Sally Radell, Dance


When Sally Radell came to Emory in 1987, the school’s dance program was nearly nonexistent. Today it enjoys a national reputation. The department has ten full- and part-time faculty members and offers a major, a minor, and 36 courses—a remarkable feat for a school of Emory’s size. Last year more than 800 students took traditional dance classes such as ballet, modern, and jazz, as well as classes in dance composition, theory, and career opportunities. Over the last two decades, Radell has poured her passion, energy, and vision into the university. All the hard work has unquestionably paid off. Emory’s dance program is on the map, and she’s the one who put it there.

After watching a ballet performance on television at age six, Radell instantly chose her future career. She states, “I didn’t know what that meant, I didn’t know that it would be difficult, I didn’t know that it would be an enormous amount of work.” As it turned out, it was an enormous amount of work; but that didn’t faze her. “Dance was what I always wanted to do, and anytime I considered doing anything else it always seemed like a lesser choice,” Radell remarks. In pursuit of her chosen career, she earned a B.A. in dance from Scripps College, after which she danced in San Francisco for several years. She received an M.A. in choreography and labanotation (a notation system for recording choreography) from The Ohio State University, and an M.F.A. in dance from Arizona State University. Prior to accepting an invitation to develop the Dance Program at Emory in 1987, Radell served as an Artist-in-Residence at Memphis State University. Now a full professor in Dance, she was named Director of the program in 1990 and is currently rotating out of the position after 18 years. Radell describes herself as a “bleeder”—someone whose work bleeds into many areas of her profession. A jack-of-all-trades, she is a dance critic, choreographer, performer, administrator, teacher, and researcher. At a young age, Radell committed to achieving a dream; today, she is the consummate dance professional.

There is one thing, however, that troubles Radell about her occupation: “The problem with dance is that it’s impermanent, it happens in time and space. After it happens it’s gone.” Music can be replayed, books and scripts can be reread, and visual art can be viewed for extended periods in various forums. Dance, on the other hand, is performed for an audience—and then it disappears. But, Radell is convinced that this need not be the case. She is trained in labanotation, a notation system that allows choreographers to create and record their work on paper, just as composers write and document musical notes. Radell enjoys immersing herself in the technical details of dance, and is passionate about recording dance in new and interesting ways.

Thus, she is also working on a project that involves the transfer of dance from stage to silver screen. Collaborating with Bill Brown, a faculty member in the Visual Arts department, Radell recently completed “Car Talk,” a film that captures dance performance in different environments. “Car Talk” and Radell’s work-in-progress, “Double-Exposure,” are pieces originally choreographed to be performed on a stage that are now being reinterpreted to be shot with the camera. In fact, creative camera work is part of the choreography. By using video documentation Radell hopes to emphasize the enduring nature of dance. Her productions, which will be submitted to film festivals around the country, take an innovative approach to promoting and ensuring the survival of dance choreography. Radell comments, “I’m interested in pushing the envelope and drawing parallels between things that might not necessarily be obvious.”

Radell is completing ground-breaking work in other areas as well. For the last seven years she has conducted research on the effect of mirrors on dancers’ body image and classroom performance. Past studies show high rates of bulimia and anorexia amongst dancers; yet, they rarely explore why these problems persist or at what stage in a dancer’s career they are likely to begin. Radell strives to fill in the blanks by addressing these issues. Since 2000, she has regularly taught two consecutive ballet classes. In one class the mirrors are covered with curtains during class; in the second, the curtains are left open. Students in both classes fill out a questionnaire on body image at the beginning and end of the semester. Radell’s results show that students who learn in front of curtains do, in fact, have a healthier body image those who learn in front of the mirror. Classes taught without mirrors thus seem to reduce the risk of negative body image among dancers.

But does the absence of a mirror affect performance? In response to this question, Radell developed the Radell Evaluation Scale for Dance Technique (RESDT), which assesses technique growth and development. The scale has proved to be extremely useful, with high inter-rater reliability. She videotaped at the beginning and end of the semester for each of her two classes, then brought in evaluators to review students’ progress using the assessment instrument. Evaluators did not know which group used the mirror and which practiced in front of curtains. The final decree? For slow, adagio movements, dancers who used the mirror showed less improvement over time than those who did not. “The problem is when there’s a mirror there all the time, you become so self-absorbed your learning becomes skewed,” explains Radell. “If you don’t have a mirror then you really need to rely on your internal muscular and kinetic feedback about what’s happening. Which is ultimately more valuable, because when you’re out performing, you’re not performing in front of the mirror.” Radell argues that limiting use of the mirror in dance classes may reduce dancers’ negative body image and improve their technique.

Such work is novel in that it pairs the fine arts with a rigorous, scientific method that is rarely found in the studio. For Radell, this is what it is all about: using innovative methods to increase knowledge, health, and well-being. The Dance Program helps students find connections between themselves and others, to become articulate with their bodies, and to gain a sense of their full potential. As founder of the Dance Program, Radell is committed to empowering her students by giving them tools to succeed in the dance profession—or whatever they choose to do. Dance is a skill capable of helping students succeed in many different arenas. Radell strives to ensure that students know how many options are available to them. “When I found dance my life changed. We all need to find our vehicle,” she concludes.