Angels "Rewolt!": Jewish Women in Modern Dance in the 1930s

By Foulkes, Julia L. | American Jewish History, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Angels "Rewolt!": Jewish Women in Modern Dance in the 1930s


Foulkes, Julia L., American Jewish History


In the late 1920s the modern dancer and choreographer Doris Humphrey noted that the "piles of Jewish girls" in her company "moved like angels."(1) Dancing in such works as Martha Graham's "Heretic" (1929) and Humphrey's "Life of the Bee" (1929), which dramatized Maurice Maeterlinck's 1901 study on the hierarchical authority of the queen bee and the pitiless duties of worker bees, Jewish women quickly put themselves in the middle of a dance revolution. Although the leaders of modern dance in the 1930s--Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm--were not Jewish, Jewish women filled modern dance classes, companies, organizations, picket lines, and concert audiences. Teachers, such as Blanche Talmud and Edith Segal, taught performers, such as Lily Mehlman and Lillian Shapero; performances by choreographers, such as Anna Sokolow and Sophie Maslow, were reviewed by critics, such as Edna Ocko; while organizers, such as Helen Tamiris and Fanya Geltman, hassled labor unions and the federal government for increased attention to dance. These efforts in substantiating a new art form have been overlooked because our view of the arts tends to focus on a few stars, emphasizing individual genius rather than collective momentum and organizational drive. Jewish women shaped the foundation of modern dance, and in the mid-1930s their impact was well enough known that the eminent social commentator Fanny Brice could unleash her satire on the subject, playing Martha Graham in a sketch entitled "Modernistic Moe," in which she cried "Rewolt!" in a Yiddish accent.(2)

Modern dance attracted Jewish women because it sought to expose the serious expressiveness of body motion, distinguishing itself from the comic antics of vaudeville, showy kicks of Broadway chorus dancing, and ethereal fantasies of European-imported ballet. Like artists of other genres in the era, modern dancers steeped themselves in the social, political, and aesthetic issues of the day, emboldened by the aim to make artworks responsive and relevant to everyday life. One way modern dancers did this was by constructing an American art form. Children of immigrants, Jewish women battled antisemitism and politicized dance at a time when Americans were particularly concerned with expressing ideals of social justice and national renewal in their art.(3)

In this achievement they realized the goal of Mordecai Kaplan, who embraced American art and culture, including dance, as a means by which to explore and affirm Jewish identity and American citizenry. Believing that the diaspora was permanent for most Jews, Kaplan's Americanism rivaled his Judaism.(4) Disavowing the rigidity of the Orthodox tradition and the individualism of Reform, Kaplan advocated a variety of cultural activities rather than just religious rituals to create and strengthen communal bonds. His entreaty to rejuvenate American Judaism this way paralleled other calls to find "an American way" in art and politics in the midst of the fearful times of the Great Depression. In 1934 Kaplan elaborated his views with the publication of Judaism as a Civilization; that same year John Dewey and Ruth Benedict explored similar themes in Art as Experience and Patterns of Culture. These books emphasized the communal, ethical elements of American culture, a vision that modern dancers sought to put on stage. In their experimentation with movement, confrontational style, and passion for basics, American modern dancers played out in bodily form the experiential, pragmatic thrust of an American branch of philosophy. In their attempts to choreograph episodes in the American past, identify and incorporate indigenous American dance traditions, they sought to give dance in America wider social impact just as the burgeoning field of anthropology was doing for other societies. And in their active participation in a secular art form, Jewish modern dancers made modern dance a social and cultural movement, creating new roles for themselves in American society. …

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