The University of Alberta Orchesis Dance Program was established by Dorothy Harris, a professor of dance, and award winning educator, in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation (Now Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport and Recreation) in 1964.

 Dorothy Harris, founder of Orchesis Dance Group at the University of Alberta

Dorothy Harris,
Orchesis & Dance program founder

University of Alberta


Harris was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and a disciple of Margaret H'Doubler, a professor of physical education at the University of Wisconsin, who, in 1918, established the first dance degree program at an American university.

H’Doubler chose “Orchesis” as the name for a group of students there who wanted to dance more outside of their classes.

To H'Doubler, herself a graceful dancer and exceptional athlete, dance was a vital force in the total development of the individual, and Orchesis implied the combined sciences of movement and gesture.

Her idea of dance was to foster social improvement, physical well-being, and artistic enrichment, to realize the Greek ideal of balance between the intellectual, the physical and the spiritual. Dance could both express and foster a generous social spirit that could be passed onto other communities.

Subsequently, the name Orchesis was used by other North American colleges and universities for their extracurricular dance groups. By the late 1960's, Orchesis groups numbered over 200. It is unknown how many Orchesis groups exist today.

Orchesis dance, 1950. UW-Madison Archives

Beginnings at the University of Alberta

There was a void in the dance scene in Edmonton and with the advent of Orchesis, Harris initiated a wave of creative dance in the mid-1960s that has taken on a life of its own in the present vibrant dance community.

For Harris, Orchesis encompassed all of the ideals of her mentor, but most importantly, Orchesis was to provide students with "a chance to dance" in a performance context.

With fellow dance professor Joyce Boorman, Harris aimed to stimulate an appreciation and understanding of creative dance in the larger community. It began with the academic course PED 405 -  Introductory Modern Dance, a required third-year course for women, and the only creative dance activity in Edmonton at the time.

The first performance in 1965 was a lecture/demonstration in the West Gymnasium to introduce and explain this "strange" mode of dance to the curious audience. The audience was captivated; Dorothy Harris had started something wonderful, and Orchesis took flight.

In 1966, Focus on Modern Dance was mounted in Corbett Hall with the technical and production assistance of Studio Theatre and the Drama Department. For the 1967 Centennial, Orchesis received a sponsorship of $165 from SUB to costume and advertise Modern Dance Mosaic for the Second Century Fine Arts Festival. It was standing room only.

For the record, Jazzy Cats, danced to Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme was the first Orchesis dance distinguishable from the required PED 405 creative process.

In 1968, creative energies were redirected to a Western provinces dance workshop, which lead to new alliances and networks. The University of Alberta Orchesis and the University of Calgary Dance Club presented joint programs in 1969 and 1970, entitled Dance Montage in Calgary, and Dance Motif in Edmonton.

By 1971, the University of Alberta/University of Calgary joint program had ceased, but both groups had established a strong local performing interest to match the new audience support.

The 1972 production (of Dance Motif) sold out. Jacqueline Ogg continued to choreograph and contribute as a representative of the Drama Department. In 1973, Orchesis partnered with the Edmonton Youth Orchestra and the Centennial Singers to produce Can We Get There by Candlelight? - a Christmas program.

From 1974 to 1976, Orchesis ventured into a new endeavour: Orchesis Improvisational Dance Theatre. It aimed for exploration; the discovery of sensitive inter-relationships as experiences, rather than deliberate steps toward choreography and performance. This new experimental direction acknowledged that some explorations could spontaneously evolve into their own forms. These new forms were presented in A Studio Dance Production.

By 1977, Orchesis had returned to the magic of the theatre environment with Dance Motif.

The 80’s and beyond: Orchesis matures

Dance Motif's primary objectives are to enhance the learning experience, and provide performance opportunities for students. The performance also strives to educate audiences about dance, and to make dance visible in the campus community. The audience base established by Orchesis activities prepared the local market for professional touring dance companies and other dancers who began establishing their own companies.

Orchesis has been the foundation for various other activities. The Saturday Jazz Dance program, coordinated and taught by Harris’s daughter, Vanessa Harris, has been offered for the past 40 years. Orchesis director Ruth Bartman, along with other members, formed a local touring group called Moving Images in the early 1980's. bodyvoice improv (1996-1998), a dance improvisation collective, was formed by graduate student Victoria Thoms to foster creativity in its members in a trusting, non-threatening environment.

In recent years, Orchesis has taken its dances to Camrose, Red Deer and Fort McMurray, participated in dance conferences, held orientation performances on campus and participated in NextFest and Feats Festival of Dance.

The 1988 performance at the Calgary Olympics is a highlight in Orchesis's history. Orchesis performed in the Olympic Arts Festival Danscene, held at the University of Calgary. In conjunction with the Festival, the University of Calgary Dance department hosted Canada's first national conference for post-secondary dance programs, Danscene: University and Colleges. Danscene assembled a showcase of collegial dance participants from across the country, and Orchesis connected to the glory of the ancient Greek games and the spirit of national and international camaraderie.

Orchesis continues today with Dance Motif within the University of Alberta community. Orchesis has established itself as a collaborative effort between academic staff and students with the ongoing support of the Students' Union and the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation.

Orchesis draws its membership from students, staff, alumni, and other members of the community. Many Orchesis members and alumni have established professional careers in dance performance, education and programming.

Over the course of its history Orchesis has presented the works of over 300 choreographers and performers, including the following professionals: Peggy Baker, Maria Formolo (Formolo Dance), Pamela Grundy, Danny Grossman Dance Company, Dana Luebke, Sun Ergos, Debra Shantz, Mile Zero, Charlene Tarver, Gerry Trentham, Dancemakers, Triangles, Brian Webb (BWDC), Vanessa Harris, Darold Roles, Ron Shuster and Kompany!, Tamara Bliss, Kathy Ochoa, Kathy Metzger, Tony Olivares, Dorrie Deutschendorf, Jodie Vandekerkhove, Laura Krewski, Sharon Richardson, Cori Caulfield,  Helen Husak, Geraldine Manossa, David Flewelling, Jeannie Vandekerkhove, Josh Beamish, Emily Noton, Sarisa Figueroa de Toledo of DJD, Kathleen Hughes, Farley Johansson of Science Friction Dance, and for the 50th anniversary Motif 2015, Peggy Baker and Brian Webb.

Since Dance Motif 2006, we have been fortunate to have received the financial support of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts in the form of a grant for Orchesis' guest choreographer program for Dance Motif. This support has enriched our dancers' experiences immensely and we gratefully acknowledge this generous  support.

Orchesis has featured other dance organizations as an outreach component of its performance programming, including Alberta Children's Creative Dance Theatre (ACCDT), Edmonton Dance Centre, Edmonton Contemporary Dancers, Edmonton Festival Ballet, GMCC Children's Dance Education Program, performers and choreographers from the GMCC dance program, Victoria High School, and Alberta Ballet School.

The University of Alberta Orchesis Dance Group has thrived for five decades owing to the belief and commitment to dance of its directors, Dorothy Harris, Joyce Boorman, Marsha Padfield, Ruth Bartman, Cathy Black and since 1995, Tamara Bliss.

In the 2015, Orchesis celebrates 50 years of Dorothy Harris's recognized vision. We are pleased to recognize all those people, past and present, who have kept the spirit of Orchesis alive through creative vision, membership, commitment and sense of community. The lineage of dance continues to the present--just ask anyone who has had "a chance to dance!"

This written history is adapted from the original article by Karrie Darichuk, a former Orchesis dancer for over fifteen years. The original article appeared in the 35th anniversary Dance Motif 2000 program.