Making Things Happen

Barbara Sellers-Young in the Dougherty Dance Theatre

A performance scholar credits the UO for her career in the arts. Now it’s time to “dance it forward.”

It was in 1983, while she was a graduate student in the UO Department of Dance, that Barbara Sellers-Young made her very first financial contribution to the university: a $15 gift to KWAX, the UO’s classical radio station.

Though she doesn’t recall making that gift, Sellers-Young knows it was important to her, stating, “At the time, that was probably a lot of money for me!”

Now, three decades later, Barbara Sellers-Young is a professor of dance at York University in Toronto, and has made a second gift to her alma mater, one that no one is likely to forget: in December 2013, she pledged $10,000 to fund the Janet Wynn Descutner Graduate Student Award in Dance, a fellowship for students pursuing a master’s degree in dance at the UO.

The fund is named for Janet Wynn Descutner, former chair of the Department of Dance, a particularly influential figure for Sellers-Young during her own graduate school experience.

In fact, Sellers-Young earned all three of her degrees at the UO, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, a master’s degree in dance, and a doctorate in theater arts. Those may sound like divergent disciplines, and indeed, Sellers-Young describes both her education and her career as “a highly unusual trajectory.”

The ability to combine the curricula of various UO departments, however, is something Sellers-Young identifies as a strength of her education. The UO, she says, “is a very good place to get started in the arts. It’s very welcoming, a very generous environment.”

“That allowed me to follow a variety of interests at a university that’s really training people to reflect on the arts in the world and society,” adds Sellers-Young. “I was able to carve out a career that I don’t know that another institution would have allowed.”

Her “triple Duck” UO education has taken Sellers-Young to some far-flung locales. Influenced by student research trips to Africa and Japan, Sellers-Young has built her academic work on exploring dance and other stage performance within the contexts of world cultures. In recent years, for example, Sellers-Young has focused on the tradition of belly dance.

Sellers-Young has taught in England, and she served on the faculty of the University of California at Davis for eighteen years. From 2007 to 2010, she was president of the Congress on Research in Dance, and she worked in Toronto, Ontario, as dean of York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts from 2008 to 2013.

In 2008, the UO School of Music and Dance named Sellers-Young a Distinguished Alumna, an honor bestowed on the institution’s most esteemed graduates.

A career in academia has not made Sellers-Young a wealthy woman, and yet, “We’re all wealthy within a particular framework,” she explains.

“If what you can give is fifty dollars, then what you’re doing is finding a way to support the things you believe in,” she adds. “Dance education is what I believe in. This is what I have faith in. Whether you give fifty dollars or five million, that is immaterial. What’s important is that you’re looking at your world and you’re participating in it.”

“It’s a wonderful thing to know you can help make things happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen.”

Text by Aaron Ragan-Fore. Photo by Erin Zysett.