Author Archives: Naomi M. Jackson

Naomi M. Jackson

About Naomi M. Jackson

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

Redefining Modern Dance

Reprinted with permission from Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y (Wesleyan University Press).

If the intersection with contemporary art was to help to define the nature of American Jewry, the reverse was also true. William Kolodney, educational director of New York’s 92 Street YM-YWHA from 1934 to 1969, along with the Y’s audiences, teachers, and students, helped to broaden modern dance to embrace diversity in terms of ethnicity, race, age, experience, and stylistic experimentation. 

This was achieved through the Y’s long sponsorship of young European-trained dancers, dancers of different ethnic origins–Hispanic, African American, and most particularly, Jewish–and dancers who largely operated outside New York City.

The role played by the Y in the dance world, however, was far from straightforward, reflecting the frequently liminal status of Jews as both insiders and outsiders in American culture. Pulling the Y to the center of what has since come to be viewed as the mainstream modern dance world–associated with critic John Martin and dancers like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey–was the Y’s close and long-standing relations with its key players.

Conservative Tendencies

At the beginning of his tenure at the Y, Kolodney recognized his limited knowledge about dance. His desire to present the best and most powerful in the field led him to search out Martin, followed by the composer Louis Horst (who was closely connected to Martha Graham) and Doris Humphrey as advisors. As is well known, these individuals were central creators and propagators of early modern dance, active in many aspects of its development.

jewish danceMartin and Horst in particular were conservative forces at the Y and elsewhere, pushing for the establishment of general principles and the creation of standards for modern dance and championing a limited number of choreographers as reaching those standards, notably Graham, Humphrey, and Weidman.

As third- and fourth-generation Americans, these dancers fit well with Martin’s framing of modern dance as pure, non-ethnic, and generically American in a way that masked difference while implicitly favoring white Anglo-Saxon choreographers. The subtly racist aspects of Martin’s conceptualization were most evident in his problematic distinction between modern and so-called ethnic dance and in his reviews of black dancers, as revealed in recent studies of this period.

Jewish Dance in America

The term “Jewish Dance” in the American context can describe dance forms incorporated into Jewish religious and cultural life. For example, dances associated with Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions, especially wedding dances, were transplanted to America with successive waves of immigration, and have become part of the Jewish American cultural experience. Other social forms include folk dances associated with Zionism and the formation of the state of Israel, the popularity of which soared between the 1950s and 1970s among young American Jews. 

The same term–“Jewish Dance”–can also describe theatrical dancing that consciously engages with Jewish subject matter. This form of dance has found its greatest expression in post-WWII American Jewish choreographers working in the modern dance realm. These artists draw on the Bible, Hasidism, and the Holocaust as source material for their work. While contributing to a mostly positive conception of Jewish identity as uplifting, timeless, and spiritual, more recently choreographers have engaged in critical, ironic, and comic questioning of Judaism.

theatre and dance quizThough many Jewish choreographers have incorporated Jewish themes into their art in an effort to make positive statements about Jewish identity, their modernist and postmodernist perspectives–emphasizing individualism and female expression–often conflict with traditional Judaism. In combination with the preponderance of Jewish institutions, patrons, critics, and scholars in the dance field, choreographers have also greatly contributed to the growth of American dance as a contemporary art form, embracing racial, religious, and ethnic diversity and promoting humanistic values.

Early 20th Century Efforts

While many Jewish dancers were involved with broad social concerns of American life in the pre-war period, some participated in the creation of what was variously called Jewish, Hebrew, and Palestinian dance. Dancers such as Benjamin Zemach, Lillian Shapero, and Dvora Lapson functioned as part of a wide-scale effort to revitalize Jewish life in the Diaspora and Palestine, as the Zionist cause grew in fervor and as America’s Jews created new outlets of cultural expression.