When Janet O’Shea first arrived at UCLA’s School of the Arts and Architecture in 2008, she immediately dove into her responsibilities as a teacher, scholar and colleague in the world arts and cultures/dance department. Before long, she became popular not only in her field of expertise ― dance studies ― but also in two unexpected disciplines outside of her initial appointment: food studies and self-defense.

O’Shea’s versatility was one of the many reasons why her colleague, Lionel Popkin, decided to nominate her for this year’s Gold Shield Faculty Prize. Sponsored by Gold Shield Alumnae, which was founded in 1936 by 12 women to provide service to the university and its community, the annual prize awards $30,000 to an exceptional mid-career full professor with a distinguished record of undergraduate teaching, research and university service. O’Shea was chosen as the 2020 recipient by the Gold Shield Faculty Prize Committee.

“In all aspects ― teaching, research and service ― she far exceeds expectations and, indeed, expands the very definitions of those roles,” Popkin wrote in his nomination letter. “As a dance scholar, her attention to food studies and self-defense evidence a holistic approach to what it means for a body to exist within the environment’s ecosystem.”

O’Shea consistently earns excellent marks from students in all of her classes, which include history/theory of modern dance, prospectus writing, choreography/performance, food politics and Fiat Lux seminars in self-defense.

One undergraduate dance major wrote: “As an expert in Bharatanatyam [a major form of Indian classical dance], it was especially exciting to see Professor O’Shea teach a subject she was so passionate about, not only because she was able to impart her knowledge of it, but because she was also able to demonstrate it physically and teach us the dance form.”

An environmental civil engineering student in O’Shea’s class about food politics said: “If O’Shea can get a college student to stop eating ice cream and pizza, I think she can do anything in this world. Her class not only inspired me to go vegan, but the topics we covered in class pushed me to pursue my own research and even led to me taking on leadership roles with campus organizations focused on food sustainability.”

O’Shea said she was “flabbergasted” to receive the award.

“Lionel Popkin had intimated that he was nominating me for an award, but I had no idea that it was for something so prestigious,” she said. “I received notification of the award in a 15-minute gap between teaching two classes ― via Zoom ― so the timing was particularly gratifying. It was heartwarming to learn that undergraduate students wrote recommendations regarding my teaching and that a number of my WACD colleagues wrote evaluations of my research. Balancing attention and effort between research, service and teaching can sometimes feel like a split in attention; receiving this award is a wonderful acknowledgement that these three components of the academic path can be mutually supportive.”

How O’Shea ― who was raised in Yorktown Heights, a largely blue-collar suburb of New York City ― found her way to UCLA was roundabout. As a youngster, O’Shea hated the ballet and Irish dance classes her mother sent her to. It wasn’t until middle school, when she attended a Girl Scout camp and a guest instructor came in to teach jazz dance, that she fell in love with dance. She began her career taking jazz and ballet classes, which were the only concert dance forms offered in her small town.

O’Shea went on to major in dance and anthropology at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where she developed a love for South Indian dance and music. From there, she earned her master’s degree in South Asian languages and literature at UC Berkeley and her Ph.D. in dance history and theory from UC Riverside. As a graduate student, she was finally able to capitalize on a childhood fascination with legendary martial artist Bruce Lee by training in wing chun kung fu. It was only when she began working at UCLA, however, that she got the opportunity to train in Lee’s own art, jeet kune do, a hybrid martial art based in wing chun kung fu, English boxing and fencing.

O’Shea has written two books, “At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage” (2007) and “Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals about Martial Arts Training” (2019). The latter has received attention for its focus on competition and how it can hone focus, generate good will and produce pleasure, but only when balanced by an ethics of experience that ensures that respect, consent and cooperation matter more than the outcome.

The dance professor is currently working on a third book, “Bodies on the Line: Physical Risk and Social Justice,” which will focus on a timely topic: the role of the physical body and sentiment in social justice efforts.

“Most people who know me are unsurprised by my interest in martial arts, given that I’m always up for adventure,” said O’Shea, who lives in Los Angeles with her partner, Tim Shireman, and their daughter, Ellington. “I’ve been involved with various forms of risk play, such as wilderness training and rock climbing, for quite some time, and have trained in martial arts since graduate school. Prior to the pandemic, I enjoyed travel to out-of-the-way places where the journey itself was challenging.

“I get more surprise in the other direction: when someone sees my martial arts photos in a professional setting, and we meet in person and they realize that I am not all fight and ferocity.”

UCLA Broadcast Studio
Janet O’Shea says there are lessons in competitive play that can be useful in other arenas.