Redefining Modern Dance

New York's 92nd Street YM-YWHA helped broaden American dance to embrace multiculturalism and diversity.

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The opinion was hinted at by the booking agent Frances Hawkins, who angrily wrote to Kolodney concerning the loss of money on performances by Lincoln Kirstein's newly established Ballet Caravan after it appeared at the Y in the late 1930s. She claimed, "I think that in a downtown theatre the same size as the Kaufmann Theatre, I could schedule even two performances for the Caravan and sell out both of them. The Kaufmann Auditorium is inaccessible and it is not associated in peoples' minds with professional dance performances." Hawkins further attacked the Y's policy of closing for the Jewish Sabbath.

Most significantly, the Y's particular way of conceiving of Jewishness, as a synthesis of the "general" and "particular" in a manner that retained the integrity of people's differences, led to the support of individuals and policies that fostered programming not quite in accord with the interests of Martin and his followers.

Diverse Dancers

The Jewish dancers, in particular, who were featured on the Y's stage were a constant challenge to the potential ethnocentrism and racism of the dominant discourse of modern dance. Sophie Maslow, for instance, represented a generation of Jewish dancers from poor Russian-Jewish backgrounds, whose leftist orientation led them to embrace the democratic promise of the modern dance movement.

She not only assumed the acceptance of Jewish dancers as valid artists but also hired black dancers to perform in her pieces when it was a far from common occurrence. The New York premiere of The Village I Knew, for instance, which focused on Jewish experiences in a shtetl in tsarist Russia, took place at the Y in 1951 and had two black dancers in the cast--Ronne Aul and Donald McKayle.

Others from similar backgrounds, especially Anna Sokolow, enjoyed long associations with the Y and similarly used black dancers over the years, including Alvin Ailey. Sokolow's early revolutionary Dance Unit performed at the Y in the 1930s, and she later premiered a number of major works on its stages, including those that focused on the horrors of oppression, as with Dreams in 1961.

Dance & Politics

The important role played by working-class dancers in the making of American modern dance has recently gained recognition with the publication of Ellen Graff's Stepping Left: Dance and Politics in New York City, 1928-1942 (1997) and Mark Franko's Dancing Modernism/Performing Politics (1995). Both writers have persuasively shown that a large number of dancers with left-wing leanings existed in the late 1920s and 1930s, and that these dancers challenged the dominant discourse promulgated by Martin (which emphasized the abstract, personal nature of modern dance) by linking dance to social and political causes.

Graff also notes the fact that "the single most important distinction between choreographers allied with bourgeois dance and those allied with workers' dance" was the Eastern European Jewish origin of dancers on the left.

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Naomi M. Jackson

Naomi Jackson is an Associate Professor of dance in the Department of Dance, Herberger College of the Arts, Arizona State University.