Mary Murphy to headline OHIO’s Celebrate Women conference

Published: January 26, 2023 Author: Mary Reed BSJ ’90, MA ’93

Former “So You Think You Can Dance” judge will address domestic violence

Mary Murphy’s life experiences include ballroom dance championships, a stint on Broadway and a longtime role as a judge on Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance.” But when she delivers the keynote address at the Celebrate Women conference March 24 on Ohio University’s Lancaster campus, she will share another defining life experience: her ordeal as a domestic abuse survivor.

Before Murphy completed her OHIO degree in physical education in 1980, she married a fellow student. Despite having job offers locally, her husband took her to Washington, D.C. where his controlling behavior was evident. He often took trips abroad without her, and one time when he did so, Murphy walked into a dance studio in D.C. for a summer job. The ad read “No experience necessary,” and Murphy felt that her PE degree plus a dance minor would do—she had enrolled in a dance class for an elective and continued to take dance classes.

The domestic abuse escalated to physical and sexual assault, but every time her abuser would leave the country for extended trips, Murphy would turn back to dance. “It takes a lot to get to that point where you can actually leave and get someone you could run to,” Murphy says. “I had a dance community that I could run to and that’s what ultimately saved my life.”

Murphy said that her keynote will feature never-before-seen images from her family and “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“I’ll be [talking about] the women who have been empowering in my life, the women who changed the trajectory in my life, and how we all need each other as women,” Murphy says. “And sometimes they show up when you least expect it.”

Murphy came out as a survivor of domestic abuse in 2009 on Larry King Live. “You have to come to your own timing when you want to do something like that, to make it public and to try to help others. It’s never easy,” she says.

When discussing her life story, Murphy transitions quickly from tragic to humorous anecdotes, often punctuating her observations with a laugh. “I find the laughter in everything,” she says. “I’m not just a survivor. I am a survivor. But I’m also a thriver.”

Murphy says she has “cleared house” with most of her past, yet coming back to Southeast Ohio will be one more step in her healing process, as Athens is where the abuse began. She worked with the Ohio University Alumni Association to have her diploma reissued, no longer with the last name of her abuser, but one that represents her most cherished identity: Mary Murphy.