Redefining Modern Dance

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

Print this page Print this page

It was the daughters of poor Jewish immigrants who led the challenge; and in their attempt to make a place for themselves in America they used working-class ties to bridge racial, religious, and gender differences and fought to enlarge the definition of modern dance to make room for themselves and others (especially African Americans) who similarly lacked a place in standard American mythology.

Significantly, many of these women simultaneously formed the backbone of the early schools and companies of Graham, Humphrey/Weidman, and Holm, illustrating the way in which Jews shifted back and forth between the roles of insider and outsider in the dance world.

An Educated Audience

The middle-class and affluent Jews, who made up the main membership of the Y (as staff, students, and audience members), were equally important in shaping the evolution of dance throughout the period owing to their patronage of the form. Often less stridently political and more directly engaged in a process of smooth integration into existing American life than were their working-class brethren, these Jews were nonetheless committed to nondiscriminatory practices and to making contemporary dance as inclusive as possible.

Kolodney's programming vision, for instance, made the Y for many years the main stage for African Americans to present their work, from Katherine Dunham in the late 1930s to the historical debut performances by Alvin Ailey in the late 1950s. This aspect of the Y's history has gained increasing visibility, largely through recent attempts to document African American contributions to American dance, such as John O. Perpener III's "Seminal Years of Black Concert Dance" (1992) and Jennifer Dunning's biography, Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance (1996).

Moreover, Jewish patronage at the Y played a central role in developing an educated audience for modern dance in New York that helped the genre evolve. The extensive program of classes and lectures, such as the critic Walter Terry's Dance Lab, which ran from 1947 to 1963, resulted in the creation of a highly informed Jewish public that was well versed in a broad range of movement styles.

A large number of patrons of the Y repeatedly showed up at the Sunday afternoon recitals until they became articulate in interpreting and assessing work by radically different artists. As a reviewer of one Y dance recital in 1941 observed, "It was an audience equipped with the necessary knowledge of technique, familiar with the interpretive method, and thus able to analyze and discuss the performance intelligibly and intelligently."

Some of these individuals became lifelong supporters of dance, sending their children to take classes in the future. Others were stimulated to become performers themselves, adding to a growing number of Jewish artists and intellectuals working in the city.

Modernism and Postmodernism

Between the audiences and dancers, policies and presentments, studying the history of dance at the Y in many ways allows us to rethink our conception of both the modern and the subsequent era of postmodern dance, which began in the 1960s and has continued through the 1990s.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Naomi M. Jackson

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