Dance professor lauded by national archive

Faculty of Fine Arts Professor Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt has been named Dance Historian of the Month for August 2011 by Dance Collection Danse (DCD), Canada’s national dance archives.

This monthly series features interviews with Canada’s notable dance historians, with the goal of illuminating aspects of the person, their craft and the field, and to provide insight into what inspires those who interpret dance history. DCD puts a face to the byline – the writers who are often hidden Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt with the cover of her book The Ballet Classbehind the computer screen – and gives credit to historians as the intangible forces that spur dance on.

Right: Norma Sue Fisher-Stitt with the cover of her book The Ballet Class

Fisher-Stitt is the 13th historian to be profiled and the fourth York faculty member in the series. Previously DCD honoured York University Professor Emerita Selma Odom (the inaugural Dance Historian of the Month) as well as Professors Mary Jane Warner and Carol Anderson.

The Q&A-style feature on Fisher-Stitt, written by Carolyne Clare, is posted on the DCD website. It takes readers through the beginning of her dance career, as a young girl taking ballet lessons in a church basement in Scarborough, to training at Canada’s National Ballet School, followed by four years as a corps de ballet dancer with The National Ballet of Canada under Rudolph Nureyev, through to her teaching career at York and her ongoing research.

“Fisher-Stitt became an accomplished scholar and has published widely,” said Clare in the article’s introduction. “Her love for dance education motivates her continued dedication to the field and the joy dance brings her is evident in her work.”

Even as a young dancer, Fisher-Stitt knew she wanted to continue her education at the university level. She earned her BA and MFA in dance at York (in ‘78 and ’86 respectively) and segued directly into teaching ballet at the University after completing her undergraduate degree.

“I only found out that I loved teaching when I started teaching,” said Fisher-Stitt in the interview. “Leaving performing is always very hard. Performing brings exuberance to your life that is difficult to replicate. However, I found that teaching was rewarding in a different but equal way. Similarly to performing and researching, I found teaching to be creative and interactive.”

In 1993, Fisher-Stitt undertook her doctorate in dance education at Temple University in Philadelphia, as there were no doctoral programs in dance in Canada at the time. Her dissertation studied the impact of incorporating a computer tutorial into dance education. At York, she had already collaborated with her colleague Mary Jane Warner on the world’s first multi-media tutorial on dance history, so for her dissertation she created one to explain specific elements of ballet technique and terminology. Her research was a success and she found her students responded well to the platform.

In equal parts looking to the future and to the past with these digital projects, Fisher-Stitt was simultaneously continuing to perform and take dance classes. She actively pursued a balance between her mind and her body, and her research and her practice.

“When I was a performer I felt bored, I did not feel challenged intellectually. The university setting provided me with an environment where I could be in the studio, but I could also explore ideas, and have intellectual debates with others. It was important to me to have that balance.”

Her book The Ballet Class: A History of Canada’s National Ballet School 1959-2009 (see YFile, May 14, 2010,) is another example of how Fisher-Stitt has balanced and combined her varied interests. The book unites dance history, dance education and her love for ballet and the school she trained at in her formative years. Supported by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, the book was completed for the National Ballet School’s 50th anniversary and launched at the alumni weekend celebration in April 2010.

“I wanted to offer a solid piece of research without making the book too ponderous,” said Fisher-Stitt. “The artifacts were all so rich and it was often hard to decide what to include and what to leave out. I also wanted to be clear within my book that this is just one way of viewing the school’s development. There are many other stories that can, have, and will be told about the school.

“I feel incredibly blessed that I have been able to remain involved in dance from the time I was four years old. Like many other dancers, I believe that dance chooses you, you don’t choose dance. But, I’ve been lucky to keep doing it. It’s a good life.”

Alongside her extensive contributions to the field of dance as an historian and educator in the studio, lab and classroom, Fisher-Stitt has a long history of service in academic administration. She has been chair of York’s Department of Dance, associate dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, associate dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, associate vice-president, Academic Learning Initiatives, and currently directs the Graduate Program in Dance (MA) and the Graduate Program in Dance Studies (PhD).