Mary Simonson spent her childhood years in New Jersey doing normal kids’ stuff—taking piano lessons, competing in gymnastics and studying dance. Injuries and other interests led her to put some physical pursuits aside, but her love of music blossomed into a decision to pursue it as a major at Rutgers University.
“After about two years, I realized that what I loved was not performing but studying musicology,” Simonson says.
She also became involved in women’s studies, which she blended with her music research. And eventually her academic side acknowledged her body’s love of rhythmic movement.
“When I got to graduate school, I realized that movement was something really important to me and was part of my musical experience. I began exploring how I could integrate dance and movement into my academic study. I figured out some ways to do it at the University of Virginia, which was really nice.”
Simonson’s dissertation, “Music, Dance and Female Creativity in Early 20th Century American Performance,” was the crowning work in earning a Ph.D. in music—the first at UVA and the first in the state of Virginia. After graduating in August, she left Charlottesville to teach as a visiting professor of music at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Her experience at UVA, she says, was “wonderful, wonderful.”
“The faculty were completely supportive. Because it was a new program, there were a lot of unique opportunities to help shape and build the department’s graduate program,” Simonson says.
Michael Puri, assistant professor of music theory and a reader for Simonson’s dissertation, praised the originality of her work. “There are not many who have written from the perspectives of both dance and feminism. That is very original.”
Simonson, who was a Presidential Fellow while at UVA, says that a fledgling program such as the University’s allows more freedom and originality than schools with well-entrenched traditions. “There really weren’t hoops like that to jump through.”
Now she’s working on adapting parts of her dissertation for publication and studying opera singers in early film, including Mary Garden. The Scottish soprano, a true diva, starred in silent films in the early 1900s.
“They weren’t actually very popular or very successful,” Simonson says. “What’s most interesting to me is why they failed. I’m looking at the diva identity versus the star and how that transformation occurred.”
Beyond that, Simonson is heeding her own call for movement through Pilates, yoga—and dance classes.