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Dance His(Her)story

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

RDC 2019 - 2020

"Fosse, Fosse, Fosse...Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham...Twyla, Twyla, Twyla... Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd, Michael Kidd..."


Isadora Duncan


Isadora Duncan dancing in the Dionysos theater of Athens. 1903.

“If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it”

--Isadora Duncan

Considered the founding mother of American modern dance, Isadora Duncan was self-taught. She was born in California in 1877 and she lived in Western Europe and the Soviet Union from the age of 22 until her death at age 50, when her scarf became entangled in the wheels and axle of the car in which she was riding in 1927. She presented her first concerts in 1898, and by 1900 she was in Europe, where she would spend most of her remaining life and win the greatest acceptance. Duncan was truly revolutionary. She discarded the corset, slippers, and tutu of conventional ballet dress, adopting instead tunics that freed the body and revealed its movement. She used music by Chopin, Beethoven, Gluck, Wagner, and other first rank composers.

She danced on concert stages and in opera houses. She spoke of her dancing not as entertainment but as art with a high moral purpose. Most of all, she insisted upon the essence of dance as movement. Her vocabulary was simple but performed with a musicality, dynamic subtlety, and charisma that made it powerfully expressive. She believed the soul lived in the solar plexus.

Breaking with convention, Duncan imagined she had traced dance to its roots as a sacred art. She developed from this notion a style of free and natural movements inspired by the classical Greek arts, folk dances, social dances, nature and natural forces as well as an approach to the new American athleticism which included skipping, running, jumping, leaping and tossing.

Duncan's philosophy of dance moved away from rigid ballet technique and towards what she perceived as natural movement. To restore dance to a high art form instead of merely entertainment, she strove to connect emotions and movement: "I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance which might be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body's movement." She believed dance was meant to encircle all that life had to offer—joy and sadness. Duncan took inspiration from ancient Greece and combined it with an American love of freedom. Her movement was feminine and arose from the deepest feelings in her body. This is exemplified in her revolutionary costume of a white Greek tunic and bare feet. Inspired by Greek forms, her tunics also allowed a freedom of movement that corseted ballet costumes and pointe shoes did not. Costumes were not the only inspiration Duncan took from Greece: she was also inspired by ancient Greek art, and utilized some of its forms in her movement.

Duncan wrote of American dancing: "let them come forth with great strides, leaps and bounds, with lifted forehead and far-spread arms, to dance." Her focus on natural movement emphasized steps, such as skipping, outside of codified ballet technique. Duncan also cited the sea as an early inspiration for her movement. Also, she believed movement originated from the solar plexus, which she thought was the source of all movement. It is this philosophy and new dance technique that garnered Duncan the title of the creator of modern dance.

In 1904, Duncan established her first school of dance just outside of Berlin, where she began to develop her theories of dance education and to assemble her famous dance group, later known as the Isadorables.

Between 1904 and 1907, Duncan lived and worked in Greece, Germany, Russia and Scandanavia. On the night of September 14, 1927, in Nice, France, Duncan was a passenger in an Amilcar CGSS automobile owned by Benoît Falchetto, a French-Italian mechanic. She wore a long, flowing, hand-painted silk scarf, created by the Russian-born artist Roman Chatov, a gift from her friend Mary Desti, the mother of American film director Preston Sturges. Desti, who saw Duncan off, had asked her to wear a cape in the open-air vehicle because of the cold weather, but she would only agree to wear the scarf. As they departed, she reportedly said to Desti and some companions, "Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!" ("Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!"); but according to the American novelist Glenway Wescott, Desti later told him that Duncan's actual parting words were, "Je vais à l'amour" ("I am off to love"). Desti considered this embarrassing, as it suggested that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a tryst. Her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, pulling her from the open car and breaking her neck. Desti said she called out to warn Duncan about the scarf almost immediately after the car left. Desti brought Duncan to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

As The New York Times noted in its obituary, Duncan "met a tragic death at Nice on the Riviera." "According to dispatches from Nice, Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement." Other sources noted that she was almost decapitated by the sudden tightening of the scarf around her neck. The accident gave rise to Gertrude Stein's mordant remark that "affectations can be dangerous.” At the time of her death, Duncan was a Soviet citizen. Her will was the first of a Soviet citizen's to be probated in the U.S.

Duncan was cremated, and her ashes were placed next to those of her children in the columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. On the headstone of her grave is inscribed École du Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris.

RDC "Isadorables"


De Fina, Pamela. Maria Theresa: Divine Being, Guided by a Higher Order. Pittsburgh: Dorrance, 2003. ISBN 0-8059-4960-7

About Duncan's adopted daughter; Pamela De Fina, student and protegée of Maria Theresa Duncan from 1979 to 1987 in New York City, received original choreography, which is held at the New York Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Duncan, Anna. Anna Duncan: In the footsteps of Isadora. Stockholm: Dansmuseet, 1995. ISBN 91-630-3782-3

Duncan, Doralee; Pratl, Carol and Splatt, Cynthia (eds.) Life Into Art. Isadora Duncan and Her World. Foreword by Agnes de Mille. Text by Cynthia Splatt. Hardcover. 199 pages. W. W. Norton & Company, 1993. ISBN 0-393-03507-7

Duncan, Irma. The Technique of Isadora Duncan. Illustrated. Photographs by Hans V. Briesex. Posed by Isadora, Irma and the Duncan pupils. Austria: Karl Piller, 1937. ISBN 0-87127-028-5

Duncan, Isadora. My Life. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927. OCLC 738636

Duncan, Isadora; Cheney, Sheldon (ed.) The Art of the Dance. New York: Theater Arts, 1928. ISBN 0-87830-005-8

Kurth, Peter. Isadora: A Sensational Life. Little Brown, 2001. ISBN 0-316-50726-1

Levien, Julia. Duncan Dance: A Guide for Young People Ages Six to Sixteen. Illustrated. Dance Horizons, 1994. ISBN 0-87127-198-2

Peter, Frank-Manuel (ed.) Isadora & Elizabeth Duncan in Germany. Cologne: Wienand Verlag, 2000. ISBN 3-87909-645-7

Savinio, Alberto. Isadora Duncan, in Narrate, uomini, la vostra storia. Bompiani,1942, Adelphi, 1984.

Schanke, Robert That Furious Lesbian: The Story of Mercedes de Acosta. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois Press, 2003.

Stokes, Sewell. Isadora, an Intimate Portrait. New York: Brentanno's Ltd, 1928.

Sturges, Preston; Sturges, Sandy (adapt. & ed.) (1991), Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges, Boston: Faber & Faber, ISBN 0571164250


Loie Fuller


Loie Fuller (born Marie Louise Fuller; January 15, 1862 – January 1, 1928), was an American actress and dancer who was a pioneer of both modern dance and theatrical lighting techniques. Born in the Chicago suburb of Fullersburg, now Hinsdale, Illinois,

Fuller began her theatrical career as a professional child actress and later choreographed and performed dances in burlesque (as a skirt dancer), vaudeville, and circus shows. An early free dance practitioner, Fuller developed her own natural movement and improvisation techniques. In multiple shows she experimented with a long skirt, choreographing its movements and playing with the ways it could reflect light.

By 1891, Fuller combined her choreography with silk costumes illuminated by multi-coloured lighting of her own design, and created the Serpentine Dance. After much difficulty finding someone willing to produce her work when she was primarily known as an actress, she was finally hired to perform her piece between acts of a comedy entitled Uncle Celestine, and received rave reviews.

Fuller left for Europe in June 1892. She became one of the first of many American modern dancers who traveled to Europe to seek recognition.Her warm reception in Paris persuaded Fuller to remain in France, where she became one of the leading revolutionaries in the arts. A regular performer at the Folies Bergère with works such as Fire Dance, Fuller became the embodiment of the Art Nouveau movement and was often identified with Symbolism, as her work was seen as the perfect reciprocity between idea and symbol.

Art Nouveau, ornamental style of art that flourished between about 1890 and 1910 throughout Europe and the United States. Art Nouveau is characterized by its use of a long, sinuous, organic line and was employed most often in architectureinterior designjewelry and glassdesign, posters, and illustration. It was a deliberate attempt to create a new style, free of the imitative historicism that dominated much of 19th-century art and design. About this time the term Art Nouveau was coined, in Belgium by the periodical L’Art Moderne to describe the work of the artist group Les Vingt and in Paris by S. Bing, who named his gallery L’Art Nouveau. The style was called Jugendstil in Germany, Sezessionstil in Austria, Stile Floreale (or Stile Liberty) in Italy, and Modernismo (or Modernista) in Spain.

The movement was committed to abolishing the traditional hierarchy of the arts, which viewed the so-called liberal arts, such as painting and sculpture, as superior to craft-based decorative arts. The style went out of fashion for the most part long before the First World War, paving the way for the development of Art Deco in the 1920s, but it experienced a popular revival in the 1960s, and it is now seen as an important predecessor - if not an integral component - of modernism.

Gustav Klimt (July 14, 1862 – February 6, 1918) was an Austrian symbolist painter

famously said, “Enough of censorship…I refuse every form of support from the state, I’ll do without all of it,” – because he was attacked for his work’s swirling erotic forms, he went on pioneer his Gold Period – one of the highlights of Art Nouveau.

won the gold medal in 1911 International Exhibition, also held in rome.  The painting show a little girl in the protecting arms of a young woman, while beside them an old woman stands with bowed head. The aged crone is symbolic of the passage of time. The Three Ages of Woman falls into Klimt's Golden Period which includes other works such as The Kiss. This period was characterized by high ornamentation and the use of gold and metallic paints.[4] This work also suggest that it is part of the Art Nouveau movement due to the time period and the decorative elements. The Painting is located in Rome at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna.
"The Three Ages of Women" 1905

Fuller began adapting and expanding her costume and lighting, so that they became the principal element in her performance—perhaps even more important than the actual choreography, especially as the length of the skirt was increased and became the central focus, while the body became mostly hidden within the depths of the fabric. An 1896 film of the Serpentine Dance by the pioneering film-makers Auguste and Louis Lumière gives a hint of what her performance was like. (The unknown dancer in the film is often mistakenly identified as Fuller herself; however, there is no actual film footage of Fuller dancing.)

Fuller's pioneering work attracted the attention, respect, and friendship of many French artists and scientists, including Jules Chéret, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, François-Raoul Larche, Henri-Pierre Roché, Auguste Rodin, Jean-Léon GérômeFranz von StuckMaurice DenisThomas Theodor Heine, Paul-Léon Jazet, Koloman Moser, Demetre Chiparus, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Marie Curie. Fuller was also a member of the Société astronomique de France (French Astronomical Society).

Fuller supported other pioneering performers, such as fellow United States-born dancer Isadora Duncan. Fuller helped Duncan ignite her European career in 1902 by sponsoring independent concerts in Vienna and Budapest.Fuller had a school and a company beginning in 1908, where she taught natural movement and improvisational techniques. She did not, however, teach them her lighting and costuming "tricks."Fuller was the first expatriot American dancer, and introduced Isadora Duncan to Parisian audiences.

In 1891, Loie Fullerbegan experimenting with the effects of gas lighting on her silk costumes. Fuller developed a form of natural movement and improvisation techniques that were used in conjunction with her revolutionary lighting equipment and translucent silk costumes. Fuller was an inventor and stage craft innovator who held many patents for stage lighting, including the first chemical mixes for gels and slides and the first use of luminescent salts to create lighting effects. Most of the movement was performed with the arms, as Fuller had minimal dance training. She emphasized visual effect rather than storytelling or expressing emotions.

She created a unique art form by crafting mesmerizing, multi-media spectacles out of fabric, motion and light. With her swirling costumes and specially-engineered illuminations, this American-born artist enraptured fin de siècle Paris. A favorite subject of visual artists (Jules Chéret, Henri de Toulouse-Latrec, François-Raoul Larche, Pierre Roche, among others), she became the embodiment of the Art Nouveau movement. Fuller’s unprecedented success in Europe paved the way for the careers of later modern dancers, including Isadora Duncan, Maud Allan, and Ruth St. Denis. Fuller was influential, not just in fields of dance and the visual arts, but also in lighting design, stagecraft and cinema. Given the today’s preoccupation with technology and its origins, Fuller’s ingenious use of special effects has particular relevance. An independent visionary artist, Fuller fashioned herself into one of her era’s most influential and celebrated performers. 

Fuller occasionally returned to America to stage performances by her students, the "Fullerets" or Muses, but spent the end of her life in Paris. She died of pneumonia at the age of 65 on January 1, 1928 in Paris, two weeks shy of her 66th birthday. She was cremated and her ashes are interred in the columbarium at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Sarah's reimagining of Loie Fuller's Serpentine Dance


Cohen, Selma (1998). "Fuller, Loie". The International Encyclopedia of Dance. Oxford University Press.

Sommer, Sally R. “Loïe Fuller.” The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 19, no. 1, 1975, pp. 53–67.

Sally R. Sommer, "La Loie: The Life and Art of Loie Fuller", Penguin Publishing Group, 1986, ISBN 9780399129018.

Kraut, Anthea. "White Womanhood and Early Campaigns for Choreographic Copyright" in Choreographing Copyright : Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance. Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press, 2015. ProQuest ebrary.

Albright, Ann Cooper (2016). "Resurrecting the Future: Body, Image, and Technology in the Work of Loïe Fuller". In Rosenberg, Douglas (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 715–730. ISBN 978-0-19-998160-1.

Rhonda K. Garlick, Electric Salome: Loie Fuller's Performance of Modernism, Princeton University Press, February 2009, ISBN 9780691141091.

Fuller's autobiographical memoir Quinze ans de ma vie was written in English, translated into in French by Bojidar Karageorgevitc and published by F. Juven (Paris) in 1908 with an introduction by Anatole France. She drafted her memoirs again in English a few years later, which were published under the title Fifteen Years of a Dancer's Life by H. Jenkins (London) in 1913. The New York Public Library Jerome Robbins Dance Collection holds the nearly complete manuscript to the English edition and materials related to the French edition.Although her book is a first hand account, she was also known for being very adaptive in her story telling. There are seven highly dramatized versions of how she got her first silk skirt; however, the real story is unknown. As well as writing about inventing the Serpentine Dance, she also wrote extensively about her own theories of modern dance and motion.


Ruth St. Denis


Ruth St. Denis, original name Ruth Dennis, (born January 20, 1879, Newark, New Jersey, U.S.—died July 21, 1968, Los Angeles, California), American contemporary dance innovator who influenced almost every phase of American dance.

From an early age Ruth Dennis displayed a marked interest in the theatre and especially in dance. She began dancing and acting in vaudeville and musical comedy shows when she was a teenager, and she appeared in David Belasco’s productions of ZazaThe Auctioneer, and Du Barry. While touring in the last play she was reputedly inspired by a cigarette poster featuring an Egyptian scene of the goddess Isis to begin investigating Asian art and dance.

Dennis took the stage name Ruth St. Denis, and in 1906, after studying Hindu art and philosophy, she offered a public performance in New York City of her first dance work, Radha (based on the milkmaid Radha who was an early consort of the Hindu god Krishna), together with such shorter pieces as The Cobra and The Incense. A three-year European tour followed. She was particularly successful in Vienna, where she added The Nautch and The Yogi to her program, and in Germany. Her later productions, many of which had religious themes, included the long-planned Egypta (1910) and O-mika (1913), a dance drama in a Japanese style.

In 1914 St. Denis married Ted Shawn, her dance partner, and the next year they founded the Denishawn school and company in Los Angeles. During that time, St. Denis’s choreographic style broadened to include group numbers occasionally derived from European as well as Asian sources. Among her choreographic innovations were “music visualization”—a concept that called for movement equivalents to the timbres, dynamics, and structural shapes of music in addition to its rhythmic base—and a related choreographic form that she called “synchoric orchestra”—a technique, comparable to the eurythmics of Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, that assigned one dancer to interpret the rhythms of each instrument of the orchestra.

Ruth St. Denis with students from her school

St. Denis and Shawn separated, both professionally and maritally, in 1931, though they never divorced. St. Denis, who retired briefly from public performance, founded the Society of Spiritual Arts and devoted much of the rest of her life to promoting the use of dance in religion. In 1940, with La Meri (Russell M. Hughes), she founded the School of Natya to continue the teaching of South Asian dance. She resumed performing in 1941 with an appearance at Shawn’s Jacob’s Pillow Festival in Massachusetts, where she continued to appear annually until 1955. Often called the “first lady of American dance,” she remained active into the 1960s, when many of her better-known solos were recorded on film.

St. Denis founded Adelphi University's dance program in New York State in 1938, which is credited as one of the first dance departments in an American university. It has since become a cornerstone of Adelphi's Department of Performing Arts.

St. Denis had a profound influence on the course of modern dance in America, particularly through Denishawn, which was the first major organized centre of dance experiment and instruction in the country and whose students included Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. Prompted by a belief that dance should be spiritual instead of simply entertaining or technically skillful, St. Denis brought to American dance a new emphasis on meaning and the communication of ideas by using themes previously considered too philosophical for theatrical dance. Although she was never concerned with technique for its own sake, her extensive use of Asian dance forms and abstract “music visualizations” encouraged her students to develop other nonballetic movements that became known as modern dance. Her autobiography, Ruth St. Denis: An Unfinished Life, was published in 1939. Ruth St. Denis died of a heart attack on July 21, 1968, aged 89, at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital in Los Angeles.


Bernardi, Vito di: Ruth St. Denis. Palermo, L'Epos, 2006. ISBN 88-8302-314-5.

Desmond, Jane: Dancing Out the Difference: Cultural Imperialism and Ruth St. Denis’s Radha of 1906.In: Dils, Ann/Cooper Albright, Ann (eds.): Moving History, Dancing Cultures. A Dance History Reader.Wesleyan University Press, Wesleyan 2001, pp. 256–270, ISBN 978-0-8195-6413-9.

LaMothe, Kimerer L.: Passionate Madonna: The Christian Turn of American Dancer Ruth St. Denis.In: Journal of the American Academy of Religion.Volume 66, Issue 4/1998, pp. 747–769.

Miller, Kamae A.: Wisdom Comes Dancing: Selected Writings of Ruth St. Denis on Dance, Spirituality and the Body. Seattle: PeaceWorks. 1997. ISBN 0-915424-14-2.

Schlundt, Christena L: Into the mystic with Miss Ruth. Dance Perspectives Foundation, 1971.

Schlundt, Christena L.: The Professional Appearances of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. A Chronology and an Index of Dances 1906-1932.Literary Licensing (LLC), New York 1962, ISBN 978-1-2586-3519-0.

Shawn, Ted: Ruth St. Denis: pioneer & prophet; being a history of her cycle of oriental dances. Printed for J. Howell by J. H. Nash, 1920.

Shelton, Suzanne: Divine Dancer: A Biography of Ruth St. Denis. New York: Doubleday, 1981.

Sherman, Jane/Schlundt, Christena L.: Who’s St. Denis? What Is She? In: Dance Chronicle. Studies in Dance and the Related Arts.Volume 10, Issue 3/1987, pp. 305–329.

St. Denis, Ruth: Ballet of the States.In: Dance Chronicle. Studies in Dance and the Related Arts.Volume 20, Issue 1/1997, pp. 52–60.

St. Denis, Ruth: Dance as spiritual expression.In: Rogers, Frederick Rand (ed.): Dance: A Basic Educational Technique. A Functional Approach to the Use of Rhythmics and Dance as Prime Methods of Body Development and Control, and Transformation of Moral and Social Behaviour. Dance Horizons Inc., New York 1980, pp. 100–111, ISBN 978-0-8712-7108-2.

St. Denis, Ruth: The Dance as Life Experience.In: Brown, Jean Morrison (ed.): The Vision of Modern Dance.Princeton Book Company, Princeton/New Jersey 1979, pp. 21–25, ISBN 978-0-9166-2213-8.

St. Denis, Ruth: An Unfinished Life: an Autobiography. Dance Horizons Republication, Brooklyn, New York, 1969.

St. Denis, Ruth: Religious Manifestations in the Dance.In: Sorell, Walter (ed.): The Dance has many Faces.Columbia University Press, New York/London 1968, pp. 12–18, ISBN 978-0-2310-2968-1.

St. Denis, Ruth: Freedom. A Rhythmic Interpretation.In: Dance Observer.Volume 23, Issue 1/1956, pp. 6–7.

St. Denis, Ruth: What is Religious Dance?In: Dance Observer.Volume 17, Issue 5/1950, pp. 68–69.

St. Denis, Ruth: Seeds of a New Order.In: Division of Higher Education of the Board of Education of the United Methodist Church (ed.): Motive.Volume 8, Issue 7/1948, pp. 28–29.

St. Denis, Ruth: My Vision.In: Dance Observer.Volume 7, Issue 3/1940, p. 33/p. 42.

St. Denis, Ruth: Lotus Light. Poems.Boston/New York 1932.

St. Denis, Ruth: The Dance of the East.In: Theatre Arts Monthly. The International Magazine of Theatre and Screen.August 1927, pp. 605–612.

Terry, Walter: Miss Ruth: the "more living life" of Ruth St. Denis. Dodd, Mead, New York, 1969.


Doris Humphrey

1895 - 1958

(October 17, 1895 – December 29, 1958) Humphrey was born in Oak Park, Illinois, but grew up in Chicago, Illinois. She was an American dancer and choreographer of the early twentieth century. Along with her contemporaries Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham, Humphrey was one of the second-generation modern dance pioneers who followed their forerunners – including Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn – in exploring the use of breath and developing techniques still taught today. As many of her works were annotated, Humphrey continues to be taught, studied, and performed.

Doris Humphrey was a choreographic master, theoretician, and creator of the technique known as fall and recovery. She studied at the Denishawn school in Los Angeles, where her teaching and creative abilities were quickly recognized. In 1928 she left Denishawn and gave her first independent concert with Charles Weidman, with whom she formed the Humphrey‐Weidman Studio and Company in New York. From the start her work demonstrated an unerring sense of form, as well as an interest in large‐scale abstract works.

Humphrey’s theory explored the nuances of the human body's responses to gravity, embodied in her principle of "fall and recovery". She called this "the arc between two deaths". At one extreme, an individual surrenders to the nature of gravity; at the other, one attempts to achieve balance. Through the fall and recovery principle, Humphrey is able to illustrate emotional and physical climax of struggling for stability and submitting to the laws of gravity.

Starting with basic physical resources like breath, weight, balance, and spatial orientation, the dancer moves between the "death" of stasis and the activity of maintaining balance. As the body approaches an extreme of off-balance, it reverses or rebounds into another risky trajectory. The resulting vocabulary of swings, suspensions, falls, leaps, and turns, with variations of energy and three- dimensional sculpting effects, produces exciting, viscerally expressive movement.

Like Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey was interested in the fundamental importance of tension and relaxation in the body and used it as the foundation of her own system of movement principles. She called her version of the contraction and release of muscles and of the breath cycle "fall and recovery." Unlike Graham, who stressed the tension in the cycle, Humphrey located the height or apex of the continuum in the suspension of tension. As a result, her vocabulary was based on the notion that all movement patterns fall into three divisions: opposition; succession; and unison and that all movement characteristics fall into three divisions: sharp accent; sustained flow; and rest.

Her choreography from these early years includes Air for the G String, Water Study, Life of the Bee, Two Ecstatic Themes, and The Shakers. Unlike the Denishawn approach in choreography, finding inspiration from abroad, Humphrey sought inspiration from within her home, America. The Shakers, about the 18th century American religious group, is a notable example of finding inspiration from America.

The Humphrey-Weidman Company was successful even in the Great Depression, touring America and developing new styles and new works based not on old tales but on current events and concerns. In the mid-1930s Humphrey created the "New Dance Trilogy", a triptych comprising With My Red Fires, New Dance, and the now-lost Theater Piece. Though the three pieces were never performed together, they were danced to the score by Wallingford Rigger. Here Humphrey looks at the competitive lives of businessmen, working women, athletes, and actors.

She founded the Juilliard Dance Theatre in 1955 and her book, The Art of Making Dances (1959), was based on her theories about dance composition.

Shortly after her death in 1958, Humphrey's book, The Art of Making Dances, in which she shared her observations and theories on dance and composition, was published. In the introduction she observed that ballet had changed radically in the 20th century. "Suddenly the dance," she said, "the Sleeping Beauty, so long reclining in her dainty bed, had risen up with a devouring desire." She believed in emotions and movement moving "from the inside out", but she also believed in working abstractly where specific events and characters were not illustrated in a way that made sense. For example, "she believed that the concept of democracy was more convincingly conveyed by a fugue uniting four different themes than by a woman in red, white and blue." Her theory of Fall and Recovery is still used to this day by many choreographers.


Au, Susan1988 and 2002. "Ballet and Modern Dance". London: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.

Dunning, Jennifer 1989. "Review/Dance; Recalling the Spirit of Doris Humphrey". The New York Times.

"The Art of Making Dances" inspired movement/choreography exploration homework assignment

Choreography is the process of selecting and forming movement into a dance, designing the action to satisfy a particular intent.

Choreography is a process of exploration, improvisation, selection and organization.

Choreography is a way of getting to know yourself.

The movements material and method influence the final product of a dance piece

Choreography is individual for each dance.

Focus and performance qualities along with theatrical elements aid the final effect of your piece.

“A choreographer should be an observer of physical and emotional behavior.” (Humphrey, page 22)


As you walk around school today observe the physical, body language, of your classmates. Choose three different people to observer for three minutes. How does their body represent their emotions?

Person 1


Person 2


Person 3


What have you learned about yourself from observing others?


Now ask yourself: “What do I believe in, what do I want to say?” (Humphrey, 21)

This will be theme of your dance. The subject matter should be the source of inspiration for your dance. The theme should be something that you feel passionately about.

Brainstorm ideas/themes for your piece.


“Anna Pavlova moved countless audience to tears and remains the supreme example of romantic tragedy in dance. It is certainly not because of the actual subject. Who could care seriously about a swan, alive or dying...But there are no famous dances about the death of a noble horse or “The Dying Dog." There must be other potent factors in such a dance.” The music for the Dying Swan was a cello playing a wistful melody. The swan is considered beautiful. The death was not agony, just fading away with grace. This dance was lovely, mysterious and tragic (Humphrey, 28).

“The fact is that subject matter is mostly of concern to the choreographer, and whether it takes the form of narrative, symbolism or a conviction about style, is of no importance; the enthusiasm for it and innate talent is what keeps it alive, and puts it palpitating on the stage” (Humphrey, 27).


Where do ideas for dances come from?

• Experience from life its self

• Folklore

• Social conditions

• Fantasy

• Feeling

• Moods

• Impression

• Special interests

• Style

Ask yourself…

• Does the theme have the motivation for movement?

• Is the theme detailed enough for a whole piece?

• Is this a cosmic theme? Meaning is the theme to vague or too large to address in a dance?

• What is the emotion behind the theme?

• Why do I want to create a dance work based on this theme?

Know what your intention is and then say it with clarity and simplicity.

Intention: What you want to say

Motivation: Why you want to say it

Clarity: Precise content clear and clean

Try it: Put your arm out. Gather something and bring it in. Try it with different intentions: evil, caring, sneaking, tenderness, teasing, hoarding, loving destroying, saving…

What is the theme of your dance?



Now that you have established a theme it is time to start creating movement for your dance. You will start by creating several dance phrases.

A phrase or a dance sentence expresses a complete thought in dance-like a written sentence does. A phrase is a basic compositional structure with a beginning, middle, and end-like a written sentence. Phrases are composed with movements-usually built on dance elements concepts-just as sentences are composed with words. Longer dance studies have numbers of phrases that relate to each other-just as paragraphs and stories have numbers of sentences that further the topic.

Using your theme as the motivating idea for all your movement choices. Create at least three no more than five dance phrases that are based on your theme. At least one phrase should travel. Your phrase work should have recognizable shape, with a beginning, middle, and end. They should have dynamic changes and differ in length.

• Every movement in your dance must serve that dance and that dance only. All the movements should validate and help fulfill your intention

There are three categories of phrases:

1. High Point (or climax) at the beginning

2. High Point (or climax) at the end

3. High Point (or climax) at or near the middle.


Select the form and structure that you think will best represent your theme.







Motif and development



Composition Exercise

Liminality (Ava)

Hidden (Nia)

Discovery (Kelbe)


Martha Graham

1894 - 1991

Notable Martha Graham Quotes

Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.

Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.

Movement never lies. It is a barometer telling the state of the soul's weather to all who can read it.

The body says what words cannot.

No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that others are behind the times.

Dancers are the messengers of the gods.

Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

You are unique, and if that is not fulfilled, then something has been lost.

The body is a sacred garment.

Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery — what it all means…

Martha Graham (May 11, 1894 – April 1, 1991) was an American modern dancer and choreographer. Her style, the Graham technique, reshaped American dance and is still taught worldwide.

She danced and taught for over seventy years. Graham was the first dancer to perform at the White House, travel abroad as a cultural ambassador, and receive the highest civilian award of the US: the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. In her lifetime she received honors ranging from the Key to the City of Paris to Japan's Imperial Order of the Precious Crown. She said, in the 1994 documentary The Dancer Revealed, "I have spent all my life with dance and being a dancer. It's permitting life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless, it is inevitable."

Graham was born in Allegheny City – later to become part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – in 1894. Her father, George Graham, practiced as what in the Victorian era was known as an "alienist", a practitioner of an early form of psychiatry. The Grahams were strict Presbyterians. While her parents provided a comfortable environment in her youth, it was not one that encouraged dancing.

The Graham family moved to Santa Barbara, California when Martha was fourteen years old. In 1911, she attended the first dance performance of her life, watching Ruth St. Denis perform at the Mason Opera House in Los Angeles. In the mid-1910s, Martha Graham began her studies at the newly created Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, at which she would stay until 1923. In 1922, Graham performed one of Shawn's Egyptian dances with Lillian Powell in a short silent film by Hugo Riesenfeld that attempted to synchronize a dance routine on film with a live orchestra and an onscreen conductor.

In 1926, the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance was established. On April 18 of the same year Graham debuted her first independent concert, consisting of 18 short solos and trios that she had choreographed. This performance took place at the 48th Street Theatre in Manhattan. She would later say of the concert: "Everything I did was influenced by Denishawn."

On November 28, 1926 Martha Graham and others in her company gave a dance recital at the Klaw Theatre in New York City. Around the same time she entered an extended collaboration with Japanese-American pictorialist photographer Soichi Sunami, and over the next five years they together created some of the most iconic images of early modern dance.

Graham's technique pioneered a principle known as "Contraction and Release" in modern dance, which was derived from a stylized conception of breathing.

Contraction and Release: The desire to highlight a more basic aspect of human movement led Graham to create the "contraction and release", for which she would become known. Each movement could separately be used to express either positive or negative, freeing, or constricting emotions depending on the placement of the head. The contraction and release were both the basis for Graham's weighted and grounded style, which is in direct opposition to classical ballet techniques that typically aim to create an illusion of weightlessness. To counter the more percussive and staccato movements, Graham eventually added the spiral shape to the vocabulary of her technique to incorporate a sense of fluidity.

As time went on Graham moved away from the starker design aesthetic she initially embraced and began incorporating more elaborate sets and scenery to her work. To do this, she collaborated often with Isamu Noguchi—a Japanese American designer—whose eye for set design was a complimentary match to Graham's choreography.

Lamentation premiered in New York City on January 8, 1930, at Maxine Elliot’s Theater, to music by the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály. The dance is performed almost entirely from a seated position, with the dancer encased in a tube of purple jersey. The diagonals and tensions formed by the dancer’s body struggling within the material create a moving sculpture, a portrait which presents the very essence of grief. The figure in this dance is neither human nor animal, neither male nor female: it is grief itself.

According to Graham, after one performance of the work she was visited by a woman in the audience who had recently seen her child killed in an accident. Viewing Lamentation enabled her to grieve, as she realized that “grief was a dignified and valid emotion and that I could yield to it without shame.”

Within the many themes which Graham incorporated into her work, there were two that she seemed to adhere to the most—Americana and Greek Mythology. One of Graham's most known pieces that incorporates the American life theme is Appalachian Spring (1944). She collaborated with the composer Aaron Copland—who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the piece—and Noguchi, who created the nonliteral set. As she did often, Graham placed herself in her own piece as the bride of a newly married couple whose optimism for starting a new life together is countered by a grounded pioneer woman and a sermon-giving revivalist.

Two of Graham's pieces—Cave of Heart (1946) and Night Journey (1947)—display her intrigue not only with Greek mythology but also with the psyche of a woman, as both pieces retell Greek myths from a woman's point of view.

Kelbe, Elisa, and Sarah’s interpretation of Graham’s Night Journey

Graham collaborated with many composers including Aaron Copland on Appalachian SpringLouis HorstSamuel BarberWilliam SchumanCarlos SurinachNorman Dello Joio, and Gian Carlo Menotti.

Graham resisted requests for her dances to be recorded because she believed that live performances should only exist on stage as they are experienced. There were a few notable exceptions. For example, in addition to her collaboration with Sunami in the 1920s, she also worked on a limited basis with still photographers Imogen Cunningham in the 1930s, and Barbara Morgan in the 1940s. 

In the years that followed her departure from the stage, Graham sank into a deep depression fueled by views from the wings of young dancers performing many of the dances she had choreographed for herself and her former husband. Graham's health declined precipitously as she abused alcohol to numb her pain. In Blood Memory she wrote,

“[When I stopped dancing] I had lost my will to live. I stayed home alone, ate very little, and drank too much and brooded. My face was ruined, and people say I looked odd, which I agreed with. Finally, my system just gave in. I was in the hospital for a long time, much of it in a coma.”

Graham not only survived her hospital stay, but she rallied. In 1972, she quit drinking, returned to her studio, reorganized her company, and went on to choreograph ten new ballets and many revivals. Her last completed ballet was 1990's Maple Leaf Rag.

Graham choreographed until her death, from pneumonia in 1991, aged 96. Just before she became sick with pneumonia, she finished the final draft of her autobiography, Blood Memory, which was published posthumously in the fall of 1991. She was cremated, and her ashes were spread over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico.

Graham has been sometimes termed the "Picasso of Dance" in that her importance and influence to modern dance can be considered equivalent to what Pablo Picasso was to modern visual arts. Her impact has been also compared to the influence of Stravinsky on music and Frank Lloyd Wright on architecture.

The Martha Graham Dance Company is the oldest dance company in America, founded in 1926. It has helped develop many famous dancers and choreographers of the 20th and 21st centuries including Erick HawkinsAnna SokolowMerce CunninghamLila York, and Paul Taylor. It continues to perform, including at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in June 2008. The company also performed in 2007 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, with a program consisting of: Appalachian SpringEmbattled GardenErrand into the Maze, and American Original.

Graham's original female dancers consisted of Bessie Schonberg, Evelyn Sabin, Martha Hill, Gertrude Shurr, Anna Sokolow, Nelle Fisher, Dorothy Bird, Bonnie BirdSophie MaslowMay O'DonnellJane Dudley, Anita Alvarez, Pearl Lang, and Marjorie G. Mazia. A second group included Yuriko, Ethel Butler, Ethel WinterJean ErdmanPatricia Birch, Nina Fonaroff, Matt TurneyMary Hinkson. The group of men dancers was made up of Erick HawkinsMerce Cunningham, David Campbell, John Butler, Robert CohanStuart HodesGlen TetleyBertram RossPaul Taylor, Donald McKayle, Mark Ryder, and William Carter.

In 1957, Graham was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 by President Gerald Ford (the First Lady Betty Ford had danced with Graham in her youth). Ford declared her "a national treasure."

In 1998 Graham was posthumously named "Dancer of the Century" by Time magazine, and one of the female "Icons of the Century" by People.

In 2015 she was posthumously inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Sarah dressed up as Martha Graham (Lamentation) for Halloween!


Bryant, Paula Pratt 1994. Martha Graham (The Importance Of ... Series). Detroit: Gale.

De Mille, Agnes 1991. Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-394-55643-7.

Helpern, Alice. 1998. Martha.

Franko, Mark 2012. Martha Graham in Love and War: The Life in the Work.

Horosko, Marian. 2002. Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training.

Freedman, Russell 1998. Martha Graham – A Dancer's Life. New York City: Clarion Books. ISBN 978-0-395-74655-4.

Au, Susan. 2002. Ballet and Modern Dance Second Edition.

Hodes, Stuart. 2011. Part Real-Part Dream, Dancing With Martha Graham. Concord ePress, Concord, MA.

Bird, Dorothy; Greenberg, Joyce 2002. Bird's Eye View: Dancing With Martha Graham and on Broadway (reprint ed.). Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 978-0-8229-5791-1.

Graham, Martha 1991. Blood Memory An autobiography. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-26503-4.

Hawkins, Erick 1992. The Body Is a Clear Place and Other Statements on Dance. Hightstown, New Jersey: Princeton Book Co. ISBN 978-0-87127-166-2.

Horosko, Marian 2002. Martha Graham The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training. Gainesville, FL: Univ. Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0-8130-2473-8.

Morgan, Barbara 1980. Martha Graham Sixteen Dances in Photographs. Morgan & Morgan. ISBN 978-0-87100-176-4.

Newman, Gerald 1998. Martha Graham: Founder of Modern Dance. Danbury, Connecticut: Franklin Watts.

Soares, Janet Mansfield 1992. Louis Horst Musician in a Dancer's World. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-1226-0

Taylor, Paul 1987. Private Domain An Autobiography. New York: Knopf. ISBN 978-0-394-51683-7.

Tracy, Robert 1997. Goddess – Martha Graham's Dancers Remember. Pompton Plains, New Jersey: Limelight Editions. ISBN 978-0-87910-086-5.

Layman, Richard; Bondi, Victor 1995. American Decades 1940–1949. Gale Research International, Limited. ISBN 978-0-8103-5726-6.


Agnes de Mille

1905 – 1993

"To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth, and it is yours for the taking." --Agnes de Mille

Born in New York City, on September 18, 1905, she

was the daughter of William Churchill de Mille, a famous playwright, and Anna George, the daughter of the distinguished economist and "single tax" advocate, Henry George. Agnes' paternal grandfather, Henry de Mille, was a onetime North Carolina minister who left the pulpit to write plays with a message. He took as his partner David Belasco, one of the most successful producer-director-playwrights of the early days of this century.

Agnes' early schooling in California was at the small private Hollywood School for Girls. Later she attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she graduated at nineteen cum laude.

She made her solo debut in New York in 1928. In the 1930s in London, she studied with Marie Rambert, danced in the premiere of Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies (1937), and worked on concert pieces that inspired her successes of the 1940s. Among these was Rodeo (1942), the Americana classic she choreographed for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and the dances for the Broadway musical Oklahoma! (1943).

Oklahoma! was a turning point in Broadway history, and required training in ballet and modern dance. In 1942 she was asked by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo to create a ballet for that company and her world-famous Rodeo (with its stunning score by Aaron Copland) was the altogether sensational result. She herself danced the leading role at the Metropolitan Opera House on October 16, 1943 and received twenty-two curtain calls and standing ovations. This triumph, with its Americana setting, led Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to select her to create the dances for their musical Oklahoma! The tremendous success of these two works made American dance history.

During the 1940s de Mille created several works for Ballet Theatre that revealed the light touch of her Broadway choreography and the interest in American material that inspired her to form the Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theatre in the 1970s. A gifted writer, she is the author of several books, including a highly‐regarded biography of Martha Graham.

Brigadoon, with especially lovely dances and another great success, was her next achievement, and in that same year she began rehearsals of Allegro, acting as stage director as well as choreographer. This was the first time any dancer had attempted such a feat. She had to keep people busy at the same time in three theaters, one for the actors, one for the dancers and one for the singers. It was a gigantic undertaking, with a cast of nearly-one hundred. But the score, by Richard Rodgers, was weak, and the book, by Oscar Hammerstein, was unfinished, with a poor second act. No amount of hard work could make it the kind of success they were used to, and, in spite of the show having a respectable run of over a year, it was a bitter disappointment to all of them.

Her reputation as a speaker also grew through the years as she spoke across the entire nation on the part of government subsidy for the arts, resulting in her appointment by President Kennedy to be a member of the National Advisory Committee on the Arts, the forerunner of the National Endowment for the Arts, to which she was appointed as a member of its National Council by President Johnson when it was activated during his administration.

In 1974 she inaugurated the Agnes de Mille Heritage Dance Theatre, founded at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. The company made several cross-country tours with great success, but this project, which was so close to her heart was cut short by the cerebral hemorrhage which struck her, on May 15, 1975, as she was about to go on stage for her famous lecture, Conversations About the Dance, illustrated by members of her company.

Her return from near death to an altered but extraordinarily active life is outlined in her book Reprieve, one of the five books she wrote since her stroke, the other four being Where the Wings Grow, America Dances, Portrait Gallery, and Martha The Life and Work of Martha Graham. She is also the author of Dance to the Piper, (translated into five languages), And Promenade Home, To a Young Dancer, The Book of Dance, Lizzie Borden: Dance of Death, Dance in America, Russian Journals, and Speak to Me, Dance with Me. Her activities included her favorite hobby of collecting fine porcelain and her research on the history of clothes, in which she was an expert. She remained a member of the Board of Directors of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, an organization she helped create, and of which she was president for several years. She was during her time as president of the organization the only woman head of a labor union in the United States.

She no longer worked on Broadway musicals, except for revivals using her original choreography. Her public appearances and speaking engagements were carefully chosen, but it was after her stroke that five of her dance works were composed: Texas FourthA Bridegroom Called DeathConversations About the DanceThe Informer, and The Other.

She spoke three times in Congress: once in the Senate, once in the House of Representatives, and once in Congress for the Committee for Medical Research.

In 1976 she was awarded New York City's Handel Medallion, which is the most distinguished honor the city can bestow on its citizens. In December, 1980 she was given the nationally prestigious Kennedy Center Honor by President Carter. Her seventeen honorary degrees are from colleges and universities from coast to coast, and she was also the recipient of two American Theatre Wing "Tony" Awards, for Brigadoon and Kwamina, as well as many other awards, including an "Emmy" in 1987 for Agnes, The Indomitable de Mille.

At the time of her death in October, 1993 at the age of 88, Agnes de Mille was still an influential and productive leader in the cultural life of the United States, and beyond.


De Mille, Agnes (1973). Speak to Me, Dance with Me. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316180382.

De Mille, Agnes (1990). Portrait Gallery: Artists, Impresarios, Intimates. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. ISBN 978-0-395-52809-9. Memoirs, anecdotes about famous performing artists.

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