Emerging American Modern Dance

This is an excerpt from History of Dance 2nd Edition by Gayle Kassing.

"What is modern about modern dance

is its resistance to the past,

its response to the present,

its constant redefining of the idea of dance."

Marcia B. Siegel


In the early 1930s, Denishawn and Duncan dance schools (where the focus was on free dance instead of ballet) dotted the country. This first generation of dance artists ushered in a new era of experiments that would emerge as modern dance. The uncertain political climate led choreographers to comment on events in contemporary society. With the Depression in full force, dancers and choreographers experimented with their new art, searching for theories and themes to express through dance, and hoping to convince audiences and critics that their work was a legitimate dance form.


In an attempt to provide artists with work, the Works Project Administration developed the Federal Theatre Project, which gave a voice and stage to the new American modern dancers. Through their work, dancers, actors, and musicians communicated to American audiences their beliefs about current social and political conditions.


Dancers and Personalities


While dancers and choreographers were formulating new techniques and theories, other personalities championed the recognition of modern dance as an art form. The matriarchs of modern dance were the architects of the form. The personalities who surrounded them directed their energies toward these two main goals: developing modern dance as an art form and encouraging new audiences to experience this unfolding American phenomenon.


Major Figures in Modern Dance

Four leading figures in modern dance, known as the Four Pioneers - Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman - were making their own artistic statements through dance. They communicated to their audiences through their choreography and, until World War II, their instruction of a new generation of modern dancers and teachers at Bennington College summer dance festivals. The material for these dances came from folk legends, social protests, and theatrical expressions of culture and ethnicity. These choreographers made artistic statements through American modern dance that were both individual and collective. They are often thought of as the first generation of modern dancers because some of them had studied at the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts and also because they were the first to be called by a new name - modern dancers.

Martha Graham (ca. 1894 - 1991)

Born in Pennsylvania, Martha Graham devoted her life to performing and creating dances. Her technique, which may have been influenced by her physician father’s interest in mind - body relationships, provides a codified language of modern dance.


Graham enrolled in the Denishawn School in 1916 and joined the company three years later. Unhappy there, she left in 1923, heading for New York. There she performed two seasons in the Greenwich Village Follies, followed by one year as a teacher at the Eastman School for Dance and Dramatic Action.


In 1927 Graham opened her own studio. Her early dances were solos, such as Lamentations (1930) and Frontier (1935). Influenced by Denishawn, she was searching for a movement vocabulary as a means of expression; what she devised became the material for her dances and later the foundation of her technique. During the 1930s her dances were angular and stark, expressing the conflicts within man; as Graham later said, they were dances that made visible the inner landscape. Her growing repertory expanded from solos to trios, then ensembles, including the seminal work of her early years, Primitive Mysteries (1931). Fascinated with the Southwest and its culture, she imbued many of her works with the flavor of America, the frontier, and the West. Unfortunately, much of Graham’s work during this period of choreographic development has been lost.


From 1934 to 1942 Graham taught at Bennington College, and during those years she formulated her technique. In the 1940s her choreographic interest changed to characters, particularly female heroines, and she began to make larger dances with more theatrical elements. Collaborating with composers and set designers on her works, she brought them to a new level of theatricality. During the 1940s her Americana choreographic themes shifted to psychological and literary themes. In the following decade they changed to Greek myths, and after that to cosmic themes. Graham’s dances use dramatic and literary devices such as flashback, episodic sequences, and multiple facets of personalities to communicate through movement and gestures. She included detailed descriptions of her dance works.


(1944), choreographed by Martha Graham and featuring Nina Fonaroff and Erick Hawkins.
Appalachian Spring (1944), choreographed by Martha Graham and featuring Nina Fonaroff and Erick Hawkins.
Baron/Getty Images


Graham’s movement theory was based on contraction and release. Her expressive, codified movement vocabulary requires a centered body, and it uses breathing and the opposition of forces. Her technique evolved over time; dancers talk about old and new (late 1950s and early 1960s) Graham technique. The Graham dancers during that time may have influenced these changes, which are exhibited in softening and breathing through the movements.


In 1972 Graham left the stage as a performer and the next year reorganized her company, presenting a season of seven revivals and two new works. She continued to direct her company until her death. Her body of work consisted of 181 dances.

History Highlight

Graham was influenced by the Native Americans in her travels through the Southwest. The basic contraction in her technique has been related to this Native American prayer:

  • "Praise to the heavens" (Sitting in second, or straddle, position, the body contracts: the legs flex at the hips, knees, and ankles; the feet flex; the arms, in second position, rotate so that elbows are to the floor and palms are upward; and the face looks up to the sky.)
  • "Praise to the earth" (While in the contraction the torso curves forward and down, the arms rotate so that the palms face the floor, and the face looks down to the earth.)
  • "I find myself in" (The torso extends from the contraction to a straight back near the floor; the legs straighten and the feet point; palms and face are forward.)
  • "The midst of it." (The torso returns to a centered, aligned position.)

Doris Humphrey (1895 - 1958)

Born near Chicago, Humphrey always wanted to dance and taught ballet to earn money. In 1918, she auditioned for the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts and was immediately invited into the company. Humphrey absorbed and performed all the dance forms the company explored. St. Denis relied on her creativity and organizational skills. As a protégé of St. Denis, Humphrey collaborated with her on music visualization.


In 1927 Humphrey left Denishawn with Charles Weidman to establish a company and school in New York. In 1931, with Graham and critic John Martin, she began to lecture at the New School of Social Research about this emerging dance form. The school provided a forum for artists to exchange theories and principles. In the late 1930s Humphrey and Weidman were on the Bennington College summer school faculty. Humphrey left the stage as a performer in 1945 for health reasons, but she continued to contribute to the development of modern dance. She became artistic director of José Limón’s company, helping him develop as a choreographer and building the company’s repertory.


Humphrey’s technique and philosophy of modern dance were based on the concepts of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Humphrey was an intellectual; she analyzed gesture and meanings of gesture, the relationship of movement to emotional stimuli. Her style expressed the power of the human spirit (Stodelle 1978).


Humphrey’s choreography explored the conflict of man with his environment. Many of her works have strong social content. She believed in looking to nature, human nature, and behavior for subjects to dance about, and that choreographic themes should arouse emotion and movement. Her works, most of them dance dramas, show a mature genius - sympathy for human suffering or sacrifice and an artistic attempt at consolation and betterment of that condition (Percival 1970). In contrast to Graham’s works, which reflected a predominantly female point of view, Humphrey’s choreography and performance with Weidman balanced male and female forms.


Humphrey established a relationship between each dancer and the choreography. She used the personal uniqueness of her dancers, encouraging their individual styles to come through. "Since my dance is concerned with immediate human values, my basic technique lies in the natural movements of the human body," she wrote (Humphrey 1941, 17).


Humphrey continued to explore movement as both physiological and psychological experiences. Not only does her approach to natural movement accept the dramatic reality of the coexistence of humans and gravity, but it also builds its entire aesthetic on elements of motion that underlie that coexistence. These elements constitute the principles of movement on which Humphrey based her technique. In describing the effect of gravity on the body, Humphrey wrote that the "natural movements of the human body are the visible evidence of man’s ability to survive in a world dominated by gravity. At time his friend, at time his foe, gravitational force imposes itself upon every move he makes. All life fluctuates between resistance to and yielding to gravity" (Humphrey 1959, 106).


Humphrey used the creative exploration of these movement values as the basis of technique: breathing, standing, walking, running, leaping, rising, and falling (Stodelle 1978). Running was an expression of the dancer’s will. Leaping was defying gravity, rebounding from its own energies (Stodelle 1978).


The dance experience is the heart and soul of Humphrey’s technique; therefore it encompasses more than purely mechanical development and maintenance of body skills. "I wish my dance to reflect some experience of my own in relationship to the outside world; to be based on reality illumined by imagination; to be organic rather than synthetic; to call forth a definite reaction from my audience; and to make its contribution towards the drama of life," said the choreographer (Stodelle 1978, 27 - 28).


In her book about the craft of choreography, The Art of Making Dances (1959), Humphrey analyzed the elements used in making dances and organized them into teaching units. This seminal work has long been considered the primer for dance choreography. (See the History Highlight.)

History Highlight

Doris Humphrey developed the theories of fall and recovery, successional flow, breath rhythms, and oppositional motion as part of her technique, which in turn provided a strong foundation for the future development of modern dance.

  1. Theory of fall and recovery:
    • The body is poised triumphantly in midair, having successfully recovered from the perils of falling (Stodelle 1978).
    • Fall: From the static point of poised equilibrium - directly forward, backward, spiral, or sideways - breath expelled.
    • Collapse is imminent just before the moment of rebound.
    • Rebound begins with a sharp inhale as the body recovers equilibrium.
    • Suspension: When rebound entered suspension, a transitory stage of the body off-balance before returning to equilibrium - the point of 0 in physics.
  2. Theory of successional flow:
    • Describes the imagined route of breath flow.
    • Breathing establishes a "phrase rhythm which reshapes movement, endowing it with varying intensities and forms" (Stodelle 1978).
  3. Theory of breath rhythms:
    • Breath: Moves from torso to extremities; inhalation is the initial force.
    • Exhalation: The successional direction of breath flow is reversed; the torso, releasing its energies, sinks downward and inward.
  4. Theory of oppositional motion:
    • Change of weight: The sensation of weight is a reality to the Humphrey dancer. The modern dancer must relate to gravity and reality (Rogers 1941).

History Highlight

Some of the main ideas in The Art of Making Dances are axioms in choreography, such as the following:

  • Shorten your work; do the ending before you get there.
  • Begin with music or a theme derived from a line of poetry or a dramatic situation; work without sound to complement it.
  • The choreographic idea dominates over music; use subtle musicality and unhackneyed spatial arrangements (Percival 1970).


Humphrey’s analysis of the emotional meanings of gesture has also been of value to dance in education.

Charles Weidman (1901 - 1975)

Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Weidman danced during interludes between silent movies at the Stuart Theatre in downtown Lincoln. He left Lincoln at age 19 to study at Denishawn, where he met Doris Humphrey. After performing with the Denishawn company for eight years, he left with Humphrey to establish a company in New York. During the 1930s, Humphrey and Weidman taught, choreographed, and were artist-teachers at Bennington.


Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey in (1935).
Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey in Duo-Drama (1935).
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations


The Humphrey-Weidman Studio and Company dissolved in 1945, after which Weidman toured with his own company and continued to teach. In the late 1950s he worked with sculptor Mikhail Santaro, producing mixed-media pieces in which Weidman performed solos, some from earlier works. In 1972 he restaged some of Humphrey’s choreography at Connecticut College.


Weidman’s choreography was a blend of dance with a subtle use of mime, comedy, and wit. Often he chose autobiographical subjects, as in And Daddy Was a Fireman (1943). Although famous for his skill at satiric pantomime dances, Weidman also created works with pure dance movement. He was one of the first artists to explore kinetic pantomime, in which he took literal movement and moved it into the abstract. His dances celebrated the incongruities of human encounters.


Weidman died in 1975 and was buried on Limón’s New Jersey farm.

Hanya Holm (1893 - 1992)

Born Johanna Eckert, Hanya Holm grew up in Germany, the daughter of a wine merchant and a mother devoted to the arts and chemistry. She was interested in music and drama and attended the Institute of Emile Jacques-Dalcroze. In 1921 she saw German expressionistic dancer Mary Wigman perform; impressed, she went to Wigman’s school and later joined her company. Her decision to dance with Wigman coincided with her divorce from painter-sculptor Reinhold Martin Kuntze.


The Wigman school in Dresden had a reputation that attracted students from all over Europe. From 1923 through 1928 the Wigman troupe toured Europe, until financial crisis led to the dissolution of the company. Holm became the chief instructor and codirector of the Wigman school in Dresden. In 1931 Sol Hurok brought Holm to New York to start a branch of the school there. Holm remained in New York, created a company that toured the gymnasium circuit of colleges throughout the country, and joined the summer school faculty at Bennington College. In 1936 the Wigman school was renamed Hanya Holm Studio (and later Hanya Holm School of the Dance) because of the negative association of Wigman’s name as tensions escalated between Germany and the United States.


During the 1940s Holm directed and taught modern dance at Colorado College. She also taught at Mills College, the University of Wisconsin, and Alwin Nikolais’ school in New York. Holm’s choreography focused on movement in its relation to space and on emotion as the basis for creating movement; her work is an extension of Wigman’s and Laban’s. Holm worked with movement projecting into space, molding and being molded by the space. Avoiding stylization, she worked from the premise that if the body were developed in this pure fashion, it could assume any style that was required. This lack of stylization made Holm’s technique extremely attractive to modern dance teachers and professional dancers.


Holm’s signature piece was Trend (1937), created at Bennington for her New York debut. Her works Dance of Work and Play (1938) and Metropolitan Daily (1938) were clear indications that Holm understood American society. On Broadway she choreographed many musicals, including Kiss Me Kate (1948), My Fair Lady (1956), and Camelot (1960).


Holm was an exponent of German modern dance that was at least 10 years older than American modern dance and used space, emotion, and feeling as the basis for movement.


Her generic modern dance technique became the basis for modern dance courses taught in colleges, disseminated through the work of Margaret H’Doubler. Generations of modern dancers and dance educators have benefited from her teaching, and her work is a link in a continuum from Wigman to Nikolais and Pilobolus. Her work on Broadway is a testament to her versatility and understanding of the musical-theater genre.

History Highlight

At her school, Hanya Holm taught anatomy, Dalcroze Eurhythmics, improvisation, and Labanotation. President Roosevelt’s War Department had to be convinced that Laban’s symbols did not contain a secret code.

Helen Tamiris (1905 - 1966)

Dancer, choreographer, and director Helen Tamiris was born in New York City as Helen Becker, later taking the name Tamiris. As a child she studied with Fokine at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and she joined the opera ballet at 16. In the 1930s she married her dance partner, Daniel Nagrin, with whom she formed Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company in 1960. She is remembered for her dances based on Negro spirituals (she was the first to use this music in concert dance) and her choreographic contributions to American musical theater.


Tamiris made her concert debut in New York in 1927; Louis Horst was her accompanist. The next year she performed in Paris, where she was an immediate success in Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, a work inspired by the Negro spiritual (and later part of Negro Spirituals). In 1930 she organized Dance Repertory Theatre in New York and established the School of American Dance, which existed until 1945. During the 1930s she participated in the Federal Dance Project (FDP) - New York, part of the Federal Works Project. During the 1940s and ’50s Tamiris choreographed Broadway musicals, including Showboat (1946), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Fanny (1954), Plain and Fancy (1955), and Touch and Go (1949), for which she won a Tony Award.


Tamiris used music by 20th-century composers such as George Gershwin and Claude Debussy for her choreography. Her dances were about oppressed people and the need for social justice. A series of dances she created from 1928 through 1941, known as Negro Spirituals, included "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Go Down, Moses." "How Long Brethren?", created for the Federal Dance Project and choreographed in 1937, became another of her concert signature pieces. This work was to win the 1937 Dance Magazine Award for best ensemble choreography.


Tamiris made one of her greatest contributions to dance through the New Dance Congress. As its president, she was the force behind it, lobbying for dance to become a part of the Federal Theatre Project.

Katherine Dunham (1909 - 2006)

Dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, teacher, and writer Katherine Dunham was born in Chicago but raised in Joliet, Illinois. After studying ballet as a teenager, she went to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1936 with a degree in anthropology. She studied dance forms in the West Indies, including Haiti, which had a great influence on her work. She married John Pratt, a theatrical designer she met working in the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago.


Katherine Dunham.
Katherine Dunham.
Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.


In 1931 Dunham founded a student company at the University of Chicago, called Ballet Nègre. Two years later she starred in Ruth Page’s La Guiablesse. Later in the 1930s she founded Negro Dance Groups, creating her Haitian Suite for the Negro Dance Evening in New York in 1937. After a year as director of the Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago, she moved her company to New York. There she worked as dance director of the New York Labor Stage, choreographing the musical Pins and Needles. A year later Dunham and her company appeared in Cabin in the Sky, which she co-choreographed with Balanchine (but was not given credit).


In the later 1930s Dunham continued to explore, blending African, European, Afro-Caribbean, and American dance. She and her company performed on Broadway and toured Europe, Mexico, and Latin America during the 1940s. She went to Hollywood, performing in Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Stormy Weather (1943), among other motion pictures. Returning to New York in 1945, she opened the Dunham School of Dance and Theater. In 1950, for health and financial reasons, she redefined her professional and company work. In 1962, she staged a production on Broadway that featured the Royal Troupe of Morocco, along with the Dunham Company, and the following year she became the Metropolitan Opera’s first African American choreographer. In the late 1960s she opened the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis, Illinois.


Dunham made many contributions to 20th-century American dance as a dancer, choreographer, and social activist. She

  • choreographed 90 dances and 5 revues - 4 of them on Broadway;
  • created a repertory of dances that explored diverse themes, folklore, and ideas; and
  • wrote Journey to Accompong (1946), The Dances of Haiti (1947; her master’s thesis), and Island Possessed (1969).


Dunham influenced many artists, including Alvin Ailey, Talley Beatty, and other dancers and choreographers.

History Highlight

Dunham technique is a blend of African American, Caribbean, African, and South American movement styles. The technique requires a flexible torso and spine and uses isolation and polyrhythm in its movements. Her technique is taught at The Ailey School.


Personalities Who Contributed to the Development of American Dance

Some of the most influential contributors to the formation of American modern dance were musicians and writers.

Louis Horst (1884 - 1964)

Louis Horst was a composer, music historian, and mentor to the first generation of modern dance artists. He taught choreography and lectured at the New School of Social Research and Juilliard, among other schools, and wrote about modern dance choreography. For 10 years he was musical director for Denishawn. He was inspired by Mary Wigman and the German art scene and saw a need not only for new movement and subject matter for dance but also for a new form. He worked as Martha Graham’s musical and choreographic advisor and mentor for 20 years, and he worked with Humphrey and Weidman. In 1934 Horst founded Dance Observer, the first journal to be devoted exclusively to modern dance.


Horst developed a method of teaching modern dance choreography based on his own analysis of preclassic dance forms popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. He believed that other contemporary arts could be absorbed into modern dance. His musical compositions supported the developing modern dance artists as they searched for ways to communicate their artistic ideas. In teaching choreography, he established it within a musical base. He wrote Pre-Classic Dance Forms (1938) and Modern Dance Forms: In Relation to the Other Modern Arts (1961), the latter with co-author Carroll Russell.

History Highlight

Horst’s review of a 1957 Paul Taylor performance, which he published in Dance Observer, was a blank column.

John Martin (1893 - 1985)

A drama critic for the New York Times, John Martin became that newspaper’s first dance critic in 1927. A champion of the new modern dance, he wrote The Modern Dance in 1933 and several other works that supported American dance development, including Introduction to the Dance (1939) and World Book of Modern Dance (1952).


Modern Dance Companies and Schools

During the 1930s and 1940s several modern dance companies emerged. Modern dance artists’ choreography developed from solos and duets to group works. To support these emerging modern dance companies, schools provided ways for artists to apply their theories, techniques, and styles of movement and for dancers to train for their companies.

Humphrey-Weidman Company

After leaving Denishawn, Humphrey and Weidman started their company in New York in 1928; it continued into the early 1940s. Through her work, Humphrey explored and developed her theories of modern dance composition. In contrast to his partner’s serious works, Weidman’s gift for the comic provided a balance for the company repertory.

Graham Company and School

Martha Graham’s company, which was populated by the leading modern dancers of the 1930s and 1940s, was created in 1926. Graham’s works during this period used minimal costumes and sets as she explored and developed her dance technique and vocabulary.

Bennington School

Bennington College in Vermont offered a summer school that became the center for modern dance training for many college and university teachers from across the country. The Bennington years (1934 - 1942) fostered the growth of modern dance and its artists and built audiences for the first generation of modern dancers by presenting many of the modern dance classics created during this period. The program was the ingenious idea of Martha Hill, a staff dance teacher who became the director; Mary Josephine Shelly, a physical educator and administrator from Columbia University; and Robert Devore Leigh, Bennington’s president. In the school’s first years, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm taught the sessions. The school expanded as time went on to include Louis Horst, who taught dance composition, and critic John Martin. From the Bennington School emerged the modern dancers who toured the college gymnasium circuit (Kriegsman 1998).

Federal Theatre Project

The Federal Theatre Project was part of the Works Progress Administration, which was developed during the Depression in order to provide theater professionals with work. The program supported many modern dance artists in projects in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles. Each city had a leader or two. Tamiris and Kirstein were leaders in New York, Ruth Page in Chicago, and Edith James (who had studied at Denishawn) in Dallas. Tamiris and James choreographed for the project, as did Charles Weidman, who created Candide. This was the first time that dance received federal funding.

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