While the mention of a special collection in a library may conjure up thoughts of rare manuscripts, ancient tomes and literary volumes, there’s a surprising special collection housed within The Ohio State University Libraries. There, you can find tap shoes from groundbreaking tap dancers. Videos of mime performances. Hundreds of original dance scores – from contemporary to classical ballet – were preserved on paper by choreographers through the decades. Posters and programs and photos from dancers of every kind. Even tasseled costumes from late-20th-century burlesque shows.
These are the dance and movement special collections at Ohio State – collections that celebrate and preserve everything related to movement and are overseen by Mara Frazier, who has the unusual title of curator of dance.
Frazier, who brings a rich background in dance and education to the position, explains, “We’re dance and so much more – everything from ballet to burlesque and tap. That includes entire collections donated to the Libraries from dancers and choreographers like Twyla Tharp, Marcel Marceau, Bebe Miller and Lynn Dally.”
The collections are housed within the Libraries’ Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute, and Frazier’s role is unique at an R1 research institution like Ohio State. “There are curators of special collections in libraries. And there are archivists of dance in professional dance companies. But it’s unique to have this job title at a major research university.”
While the precious items in the collections are securely housed in Thompson Library’s protected, climate-controlled archives, Frazier aims to make the wide-ranging materials come alive.
“My objective is to bring these dance archives to life and put them into motion,” she says. “So I do a lot of stagings with materials from the archives. Dancers from Ohio State’s Department of Dance use the notated dance scores to bring these past performances into the studio and onto the stage. Right now, we’re staging a José Limón piece from 1958 in collaboration with the Department of Dance."
She explains that the bedrock of the collection are dance notation scores and manuscripts from New York City’s Dance Notation Bureau. “We have hundreds of these scores that are records of modern dance, classical ballet, various forms of dance from all over the world,” she says. The notated scores record dance movements on paper, allowing dancers today to recreate choreographers’ works.
Along with those foundational materials, the Lynn Dally collection holds many riches including a pair of tap shoes from Bill Robinson, legendary Black tap performer known as Bojangles. The Charles M. McCaghy Collection is one of the largest collections of materials from burlesque and exotic dance in the U.S. There are videotapes of Marcel Marceau’s educational sessions, interviews and mime performances. And a wide range of programs, posters, choreographer notes and photos from the world of dance and movement.
But perhaps the best thing about the collection, Frazier says, is its accessibility. “What I really love about this collection is that it’s available to anyone. You don’t need special credentials to be able to see the materials. Anyone can make an appointment and come in, whether you are a researcher, an undergrad student, a faculty member, even a high school or middle school student or community member,” she said. ‘That’s what so special about Ohio State as a land grant institution – these materials are open to all.”
According to Julie Snyder, director of development at University Libraries, “Mara’s role as curator of dance is symbolic of Ohio State’s land-grant mission, to make sure the boundaries of the university go way beyond the university itself. Mara has a strong dance background, and as a dancer she brings the collection to life within the Libraries, into Ohio State classrooms and out into the community.”
Snyder’s goal is to create an endowment to fully support the curator of dance position so Frazier can continue to broaden the reach of the collection. “An anonymous donor generously got the position up and running, and now we want to think about the future of what Mara can archive with additional funding of her position.”
She adds, “We have such a strong dance department at the university, plus we’re a research 1 institution, plus we have the best dance collection at any academic institution. To have a curator of dance, someone who is caring for and growing and utilizing the dance collection in ever-more innovative ways is truly something that can only happen at Ohio State.”