 1942, 22.
“Orchesis Schedules Dance Drama,” The Utah Chronicle, March 24, 1943, 6.
“6 Added to ‘U’ Faculty, Navy ROTC Division,” Salt Lake Telegram, September 10, 1945, 7.
Gottlieb, Beatrice. “Dance Chronicle: New Trends in Modern Dance,” The Kenyon Review 12, no. 1 (Winter 1950): 148-155.
Stowe, Dorothy. “Elizabeth Hayes — She’s Nurtured Modern Dance From Bud To Blossom At the U,” Deseret News, May 1, 1988.
Adams, Carolyn and Adams Strandberg, Julia. “Access, Education, and Preservation through the Prism of American Dance,” Arts Education Policy Review 102, no. 1 (Fall 2000): 19-25.
“Elizabeth Hayes Obituary,” The Salt Lake Tribune, September 15, 2007.