Growing up in Brookline, Norma Canner traveled around Boston with a dance company featuring fairy tales when she was 10. She always loved to dance. Little did she think then that she would spend a lifetime teaching others with physical and psychological handicaps how therapeutic dance could change their lives.
“Norma’s effect on people was magical. She was one of God’s sparks of light,’’ said Alan Shapiro of Newton, program director at the Community Therapeutic Day School in Lexington.
“She would take very disturbed children with special needs and transform them like magic,’’ Shapiro said. “Her ability was not that she performed. It was how she made other people express themselves by dancing. Norma could bring people out. She could transform somebody from being in their own world to joining the shared reality of everyone else in the room. If she didn’t have a musical instructor with her, she would pound on the floor to provide the rhythm.’’
With sparkling eyes, a love for clothes, and a great joie de vivre, Mrs. Canner became so well-known she was asked to conduct dancing workshops in Sweden, Germany, Israel, and Norway. Her 1968 book, “And a Time to Dance,’’ explored how creative dance can enrich the lives of children with special needs and has become a classic.
In 1974, Lesley College - now Lesley University, in Cambridge - developed an expressive therapy program and invited Mrs. Canner to head its dance/movement therapy group. She accepted and taught there for 13 years. The university offers a scholarship in her name.
Internationally recognized as a pioneer in the field of dance/movement therapy, Mrs. Canner died Feb. 9 at North Hill, a retirement community in Needham. She was 93. Death was due to emphysema, said her daughter, Karen Moss of Brookline.
“My mother was one who saw abilities rather than disabilities in people,’’ she said.
Mrs. Canner’s illness did not deter her from visiting the Community Therapeutic Day School, Shapiro said, or from taking a tai chi class he taught.
“Norma was very diminutive and never stopped moving,’’ he said.
“Norma believed that dance therapy was for everyone,’’ said Nancy Beardall, coordinator of Lesley’s Dance Therapy Specialization and one of her former students. “She pioneered the work with children with physical and mental problems but later worked with adults. Norma embodied what we as dance therapists celebrate - creativity, wisdom, empathy, relational connection, intuition, playfulness, presence, respect, love of dance, music, nature, and experiencing and celebrating life fully.’’
As a student of Mrs. Canner’s, Beardall recalled accompanying her to Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown and the positive response of the children there as she and her students danced with them.
“Norma believed everyone could dance,’’ she said. “She was a beautiful, sparkling, a loving and lovely woman.’’
She was also “charismatic,’’ said Donna Newman-Bluestein, a dance therapist and adjunct faculty member at Lesley. “She was present-centered, spontaneous, both fun to be with and at the same time, she could be quite exacting. As a teacher, she didn’t make it easy. She didn’t tell us what dance movement therapy was or how to do it. Rather she provided us with experiences and asked us what they meant to us.’’
In 2001 when the American Dance Therapy Association honored Mrs. Canner in Durham, N.C., she described her profession as one “in which our minds will never grow old, where as humble students we learn again and again and where our spiritual being depends and grows in wonderment at the complexity of the people with whom we work as therapists and as teachers.’’
Born Norma Green in Brookline, she graduated from Brookline High School, where she appeared in plays with fellow student Mike Wallace, the television newsman.
It was during the Depression, her daughter said, and her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college, so she went off to New York City at 18 to become an actress.
“I was committed to becoming an actress,’’ she told the American Journal of Dance Therapy in 1990.
In those days, she said, many plays dealt with political issues, and she appeared in one called “Medicine Show’’ that was about poverty in the South and socialized medicine.
While in New York she reconnected with Leonard Canner. They had known each other since their teenage years in Brookline, and he was attending Columbia University.
They married in 1941 and returned to Massachusetts just before he enlisted in the Navy for three years.
In Boston, she “needed to find a way to express myself, and there was no viable theater in Boston at the time,’’ she told the Journal. She took dance classes at the YWCA from Barbara Mettler, a pioneer in creative dancing.
“Barbara’s way of working provided me with the roots and most importantly the belief that all people could dance and that dance had the potential for healing,’’ she told the Journal.
After her husband was discharged from the Navy, the family moved to Toledo, Ohio, for his business in plastic-coated fabrics.
Mrs. Canner got a job at the YMCA in Toledo, where she introduced creative movement to children. A 5-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and braces on both legs was brought in, she told the Journal, and that was her “moment of truth.’’ That marked “the beginning of my dance movement therapy education.’’
Back in Massachusetts in the early 1960s, Mrs. Canner was hired by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health to start a dance movement therapy program for preschool children and children with developmental problems living in state schools.
In 2007, the department honored her for the impact she had on the lives of people with mental illness and her “lifelong dedication and pioneering effort in dance therapy.’’
After Mrs. Canner retired from Lesley in 1986, she maintained a private practice in dance and movement therapy. Her husband died in 2001.
She never gave up on helping others, said Martha Wisler, a Brookline friend. “Norma saw a dove in every pigeon.’’
Nor did she ever lose her unconventional approach to life, her daughter said. Two months before she died she had her hairdresser streak her hair with the color purple.
In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Canner leaves a son, Barry, of Key West, Fla., and two grandchildren.
Services have been held.