Shirley McKechnie (née Gorham) was born in Melbourne in 1926 and began dance lessons at the age of four and ballet lessons at 10. She trained extensively in the Bodenweiser technique and opened one of Australia’s first contemporary dance schools, the Beaumaris School of Modern Ballet, in 1955. In 1963, she founded the Contemporary Dance Theatre of Melbourne, one of Australia’s first contemporary touring dance companies, and served as its director until 1973.
Shirley learned there was no formal dance degree in Australia. She received funding to travel overseas to the United States and Canada, where she studied dance at the Juilliard School, the University of California Los Angeles and York University, amongst others. Speaking to Mayflower, the Assisted Living facility where she spent her later years, Shirley reflected that her three months at Juilliard “were the most valuable … they had such an incredible academic program – the physiology and anatomy training they delivered were outstanding.”
After returning home, Shirley founded the first degree in dance studies in Australia at Rusden College (now Deakin University) and was the head of the program between 1975 and 1984. In 1977, she went on to found the Australian Association for Dance Education (Ausdance) and, in 1981, the first professional education company in Australia (Tasdance).
In her late 50s, Shirley was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The treatment was successful, but it significantly impacted her ability to teach dance. She moved to academia, where she was recognised as one of Australia’s finest dance scholars and received the first-ever ARC grant for dance-based research. In 1998, she was appointed Professor of Dance at the Victorian College of the Arts, where she stayed until her retirement in 2014.
At 70, Shirley began one of her most significant and complex research projects – a study of four-dimensional space, which included height, width, depth and music as time. “Dance is the rare art that occupies all four dimensions,” she explained to Mayflower. “The purpose of the study was to examine dance as an educational tool.” Her collaborative research with Catherine Stevens and Robin Grove culminated in Thinking in Four Dimensions: Creativity and Cognition in Contemporary Dance (Melbourne University Press, 2005).
During her impressive career, Shirley was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 1987 and was promoted to Officer in 2013 for “distinguished service to the performing arts, particularly dance, to the education and development of dancers and choreographers, and to research”. In 2001, she received a lifetime achievement award at the Australian Dance Awards, as well as the Centenary Medal for “service to Australian society and the humanities in the study of dance”. In 2007, Shirley was awarded an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Visual and Performing Arts by the University of Melbourne.
Shirley McKechnie will be remembered as a pioneer of contemporary dance and dance education in Australia and as an inspiration for dancers and researchers in the field. She died on 5 September 2022. Her husband, Ken, passed away in 2008. We extend our deepest sympathies to her children, Graeme and Garry, and her family, friends and colleagues.