Dancing to the Beat of Her Own Books

Alumna Honors Dance Mentor and Duke Memories with Library Gift

By Keegan Trofatter

Barbara Fox Photo by Don Addison
Barbara Figge Fox (photo by Don Addison)

“I was really out on the edges during my time at Duke,” said Barbara Figge Fox (WC’61). “Dance helped me survive. It was my saving grace.”

The former English major and Woman’s College graduate recalls her experience as a student dancer at a time when campus life looked quite different than it does now.

“Duke back then was a hat-and-glove society,” she said. “The ‘Duke Duchess’ was your typical Southern belle, wearing lots of make-up and nice clothes. There was a dress code, too. We weren’t allowed to wear pants unless we were covered up with a trench coat. Now imagine us dancers: black tights, leotards, and trench coats on top. We didn’t look like everyone else, but we learned not to care. It was a valuable lesson in non-conformity.”

Fox speaks fondly about the small cohort of dancers in the Terpsichorean Club—of which she was the president—calling the band her “little refuge.” It is clear dance held a special place in her life. Perhaps that is why she made a promise to herself she would one day support the dance program at Duke.

Barbara Figge and mother Rosalie Figge at Duke
Fox with her mother, Rosalie Figge, at Duke when Fox was an undergraduate.

Recently Fox made a $10,000 gift to the Libraries, hoping to support the research of other Duke students who share her passion by adding titles to the dance collection in Lilly Library. After all, dance was not simply how she spent most of her free time; it also became the focal point of her academics.

“I was taking a number of classes on the Renaissance: French, English, and Music,” Fox said. “I’d become interested in how movement during this time affected each of these subjects. Scholars study this now, but it was an entirely new concept at the time. I was lucky to have professors, such as the brilliant William Blackburn (English), who supported my exploration of this concept.”

However, exploration had its obstacles. At the time, there was a lack of dance criticism and research available to those interested. In response, Fox accumulated books to form a dance reference library out of her own pocket. Fox remembers it was a joy when the Libraries honored her “puny” collection by awarding her one of the student book collecting prizes, an award program that still continues to this day.

“We didn’t have a lot of support, but we had a lot of freedom,” she chuckles, remembering the nights of choreography done in her dorm’s hallways past curfew.

Though there was no official Dance Program at the time, and Fox and her peers received no credit for their classes and performances, she makes a point to say the dance instruction was excellent. She praises the teachings of M. Dorrance, Barbara Dickinson, Clay Taliaferro, and—most importantly—her mentor and advisor to the Dance Club, Julia Wray.

“Primarily I’m making this gift in honor of Julia. She was a quiet, contemplative teacher. She brought invaluable experience with the pioneers of modern dance—Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon—to inspire me and several generations of Duke women.”

Julia Wray image from 1959 Chanticleer
The Terpsichorean Club’s entry in the 1959 Chanticleer yearbook shows Fox’s mentor and advisor Julia Wray (standing, in black), in whose honor Fox made her recent gift to the Libraries.

Fox notes that Wray influenced her personally, encouraging her parents to send her to the American Dance Festival in the summer of 1960. She also cites Wray as being instrumental in bringing ADF to Durham, where it remains to this day.

After graduation, Fox used all she had learned of dance, writing, and music to shape her professional career as a dance critic. She spent two decades on the staff of U.S. 1 Newspaper, Princeton’s business and entertainment journal, where she transitioned from dance writing to business reporting. She also served on the board of the Dance Critic Association.

The memory which stands out the most, however, is when she received an NEA fellowship in 1980 to return to Durham for the three-week Dance Critics Conference hosted by ADF—twenty years after her summer as an ADF dance student.

Barbara Figge Fox at the American Dance Festival in 1960
Fox at the American Dance Festival in 1960.

“It was a searing, wonderful, and horrible experience,” she recalled, “which solidified my position and ambition as a dance writer.”

Fox hopes her gift to the Libraries—the largest charitable contribution she has ever made—will honor her mentors and memories by shaping and supporting the academic curiosities of other students like her: not just dancers, but all Duke students who dance. As the mother and grandmother of Duke graduates, she also hopes to inspire new generations to delight in the art form she has long held dear.

Lee Sorenson, Librarian for Visual Studies and Dance, had this to say about Fox’s gift: “This donation represents the most delightful of challenges—the chance to do something big with a subject area where publication numbers each year are modest. It is particularly appreciated now with the recent arrival of several new dance faculty who have their own special interests, and I have been in discussions with the department on how best to use Ms. Fox’s spectacular gift.”

Keegan Trofatter (T’19) is an English major and student worker in the Library Development and Communications department.