Redefining Modern Dance

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

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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.

On the Fringes

A number of factors pushed the Y to the margins of general dance activity. The Y's location outside the downtown theater district meant that it did not receive the same recognition as a Broadway venue, and most of its dance performances were not reviewed in the daily newspapers, a severe limitation for many dancers. The Y's perceived status as a sectarian, recreational institution also made it suspect to secondary consideration, being viewed by some as too low-key and, for those aware of its origins, "too Jewish."

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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.