Julianne O'Brien Pedersen
Julianne O'Brien Pedersen

Julianne O’Brien Pedersen

In high school, Julianne O’Brien Pedersen discovered her first love.  Though she had participated in a wide variety of sports, it wasn’t until she met the artistic side of dance that she knew she’d found her calling.

“I became involved in a dance company and learned a great deal from the dancers, many of whom were older,” says Chapman University’s Chair and Professor, Department of Dance.  “To this day, I haven’t found anything that makes me feel as alive, engaged and complete as dance.”

For more than three decades, O’Brien Pedersen has worked in the field of dance as a performer, choreographer, academic leader and dance educator.  She has choreographed more than 70 dances and received numerous grants and awards for her choreography.

Destined to Dance

Though she began college as an English major, O’Brien Pedersen ended up graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Dance from Connecticut College and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Choreography from The Ohio State University.  She is also a certified movement analyst through the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in New York.

Her professional dance journey began in New York City.  “I did a stint as a young dancer, supporting myself by dancing,” she says.  From there, she moved to Michigan, where she was mentored by Peter Sparling, a renowned artist who danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Jose Limon Dance Company.  Julianne became a founding member and soloist for 14 years with the award-winning company, as well as the director of the affiliated studio for a number of years.

During her time in Michigan, she also entered the academic world as Program Director and Professor at Eastern Michigan University in the dance department where she helped the program double in size.

While in Michigan, O’Brien Pedersen married her college sweetheart, David Pedersen, an anthropologist.  When he was offered a position in San Diego, they moved west.  She stepped out of academia for a couple of years to focus on raising their daughter and working as a community dance activist and educator.  When she was offered a job as Dean of the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts, she decided to take the position, becoming a bicoastal family.

During her tenure at Dean College, she updated the dance curriculum, which resulted in recognition in Dance Magazine. She also facilitated new performance opportunities for students at prestigious venues such as the John F. Kennedy Center and created internships for students with the Boston Ballet.

Coming to Chapman

In 2016, O’Brien Pedersen took the Department of Dance Chair role at Chapman.  In addition to chairing the department, she teaches modern dance technique, dance history, yoga, pedagogy and dance outreach and education.

“The university has been such a great fit for me.  I’ve found the position to be fulfilling,” she says.  “I have enjoyed working with colleagues to improve the department and make the student experience the best it can be.  I also love teaching and being in the studio with students to mentor them on performance and technique.  The position also allows me to choreograph, direct concerts and continue to perform.”

Since she joined Chapman, the dance department has scaled new heights.  “The program is becoming increasingly elite and competitive,” she says.  “We had nearly 400 dance major applicants this year from all over the world.  They were so talented that it was difficult to winnow down to 75 students to accept.”

Dancers are drawn to Chapman’s dance department for several reasons.  “We are very warm and welcoming and provide a holistic, unique training experience that includes unparalleled opportunities to perform and choreograph,” she says.

In January of this year, Chapman’s dance major experience got even better with the opening of the Sandi Simon Center for Dance.  Built in the circa-1918 Villa Park Orchards Association Packing House in Old Towne, the state-of-the-art facility features an abundance of natural light, curved staircases and walls that echo the fluid movement of dance, as well as spacious studios, classroom and meeting spaces, a training room for treatment and rehabilitation and plenty of space for students to hang out.

“The new dance building is aesthetically stunning and has been a huge game changer,” says O’Brien Pedersen.  “Our facility now matches the caliber of the dance department.”

Elevating Chapman’s Dance Department

Giulio Ongaro, Dean and Professor, Bertea Family Chair in Music in the College of Performing Arts at Chapman was part of the hiring committee that brought O’Brien Pedersen to Chapman.  He has worked closely with her since she joined the faculty.

“Julianne has had an excellent career as a dancer and choreographer and has used her artistic vision to take the department, which had progressed under the previous Chair, Nancy Dickson Lewis, to new levels,” says Ongaro.  “She has done this with her connections in the world of dance (which have resulted, for example, in prestigious guests coming to work with our students), her imaginative programming, the addition of several events that have done a lot to raise the profile of the department, and her dedication to students, faculty and staff.  She cares deeply about them, and that translates into a tight-knit department, where students are very supportive of their fellow students.”

Robin Kish, Associate Professor in Dance, College of Performing Arts at Chapman, agrees.  “Julianne has brought the dance program to a new level in terms of the depth of our program and offerings.  She has developed innovative programs such as Master’s at Chapman, which brings a myriad of international artists to the University each year to explore topics with our dancers and the Chapman community.  She has a clear vision of the uniqueness of the dance program and how we serve the individual dancers, supporting them to find their own individual artistic voice.”

Kira Bartoli is one such student.  She graduated with her BFA in Dance Performance and a minor in Business Administration in 2018 and is now a professional dancer, social media manager and event coordinator with Backhausdance company.

“Julianne shows care and dedication to her students,” says Bartoli.  “She encourages them to show up and be their most authentic selves—to shed the layers of what they think they need to be.  She challenges her students to learn movement quickly and specifically.  She also guides students through working with partners to encourage interpersonal learning and listens to students regarding their concerns, taking their feedback seriously.  Under her direction, Chapman’s dance department has become more prestigious and sought after by incredibly talented prospective students.”

In addition to college students, O’Brien Pedersen has been involved in dance education and outreach for nursing home residents and underserved youth, including children in foster care.  She received multiple grants from the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children to work with underserved K-3 students in science and history classes.  She continued this work in San Diego, where she developed math in motion curriculum with the Malashock Dance School.  She also taught dance to children in El Salvador.

“Dance is not just an elite artform; it’s for everyone,” she says.  “I think movement is needed even more now with people on their computers and phones.  A great deal of research shows how beneficial dance is for the whole person.  When you move, there are benefits to the brain, spirit and body.  Dance builds community, and I have been fortunate to participate in and build these vital communities wherever I have lived.”

Article Published in the
May / Jun 23 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review
Written by Julie Bawden-Davis Photo by Kristin Smetona
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