Dena Madole talks about her life as a dancer and an artist.
Interviewee: Dena Madole (DM)
Interviewer: Sheldon Beach (SB)
Interview Date: 6/10/2021
SB: Today is June 10, 2021 and my name is Sheldon Beach. I am here to interview Dena Madole for the Oklahoma Voices Project for the Metropolitan Library System.
SB: We’re just going to talk about your life. So how are you doing today?
DM: I’m doing fine thank you.
SB: So, the first question I have is when and where were you born?
DM: I was born here in Oklahoma City in 1934.
SB: And what was your childhood like, what was it like growing up in Oklahoma City in the 1930’s?
DM: Well, it was wonderful as far as I was concerned, you know as a child, except for the war. I think that was World War II. It was very present in my young life. I was very aware of it. I think part of it might have been the planes from Will Rogers, not Will Rogers, what was it in Midwest City?
DM: (The planes from) Tinker would take off for war and fly right over our house. It made a big impression for me. So many things happened at once. We were just trying to recover from the depression. That was not solved at all. There were a lot of people, homeless people on the streets at that time begging for whatever they could find. Then there was the Dust Bowl years and a year of grasshoppers that ate all the crops. And that’s not talked about very much, but you could walk down the streets of Oklahoma City and crunch grasshoppers. It was so bad.
Things were rationed, and I was well aware that you couldn’t buy just anything you wanted on any given day. So, my mother was very… she liked to experiment with different things. Anyway she got a big eggplant, and I had never seen an eggplant before and I didn’t really watch how she fixed it, but she fried it with this great delicious coating and served it as Victory Steak. And I was young and I bought it, I bought it. This was meat and it was better than any meat I had ever had. So I always wanted meat. But I meant eggplant. So it was a very, undervalued plant I think. There was no question that it was a very hard time to grow up. And the movies then always had the newsreels. We didn’t have any other way of getting news actually. Except newspapers and radio but no pictures unless you went to the movies and you saw the newsreels. It was horrendous watching those, you know for a kid. But by and large we, you know, we managed fine. We grew some vegetables. My grandparents had a farm south of the city so occasionally we would have a chicken from the farm, a few chickens maybe. It was a hard time for everybody I think. Even if you had a lot of money you had a hard time.
SB: You mentioned your mom, what was your family like?
DM: My parents had lost a child. So when I came along I guess I was a little too special, even for my taste. I grew up an only child. And I think because of the loss of that child I really was treated to about anything I wanted and they could afford. I understood they couldn’t afford a pony or things like that. We always had dogs, loved dogs and uh I resisted a lot of things that were usual for young girls. I didn’t want to cook; I just didn’t want to be in the kitchen. My mother tried, she tried very hard to get me interested in cooking, boy I would get out of the house as fast as I could.
I still have the little house where I grew up. There was a pine tree in the back and it provided lots of shade. And it was behind the garage so I had a kind of a private place where I could make mud puddles. And I liked to play in the mud and make a mud pie that was fine, but I wasn’t… just don’t deliver me to the kitchen. I just can’t do it. So I never did learn to cook. I obviously learned to eat fine, but not cooking, please. So I think that was a very early interest.
We had music in the house. Mother’s father was a musician; he was a composer, and a music teacher. All of the kids on that side of the family grew up playing multiple instruments. It was a German family. And I liked music and learned to play the piano and liked that pretty well. But mostly I loved to be out in the backyard in the mud puddle. I think that was an early fascination with making things out of mud and probably led to the sculpting that I’ve done. So that was a carefree childhood. And I was glad to go to school, I enjoyed school. I had a little companion, we walked to grade school every day and it was probably a mile and back even in the bad weather. We were not spoiled in that respect. I liked school. I had saved, or rather my Mother, some report cards from that early age. And the teachers had to write for every child they had to write a number of things about the character and so forth and repetitive among those remarks was “she talks too much”. So I guess what I didn’t talk about at home I did at school.
My best understanding of what the future would hold for me was when my mother took me to the YWCA to learn to swim. That building was built in the early 20’s primarily by the women who were interested in having a place for women. Men had their YMCA and women had no place to go to meet together to do whatever women do together. And in that building, which incidentally was built on the premises where the library is downtown, and the library is ok, but the YWCA was a gorgeous, gorgeous building. It was made of brick, it had a lot of wood that was luxurious, there was no… I would think of it as a round building. I think it was the only building I saw in Oklahoma City that had an archway for an entrance, which is a feminine statement. Everything else is squares you know, everything, right angles. You can’t imagine how luxurious that was really for me to find a place that was not square. The place had arches; there were places that had marble, places that had this dark wood. It had a luxury about it that had nothing to do with furs and silver and money. It had to do with an aesthetic that these women were aware of and insisted upon. I don’t know who built, designed the building, I have no idea. But anyway, in this building the fourth floor was devoted to health education for women. There was a swimming pool there were a couple of gyms. And they had classes night and day at very reasonable rates. You could go and pay very little to take swimming, to take classes in sports, to take dance classes.
At that time modern dance was beginning to flourish in the states. And there were two women who had studied the people who were beginning to talk about dance and education, for one thing as opposed to professional dance. That was just an idea that was beginning to flourish at that time. Well one of the women who had gone to Wisconsin to meet a woman named Marge H’Doubler who had revolutionary ideas, ideas about teaching dance in school. And It was to develop the body and the movement of the body but more than that it was the idea that through movement and paying attention to movements and through finding ways through movement to express your ideas that were not necessarily verbal ideas. Her idea about doing that was self discovery of finding out who you were and more than that what you really wanted to do. And she was so firm in her presence, remember she was just, she was so young at that point, she was in her 30s but she was talking about these ideas that really were cosmic and very important for young women. I thrived on that and the teacher here had worked with Marge in Wisconsin at the university there and so she brought some of those Ideas here to Oklahoma and there were a couple of other teachers here. They got together and they talked about it and they developed and they were a kind of seed force against the ballet community which was very vibrant. We had these marvelous Indian ballerinas. I wanted to dance but I was not a ballerina in any way. My body was not right for that, my psyche certainly wasn’t right for that. I didn’t want to do it, it bored me. I did try to take some classes, I just, it didn’t work for me. But when I found the modern dance that was presented there at the Y, I was probably 9 or 10, they had children’s classes, and then teenagers and then adult women had classes. I took as many classes as I could, I couldn’t get enough of it. Shortly the teacher there, Georgia Lee Clark was her name, was a great influence in this community. I’m surprised more people haven’t written about her, but maybe they have, I don’t know. She was talking with my parents that I needed to go to Wisconsin and have more contact with Marge H’Doubler, this wonderful revolutionary woman. So even though it really wasn’t in our economic means to talk about it, my parents got extra jobs, and I got a job and we pulled it off. That was very lucky for me because it opened my eyes to many things. You have to realize that when you talk about, well I’m not going to talk about it beyond this, we did not know any black people, and there were no black people in our schools. How do we learn to know black people? Everything was segregated. That was horrible. The only black people I got to know and love, incidentally, were ones Georgia Lee Clark hired to work at the Y. And so they were visible to us every day. We interacted with them every day and they became friends. So I have a real strange understanding of what people are talking about. But that’s ok. When I went to Wisconsin there were more people, there may have been one Jewish boy in our high school. I’d never met the Jewish community, you know. So my eyes kept getting bigger and bigger just because I was in a bigger thinking place. And that was a miracle for me to have that opportunity. But the classes were also terrific. I had a lot of science, anatomy, kinesiology, and all of that background for movement and teaching. So I came out of there as a teacher but I really wanted to go to Germany where many of them called her the mother of modern dance, who is Mary Wigman. And Wigman had been through two world wars. And she was kind of one of those people you can hardly believe exist. It was like she walked out of the dark forest of the mountains on German territory and became this really remarkable person. How she lived through the world, how she managed to continue to dance I have no idea. Those wars were terrible. But I did get to go to Berlin and study with her. I was there about a year and a half which was a great education for me. The Berlin experience, even though it had been ten or eleven years after the war had ended, Berlin had not really recovered very well. If you ever look at the scrapbook I put together there is a poem in there about that city it just seemed, still it seemed decadent. And poverty all around, still a lot of people homeless. There was true poverty. They were living in the remains of bombed out buildings along with rats and other things. People here don’t understand what that really was about because they lived through being bombed, for Pete’s sake. So that was a very another really eye opening experience. So those were my early formative stages, and I’m very grateful for them.
SB: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the training you had in Europe? What were your teachers like there?
DM: Well, Wigman was the basic one. When I got there she celebrated her 70th birthday and she was still choreographing; she was really a star in Europe. What she had innovated came out of those hard war years and they affected her compositions, her compositions affected people, they were very uh, she was a big deal. She didn’t talk about dance, she danced. So the classes that she taught came right out of her choreography, out of her thinking about performing, not learning to teach dance. So it was the opposite end of what I had been taught and one I gravitated to very quickly and easily. But there would be simple things; it was almost impossible to explain the power of what she did. But she used either drums; she always had a pianist or musician accompany the classes. He was either on the piano or using drums and she would start with maybe, with a simple walk in a circle, would walk in a circle then she would add an element of movement maybe some arm movements or she changed the rhythm just slightly within the walking, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, walk. Well when you do that for 45 minutes or an hour you have an out of body experience. There’s no way that you don’t. It was so mysterious how she would pull us into this, I don’t know what you call it really outside of ah… it was so elemental you felt like you came out of the womb somehow, it was really. You can’t just do that; no ordinary person can make other people do that. You have to have her experience or comparable experience through two world wars growing up through poverty, pushing for the dance, never thinking about doing anything else but dancing. That’s just an amazing person who is able to do that. Where she got this deep wisdom, how it came forward, how it manifest in her life, I don’t know. But she was a very kind person. And during the war I know she took students in. Going from one place to another was a common thing so on their way from one place to another they knew they could stay with Mary. She was very protective. And, she had the government’s support to a degree. All of the schools for dance were pretty well guided by the government I would think. They got money. The ballet schools still were very much more comfortable for people to relate to. The modern dance was pushing through. It still is. We haven’t found the end of that, may not. The German students, I think I was not aware enough, I think I was so overwhelmed by Mary I wasn’t paying attention, until I was there for awhile, to the young students who were in class. Most of them were maybe a couple of years younger than I; they’d been through the war. I mean it didn’t click for a long time. They would have been babies when the war started, they would have been losing their families, their houses; they would have been equally traumatized as anyone else in that region. And, it was really quite interesting how they accepted the Americans. Some of them did and some of them didn’t. The almighty dollar was our saving grace, I think. That we could eat, but they were not ever really sure they could. And what the school provided by the government was a lunch that came in these tall tin containers, it might be a soup, or mashed potatoes or they might have some bread. For some of them that was all they had to eat. It was a mixed blessing. It was also learning, a big, big learning idea about what people went through and how people maintained their art. They did the best they could. Anyway Mary went on to live; I think she was in her 80’s, probably about my age when she died. She had heart trouble. She was a great letter writer. She always kept up with any student who was willing to write she would write. She would answer the letters. Which is kind of unthinkable now, nobody knows how to write a letter, or wants to, or will. I do, I like writing letters. They give you something personal that the typed word doesn’t give. My dogs write letters.
SB: I was going to ask, you said a lot of people would travel through Europe and stop and stay with her. Did you do much traveling while you were there? Did you get to see much of Europe?
DM: A friend of mine… we ended up on the same boat with the same objective. And I didn’t know she was going, she was some years older than I. But she had finished her graduate work at Wisconsin and was taking a year’s leave, she had a teaching job at Rockford college. But she was taking a year off to study with Wigman. We didn’t do much traveling, we were there to dance. But at the end of the time when we were getting ready to go back home she bought a little Volkswagen right from the factory. So she said, “Would you drive this around so it has enough miles on it to get it back into the country as a used car? I said sure, I was not thinking I had to go through Russian territory to get almost anywhere that I wanted to go. But, she had also taken some classes at Frye University and through her I and some of the people we had met on the boat going over, I had met a poet, Andrew Oerke was his name. He was great fun to be with, a great companion. Well, he was leaving Berlin the same time I was and he was going to do more study of poetry in Salamanca at the university there in Spain. So I said, well, you go ahead and I’ll come around with Jane’s car and we’ll take a trip. He was meeting another poet there and he was going to spend a little bit of time and then they were going to go on to London. So they needed to be able to get to from Salamanca to Paris airport to get on their flights. I thought that sounded fun, and it was. I have no idea how I did it, I did not speak any other languages, a little German, and you don’t speak a little German in France even if you were American. That was, you just didn’t do that. They still hated the Germans so deeply. I don’t know how I got gas I don’t know how I managed that, how I found a place to stay or to eat, but I did. As long as I was with a poet and his friend that was fine, they spoke enough other languages. So those countries yeah, we went to Holland and Switzerland, enough, you know.
SB: When did you come back to the United States and what did you do when you got back?
DM: I was there a year and a half, a little bit over, came back and immediately started looking for a job. I contacted the university. There were three positions that they knew of that needed, wanted teachers, they were in high schools and I went to visit all three, to be interviewed. It ended up I had a choice. I chose a school in University City, Missouri. It was a suburb of St. Louis. The other schools were bigger, the money was better, a little, marginally better. One was in Milwaukee, in a suburb, it was a giant thing. The other was in New Trier, near Chicago. It was a giant thing. In University City it was big but the dance studio was in a basement, it was away from the gyms and it was quiet. I loved that little studio. And unbeknownst to me it was a Jewish community, 98% Jewish. And so I got to know a little bit about the customs, the holidays and what went on in the Jewish community. But the best most wonderful surprise was the kids were so smart. And they were so tuned to the arts. You didn’t have to convince them of anything. They were eager. I mean they would just suck it up. I mean really. So we did some concerts and they did their own choreography; we did not use popular tunes. We used a lot of piano music most from Europe, as a matter of fact, some Spanish, and German, things that wouldn’t ordinarily been heard here but were still very danceable and had a wonderful composer musician who played piano for my classes. She could read any music. Anything you brought her nothing was too hard. So she was just a wonderful compatriot in our little cubby hole. I had a lot of students, the last concert we had onstage at various times 137 women, young girls. And they all did their bit. It was just like lighting the candle, and boy they, they took it. So it was great teaching. They loved it. I was there four years.
But, I got interested in sculpture. I had finished my Masters at Washington University. It was in education, I started out in philosophy because I understood that there was a special graduate program for teachers that it would make it easy on us to teach and also do the course work. That did not pan out the way I thought it, I mean they didn’t explain to me correctly. So I ended up taking all these undergraduate courses because I had had some philosophy in the dance department but not what they required. So I got all ready to step into the graduate program and found out well they were not going to make it easy on teachers to go forth so I switched to education and finished my Masters there with emphasis on esthetics and that was great for me, I mean that was a great switch. And then I went back to Wisconsin got a little job there in the department, in the dance department. One of my favorite professors was a woman named Maya Schade. She was German. She came to the states when the war was imminent in Germany. She taught posture and relaxation. The Germans did a lot that was movement that wasn’t really dance, but it was dance. It was like moving to dance. And I know Wigman was aware of that and had studied those things as well. But nobody had taken it to, well Maya Schade, she worked a lot in early relaxation; some of those early German studies were terrific. They’re used today. Just people don’t know it don’t know the history of movement. But she was starting to get interested in something called tonic neck reflexes and they include movement greatly. When you turn your head your body will reflexively go to follow that movement, yeah. So you learn if you’re driving and you’re looking over there your hands are going to go in this direction. So don’t do that. And anyway, it had a lot of practical use. But also what people really wanted to use it for was rehabilitation. Of well, there were a lot of wartime injuries that still needed help. People needed to be able to have some way of getting the best movement they could. So the tonic neck reflexes were of great interest. Everybody was doing it particularly the Japanese. And a lot of work from the Japanese had been translated and she needed somebody to read that stuff and tell her the salient points. I was not her guy. She gave me the job. I’m not right brained you know I just practically do not have a right brain. So doing that that was torture for me and her I’m sure because I didn’t do a very good job. But she let me off the hook with that. And I started to get back into dance.
There was a choreographer there on the staff who was hired to choreograph, and she was always looking for dancers. She would go out on the street and grab people in who looked like they might be able to do what she wanted. She was a character, still is a character. So she found me dancing one night; I was just moving around in a dark room and she heard me and she came in and said what are you doing, let me see what you’re doing. And that was the end of that. She had hooked me, she said wait a minute I’m going to go get a record; we’ll make a dance for you now. And she did a lot of choreography for me and I had a lot of opportunity to perform because I wasn’t really a choreographer, I did some, it was not…performing was my key. I did a lot of concert work there. And decided…somebody from New York came to do a lighting design for one of Anna’s, Anna was this choreographer, one of her concerts. She told me,” you know, you ought to go to New York”. And I really had not thought about it. I had thought I should see what’s going on in New York just to be knowledgeable. But for myself I didn’t really, hadn’t thought about it. But I looked in the dance magazines, all of them now are defunct I’m pretty sure. They gave a good listing of summer classes and I thought well I have a few weeks’ vacation I think I’ll see if I can find a workshop. I did with Eric Hawkins. Eric Hawkins, you may know, he performed with Martha Graham and married her for awhile. He was part of her company. Graham had come through Oklahoma, they had performed I think both at OU and Stillwater at the university. And Georgia Lee Clark at the Y had insisted we go and see. So I knew what Graham did. And I had seen Eric Hawkins dance. I thought he was terribly arrogant, I was not a bit impressed with him, not at all. But, he was the one whose summer workshop in New York City fit my schedule and wasn’t too expensive. Some of them were terrible. So I thought, well I’ll just go at least I’ll be in New York even if I don’t like him, turned out I liked him a lot. And then his work, his idea about movement…[sirens blare] Hospital across the street, they always have somebody falling, the fire department comes goes away. He had left Graham and the marriage in a very inelegant way, I don’t know the whole story and don’t really care, but he was not nice about that and because of that he had gotten a bad reputation. He was temperamental anyway, he was arrogant, was arrogant because he thought he had a handle on the truth about movement, in fact he did. What he was talking about related directly to the tonic neck reflexes, I couldn’t believe it. So for me it was very, very interesting what he did. I liked what he did, he was a very good teacher and he was in class he was very congenial.
Well, I finished the course and went back to Wisconsin for the fall schedule getting ready to do that when I had a telegram from him asking me if I could come and join his company. One of his dancers had a very bad back they were getting ready to go on tour he had to have somebody fast. That was, I don’t know, I just went with it, I said ok. I left the university in the lurch, somewhat. I was not essential but I did have a position there. I just said I’m sorry I’ve got to go. I’m getting old I’m not going to have any more chances to dance professionally. I gotta see what this is about. So I was there about 5 years with him. And I was glad that I did it, even though I still feel badly about the way I left people in the lurch. They had plenty of people that it wasn’t a disaster, I just feel guilty about it, still do. But you know having the opportunity of seeing artist that are totally serious about their work, being able to just look in their studios, being able to see them at the bar, listen to them talk, see the concerts, whatever. Everything was, I can’t say easily available and you didn’t have a lot of money and I didn’t have a lot of money. You had opportunities to see the real dedication which I understood but I had never seen the operation in that way. I’d never seen the trouble you had being an artist, particularly a modern dancer. No money, you had to get it through teaching or through concerts. But Eric’s trouble with concerts at that point is that all over the country Martha had toured, everybody loved Martha. And everybody had heard the story of Eric leaving Martha in a very bad way. They wouldn’t book him and the local teachers had the power to say yeah we’ll book him or not. Those were the people who were going to come to the concert. They had a lot of power. And he, I’m sure felt the disdain for years. But he went ahead and I admire him for that. I mean he really did struggle. None of us got, we never knew if we were going to get paid number one, and how much it was going to be. It was very difficult to know how to do it. I was lucky because I had a little house in Madison that I had rented. And I had a little income, it was tough. But Eric didn’t ever; he never wavered in his beliefs in what he wanted to do. And eventually he did, I think it was the Medal of Honor or some honor from the White House that he really appreciated and he finally got that. It was tough going. For me, I think learning what he knew about movement was very essential because I went ahead then and did some touring with solo concert, which is a very hard thing to do, you have to be in pretty good shape and you have to be able to last long enough for an evening concert. I did ok. I think when I reached 45, when most dancers begin to question what they’re doing I really felt that I needed to stop that. I’d done what I wanted to try, I wanted to try that, I wanted to try my own choreography and I was able to do it. What more could I ask. I didn’t need any more of that. I didn’t need to teach any more. What I needed to do when I came here, you know… I thought should I…I came here because I was an only child, my parents were getting old. I thought if I toured out of the center of the country then I wouldn’t have to drive so far. So I did that for about four years. Then I thought I really need to stay put. And, the Oklahoma Arts and Science Foundation that’s what it was known at the fairgrounds, had art classes of all kinds. I was very drawn to find out more about painting and whatever else I could find. It was a great place, it was....the teachers were great, they were very welcoming. I volunteered to do whatever they needed doing, so I spent a lot of time there, I learned a little bit about a lot of things and worked a little bit with fibers and sculpture. The sculpture for me was terrific because Alexandra Alaupovic, who was a Yugoslavian, married to a scientist with the OU Foundation, she had come here and she had a wonderful classical sculpture background, not everyone gets those. And what she brought to her classes, she was a wonderful teacher. And she left finally to OCU to teach and I followed her there and learned as much as I could from her. Then I got interested in fiber work and I got interested in painting and I got interested poetry [laughter]. So that’s the story of my life.
SB: Can you tell me a little bit about your art work, what kind of things do you like to paint and sculpt?
DM: Well it’s all here. You know to tell you about it is kind of…I don’t know what I can tell you other than you know you just start something and then you keep doing it until you think it’s finished [laughter]. And even if it isn’t sometimes you put it on the wall. I was interested really… always I think all of my work has some need of flow for movement. You know I’m not…I can’t do square things. I don’t want to do people, I mean like formal portraits. I love to do that in sculpture, I did a lot of portraits. a lot of busts, I love to do that. But for painting, realism doesn’t really interest me what interests me is the flow, the paint across the canvas. When I can get that going then I’m happy. So I know less about painting than about sculpture. The painting is something I do. You have to look around once we’re through.
SB: Well, do you have another other stories you’d like to add or anything you want to say or have we covered everything?
DM: I think whether you are good or not so good that art offers something that nothing else can whether its movement, painting, sculpture, poetry the going into the trying of expressing something that is inside that would like to come out. I think is one of the noble things you can do to help yourself through life. You know, if it’s good it’s wonderful, if it’s not so good you had the experience. There’s nothing that’s comparable to having the feeling, finding out what it is, and sometimes you don’t know until you’ve finished and sometimes I’ve not known what I’ve painted until years later. And not knowing what it’s about, what was trying to come through. But it came through the hand. I think it keeps you awake through life, it keeps in front of you some desire to continue doing that in some way whether it’s big or small it doesn’t matter. But I’m not bored; I’ve never been bored in my life. And I …you know as horrible it was not to be able to see people easily through the COVID, I didn’t really seriously mind that. Because I had so many other things I wanted to do and needed to do. So I think once you find that flow of expression it’s like a gift that’s there for you. And if you don’t use it…if you have it and don’t use it, if you know you have it and you don’t use it, it’s a great drain on the spirit.
SB: Well thank you very much. I really appreciate everything.
DM: Well, you didn’t ask me any questions.
SB: I asked a few [laughter]
SB: Thank you very much for talking with me.
DM: You bet.