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Sherbon, Elizabeth

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Elizabeth Sherbon
  • Former member of the Martha Graham and Jean Erdman dance companies in New York City where she was modern dance legend Martha Graham’s teaching assistant
  • Co-founder of the American Dance Symposia in Wichita that drew performers, choreographers, scholars and students from around the world from 1968-1972. The National Endowment for the Arts called it “the most innovative and important summer dance program to surface since Bennington.”
  • Creator of the first dance major at the University of Kansas while she taught here from 1961 to 1975
  • Recipient of the 1993 Cultural Enhancement Award from the city of Lawrence for her contributions to the city’s artistic and cultural life


KU alumna and former Professor Elizabeth Sherbon (1908-2000) moved to Lawrence in 1917 and took ballet lessons from Helen Topping, a former soloist with the Anna Pavlova Dance Company. Sherbon studied dance at KU under Columbia University alumna Elizabeth Dunkel and graduated in 1930. She traveled to New York City in the summer of 1931 to study at the Denishawn School with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, two founders of American modern dance. She performed with Denishawn at Lewisohn Stadium in New York that summer. Sherbon received her master’s degree from the University of Iowa in 1932. She attended the Bennington Summer School of Dance in 1934 and 1935, where Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm—the “Four Pioneers” of modern dance—were teaching.

From Bennington, Sherbon moved to New York City to take advantage of a scholarship to study at Graham’s studio. She performed with Graham’s dance company from 1937 to 1940, in the New York City performances of Hanya Holm’s masterwork Trend in 1937 and 1938, and in several off-Broadway dance groups, including those of Jane Dudley and Valerie Bettis. She also worked as Graham’s teaching assistant at New York University and Columbia University and studied with Robert Joffrey, Louis Horst and Bessie Schoenberg, among others. From 1942 to 1954, Sherbon danced in the Jean Erdman Dance Company in New York City. Sherbon and Erdman had met while both danced in Graham’s company. Sherbon supplemented her income by typing manuscripts for Erdman’s husband, philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Sherbon returned to Kansas in 1954 to open the Sherbon School of Dance in Wichita and to be a lecturer at Wichita State University. She also choreographed for opera, television and the stage. In 1961, KU hired her to teach dance in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. The few dance classes that were offered were open only to women and met for an hour twice weekly. She quickly opened all dance classes to men and lengthened the classes to 90-minutes or two hours, meeting several times each week. She instituted new programs emphasizing dance as a creative art and established the Tau Sigma Dance Club and the University Dance Company. During the 1969-70 academic year, she was a guest faculty member at Vassar College. By the time she retired from KU in 1975, she had proposed a dance major program that included ballet, modern, and jazz techniques; choreography; dance history; pedagogy and stage production. While on the KU faculty, she wrote On the Count of One, which was published in 1968 and became a widely used college textbook.

With her twin sister, Alice Bauman, Sherbon founded and ran the American Dance Symposia (1968-72) in Wichita, which drew performers, choreographers, scholars and students from around the world. Dance luminaries such as Leonide Massine, Arthur Mitchell, Paul Taylor, Jean Erdman, Bella Lewitzky, and Bill Evans joined experts in world dance forms, dance criticism, dance therapy, and other fields. They congregated in Wichita for master classes, panel discussions, and performances. Dance critic Walter Terry documented the events for the Saturday Review. The National Endowment for the Arts called the Wichita symposia “the most innovative and important summer dance program to surface since Bennington.” The Wichita symposia became the model for the American Dance Festival, today the most comprehensive annual summer dance festival in the United States.

A scholarship in Sherbon’s name was established in her honor at the KU Endowment Association in 1980. The Elizabeth Sherbon Dance Theatre in Robinson Center was dedicated with a performance by dance luminary Bill Evans in 1985. The city of Lawrence awarded Sherbon the Cultural Enhancement Award in 1993 for her contributions to the city’s artistic and cultural life. She remained in Lawrence until her death in 2000 at the age of 92. The Department of Music and Dance and the School of Fine Arts hosted the Elizabeth Sherbon Centennial Celebration in conjunction with the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Murphy Hall and the Spring 2008 Festival of the Arts. Guest choreographers Karole Armitage and Bill Evans and KU dance faculty honored her legacy with their works performed by guest artists and members of the University Dance Company at the Lied Center. Mayor Michael Dever proclaimed April 14-20, 2008, Elizabeth Sherbon Week in Lawrence.

  • Dream big dreams and believe yourself capable of great things.
  • We must learn to help each other, no matter how tired we become, when there is much hope and when there is none.

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