Jan Hypes

Pioneering dance professor, fitness buff

Jeanette “Jan” Hypes, a retired Pomona College professor who designed and directed the college’s dance program for more than 30 years, died July 17 at her home in Claremont. She was 89.

Ms. Hypes was born in Mansfield, Ohio to George and Mirl Vawter. After earning a degree in physical education from Boling Green State University, Ms. Hypes began her teaching career in Adrian, Michigan, where she met her husband, James Hypes.

When Mr. Hypes, a CPA, was transferred to southern California, the couple moved to Claremont with their 2 daughters. Ms. Hypes joined the staff of Pomona College in 1957, at a time when dance was part of the college’s physical education program.

There were only women in Ms. Hypes’ early dance courses because physical education was divided into 2 separate departments, and classes lasted only 35 minutes—barely long enough to get warmed up. They were also held in a rather primitive venue.

In an article in the 1986 edition of Pomona Today, Ms. Hypes recalled what it was like to teach classes in the Renwick Gym, which was razed in 1982: “It was quite an adventure. Woodpeckers poked holes, bluejays stored acorns, and bees made honey.” 

Dance at Pomona College grew by leaps and bounds under Ms. Hypes’ direction. Classes were lengthened and, in 1970, were moved into the new Pendleton Gym, which contained a capacious dance studio whose construction was championed by Ms. Hypes. By 1973, dance courses were listed in the Pomona College catalogue and, a decade later, they boasted a male enrollment of 50 percent.

Ms. Hypes, who was a self-taught dancer, grew right along with the dance program.

“She made herself into a dancer. That’s not easy to do as an adult,” marveled Meg Jolley, a former student and a lecturer in theater and dance at Pomona College. “She wasn’t technically trained…but she was so gifted in teaching creativity, and in teaching people how to improvise and make dances.”

Ms. Hypes was known for her vitality, teaching early-morning adult exercise classes up until 3 years before her death. She liked to rise at 4:30 a.m. and start her days with a 3-mile run. She channeled this remarkable energy into change at Pomona College.

“She started that dance program from scratch, in the face of, not apathy but hesitance on the part of the college,” Ms. Jolley said. “She had to make that dance program happen, and she really did.”

Ms. Hypes explained the challenges she faced in her 1986 Pomona Today interview.

“They didn’t understand that dance is a viable college subject. Beyond learning how to compose dance, or the sheer technique of dance, you can learn a lot about yourself—about collaboration with others—that you just can’t learn in a typical classroom situation,” she said. “Many students over the years have confided in me that taking my dance class is what kept them sane while at Pomona.”

Jane Sturdivant Yates is one of many former students who have posted fond remembrances of Ms. Hypes on the Pomona College website. As “a slightly uncoordinated biology major,” Ms. Sturdivant Yates was initially nervous to find herself in a dance class, but Ms. Hypes quickly set her at ease.  

“I remember one of her favorite phrases that she used as we warmed up, because it was so amusingly dramatic: “Reach to the sky…and drop!” Ms. Sturdivant Yates recalled. “As she said the last 2 words, she would bend over from the waist and literally fold her body in half, head almost touching her feet. She was an amazingly limber woman, even in her mid-60s, and I often think of her today whenever I stretch.”

Ms. Hypes liked to stretch her professional limits as well as her physical ones.

She was active in the National Dance Association, serving a term as president and editing the NDA publication Discover Dance, a teaching guide for modern dance in secondary schools. In 1994, the NDA named Ms. Hypes its Heritage Honoree for her contribution to teaching and choreography in the field of dance.

Ms. Hypes was also active in the American College Dance Festival Association, the California Dance Educators Association and the Congress on Research in Dance. In 1974, she traveled to New Guinea to conduct research, producing a documentary titled New Guinea Dance and Culture. And in 1984, Ms. Hypes wrote a tome on fitness, with the help of co-author Lee Ann Fujimoto, titled Exercise: The Bottom Line.

Ms. Hypes was as loved for her friendliness and good humor as she was for her passion for fitness and dance. She had a loyalty about her, always opting for dogs of the same breed, dachshund, and driving the same avocado-green 1970 Datsun for 40 years. It’s vanity plate read SEPYH, her last name spelled backwards.

Ms. Hypes enjoyed having students over to her house for parties where she would make her famous blintzes, and kept in touch with alumni all over the world. Every December, she made hundreds of gingerbread dancer cookies that she gave to students, Pomona College colleagues and friends.

Ms. Hypes forged many of her friendships during the adult fitness classes she led in Pomona College’s Rains Center for faculty, staff and community members. Along with providing another excuse for Ms. Hypes to exercise, the classes, which she continued long after her 1988 retirement, allowed her to spread her firm belief that exercise is the path to health and happiness.

“You’ve got to keep your mind and muscles active, even at this age,” Ms. Hypes said in a 1989 Pomona College Magazine article. She often referred to exercise as the world’s cheapest health-care policy.

Catherine Alexander, wife of late Pomona College president David Alexander, took the adult fitness class for years, occasionally rising at 7 a.m. to stretch and move with Ms. Hypes and her group.

“What brought us there was a combination of Jan’s personality and the feeling that the class was very good for us all,” Ms. Alexander noted. “There was a camaraderie among those who went—we were all good friends.”

Nicole Mitescu, a member of the Pomona College physics department who took time to get physically fit under Ms. Hypes’ tutelage, seconded that emotion.

“She had a wonderful sense of humor. She was always cheerful and always inspiring us,” Ms. Mitescu said. “We were all so envious of her ability to touch the ground with her fingertips, of all the things she could do.”

Beyond the world of dance, Ms. Hypes’ community activities included 13 years as president of Claremont Campus Women, member and president of the Scripps Fine Arts Foundation, and board member of the Foothill Philharmonic Committee. In the latter capacity, she teamed up with her friend Lori McCarthy to arrange a program called Fun-filled Fridays, taking FPC members to see the Philharmonic perform while enjoying side tours of LA sights like City Hall, the Bradbury Building, the Guide Dogs Training Center of North America and the printing room of the Los Angeles Times.

“She was very intelligent, she was creative and she had good ideas,” said Paula Pitzer, a former student who often joined Ms. Hypes on these excursions.

Ms. McCarthy said she is already missing her partner in cultural adventures.

“She was an energetic, fun-loving lady.”

In a sad development, Ms. Hypes’ daughter, Rebecca Barns, who helped care for her mother during her final years, died only 2 weeks after her mother. Ms. Hypes is survived by her daughter and her husband, Sylvia and Harry Zeek; brothers and sisters-in-law, George and Helen Vawter and John and Aggie Vawter; sister, Louise Churchill; grandson, Charles Zeek; granddaughter and her husband, Tricia and Rob Solito; and great-grandchildren, Andrew and Johua Zeek and Marisa Solito.

A memorial gathering for Ms. Hypes is planned for May 2013. Memorial contributions can be made to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Endowment Fund (marked Foothill Committee) at 151 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012 or to Pomona College (marked In Memory of Jeanette Hypes), 333 N. College Way, Claremont CA 91711.

—Sarah Torribio




Submit a Comment

Share This