Cathy Young’s mother died when she was 8, and she lost her father at 14. She had never seen concert dance until she went to Harvard. She didn’t even know it existed.
It awakened something in her.
“Having lost my parents really young, I just felt like those people on that stage looked more alive than anyone I had ever seen,” said Young, who spent much of her childhood in the Philadelphia suburbs. “I thought I want to be alive like that, live my life that intensely, with that much commitment.”
She called her aunt and uncle whom she was living with at the time and said she was scrapping law school plans to become a dancer. And dance she did, going on to a decadeslong career as a choreographer, performer, artistic director, and educator, once leading the dance and theater department at Ursinus College and most recently the highly regarded Boston Conservatory at Berklee.
Now, Young is coming home as the next president of Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia, Moore announced Wednesday.
“One of the things that I find really compelling about Moore is that it makes an incredibly strong link between the artistic education of its students and their career success,” Young, 59, said. “The other thing that Moore does is to articulate that the same qualities that are critical to artistic development like curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking are also at the center of leadership.”
“We have great confidence in her to expand Moore’s reach and to lead the college in developing the next generation of artists and leaders,” Arthur R. Block, chair of Moore’s board of managers, said in a statement.
Moore, the only women’s visual arts college in the country with nine majors and 11 minors, enrolls about 370 undergraduates, down nearly 100 from when Fitzgibbons became president in 2012. Moore has struggled with enrollment like many colleges due to the pandemic and an already smaller number of high school graduates. By comparison, the conservatory enrolls about 850, offering graduate and undergraduate degrees in music, dance, and theater.
But Young said the two schools have more in common than not.
“Both institutions are focused on developing creativity in their students and the idea that an education as an artist can be an education that prepares you to be an innovator, to be a leader,” she said.
Young, whose focus has been jazz dance, started at the conservatory as a dean in 2011 and became executive director in 2017 after it merged with the Berklee College of Music. She’s also senior vice president of Berklee.
She loves dance because it is “a communal art form,” shared with other people, she said. She also likes that it’s very challenging and offers a physical way of expression.
Born in New York City, she moved with her parents to Narberth at age 1 and then to Gladwyne until her mother died. Then she moved to Malvern with her father. After his death, she went to live with her aunt and uncle on a farm in Clearfield in central Pennsylvania.
During her first year at Harvard, her roommate took her to an African dance class, which was “like a bolt of lightning.” Her passion grew from there. She graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in sociology and women’s studies and made that fateful call to her aunt and uncle — dance would be her career.
Young founded her own dance company and taught as an adjunct or visiting artist at colleges, including Bucknell, Bates, and the University of Minnesota.
At 40, she enrolled at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for her master’s in fine arts. Then in 2003, she became a tenured professor of dance at Ursinus. She cofounded the dance program and designed the curriculum, spending eight years there, the last two as chair of the theater and dance department. She said she is committed to diversity and inclusion, a focus of hers at the conservatory. In a 2020 speech, titled The Shark and the Water, she describes how she saw a sign in a store window that said “White supremacy is not the shark; it is the water.”
“I have come to understand that statement to mean: White supremacy is not one thing, that we can see swimming toward us in the dark, that we can move away from or avoid. ... Instead, it is amorphous and shape shifting, and like water, it can take on the form of whatever container is holding it.”
In her speech, she said conservatories have to recognize that the art forms they have held aesthetically in the highest regard are classical or European — primarily white art forms that didn’t include Black people in the first few centuries of their development.
“We must challenge ourselves to examine the racial bias that is built into the conservatory model, not just this conservatory but all conservatories, and in doing so, seek to understand and meaningfully address some of the root causes for conservatories to remain primarily white spaces, and spaces in which Black faculty, staff, and students consistently report that they do not feel supported, welcomed, or valued,” she said.
Moore, too, has taken steps to become more inclusive. The board in 2020 modified its admissions policy to accept nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students to the women’s college.
Young said she enjoys the outdoors and has practiced yoga for nearly 40 years. She and her husband, an IT engineer and avid Eagles fan who grew up in Media, are looking forward to returning to the area. It’s their second marriage and they have four children between them, ages 20 to 25, three of them in college.
“We love so many areas around there,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out where we are going to land.”