The champion of dance in higher education

Hill dancing at Bennington, where she created the first bachelor of arts degree in dance











Dance educator Martha Hill had to constantly fight battles within the realm of higher education. After founding dance degree programs at New York University, Bennington College and Juilliard, she worked to earn dance the same respect as other academic majors. When Juilliard considered cutting the dance program in 1968, Hill saved it. Along the way, she designed a rigorous curriculum—now adopted by college dance programs everywhere—to produce well-rounded, highly skilled dancers.

But her path didn’t always point directly to education. After the 25-year-old Hill saw Martha Graham perform in New York City, all she really wanted to do was dance in Graham’s brand-new company. For the next couple of years, Hill alternated between teaching dance at the University of Oregon during the school year and studying with Graham and taking classes toward a bachelor’s degree at Columbia University during the summer. (Hill would continue to be a champion multitasker for the rest of her life.) Graham invited her into her company in 1929, and Hill moved permanently to NYC, accepting a position at Columbia’s Lincoln School and rehearsing with Graham in the evenings.

It wasn’t until Hill accepted a part-time job teaching dance at an NYU graduate student summer session in 1930 that she permanently altered the course of her career. The part-time gig soon became a full-time dance position within the school’s physical education department, and Hill had to quit Graham’s company.

When NYU decided to offer dance as a major in 1932 (though still under the physical education umbrella), Hill was put in charge of the curriculum—even as she simultaneously accepted a position to found the first bachelor of arts degree in dance at Bennington College. For the next 18 years, she would commute by train between the two campuses, arriving in Vermont on Thursday and returning to Manhattan on Sunday. In 1938, Hill created a master of arts in dance at NYU—and got her own MA in 1941.

Even Hill’s summers were consumed by dance education: In 1934, she established the Bennington School of the Dance, an annual festival of classes and performances that eventually became the American Dance Festival.

Though she was deeply devoted to both Bennington and NYU, an offer came along in 1951 that Hill couldn’t turn down: She was asked to design and direct a dance program at Juilliard. She remained there for nearly 35 years, though she had to fight in 1968 to keep the dance division during the school’s difficult and expensive transition from Morningside Heights to Lincoln Center. When it looked as if the dance program would be cut in order to afford the move, Hill instituted a letter-writing campaign, passed out flyers and informed the press. She managed to not only save the department but assure dance its own division at Juilliard—though she was forced to give the School of American Ballet four of the six new studios in exchange.

The strong-willed Hill retired in 1985, at the age of 85, though she continued to advise students and served as the artistic director emerita of the dance division for the next seven years. DT


Fun Fact When dancing for Graham, Hill sometimes performed under the stage name Martha Todd, to avoid adversely affecting her teaching career.

The Programs

New York University (1932) The dance major that Hill directed was part of the physical education program. She hired adjuncts like Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Helen Tamiris to help her train students in modern. In 1938, Hill established an MA in dance.

Bennington College (1932) Hill created the first bachelor of arts degree in dance at this all-women’s college in Vermont. The dance department was placed in the fine arts division and, for the first time, treated equally with other academic majors.

Juilliard (1951) Hill’s conservatory curriculum was the first of its kind in a college setting, with attention equally divided between ballet and modern. The original faculty was Antony Tudor, Margaret Craske and Agnes de Mille for ballet, and Graham, Humphrey and José Limón for modern. When Juilliard decided to move to Lincoln Center in 1968, Hill successfully fought to keep the dance division from being cut.

The Bennington School of the Dance (1934) For this summer festival held on Bennington’s campus, Hill brought in the “big four” of modern dance—Graham, Humphrey, Weidman and Holm—to teach and choreograph with their companies in residence. The festival was later reborn at Connecticut College and eventually renamed the American Dance Festival in 1969. It is now held on Duke University’s campus in North Carolina.


The Legacy Lives On

Hill was committed to developing well-rounded dancers. The college curriculum she developed, with classes in technique, dance history, critical writing, repertory, dance composition and music for dancers, has been used by programs everywhere. Her students—who include Pina Bausch, Paul Taylor, Carolyn Brown and many others—went on to achieve far greater fame in the performance world than Hill could. She is the subject of a new documentary: Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter (2014), by Greg Vander Veer.




“Martha Hill: Mentor to generations of dancers,” by Elizabeth McPherson, Dance Teacher, December 2006

The Contributions of Martha Hill to American Dance and Dance Education, 1900–1995, by Elizabeth McPherson, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008

Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance, by Janet Mansfield Soares, Wesleyan University Press, 2009


Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”:

Photos by Thomas Bouchard, courtesy of Dance Camera West

Show Comments ()
Courtesy of NUVO Dance Convention

For all intents and purposes, Stacey Tookey is a Disney princess. Her voice is like honey as she waltzes around the classroom exclaiming words of encouragement, she sees the best in all of her dancers from the front row to the back and she's absolutely beautiful. I mean, come one! Who get's to have a kid, hip surgery, years of wear and tear and still maintain eternally lovely lines that rotate into perfection?

What's more? She creates a nurturing environment in her classroom where dancers feel comfortable as they navigate challenging combinations and complex emotions. No matter what you're going through, dancing with Tookey is good for the soul.

Here are four takeaways from her class this past week. I hope they inspire you as much as they did me!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photos by Amy Kelkenberg

Whether a dancer has too much or too little, turnout can be one of the most frustrating aspects of technique. Students often feel they must achieve 180-degree rotation to become successful in the field. In reality, the average person only has 45 degrees of external rotation in each leg, meaning their first position should be no greater than 90 degrees.

Because range of motion in the hip is ultimately determined by the joint's structure, it is impossible for dancers to increase their structural turnout. Often, though, students do not use what they have to the greatest potential. By maximizing their mobility they will find greater ease within movement, improve lines and, most important, prevent injuries caused by forcing the joints.

Deborah Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City, says the best way to unlock external rotation is to balance out muscle strength and flexibility. “Dancers are working the turnout all the time. They're always engaged and focused so much on using it. The minute they learn how to release those muscles they bring everything into balance," she says. “That middle is where dancers last the longest."

Here, Vogel suggests exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles that activate turnout:

Sitting Stretch: For Stretching Turnout Muscles at the Back of the Pelvis

Sit on the edge of a chair with knees at a 90-degree angle and feet flat on the floor. Cross the right ankle onto the left knee. Lace your hands together and nestle them under the right knee, lightly pressing energy into your hands and toward the floor (though the knee should not actually move). Sit up straight—some may already feel tension here.

With a flat back, bring the belly button toward your legs. Continue gently pressing the right knee into your clasped hands.

Experiment with turning the upper body toward the knee or the foot to stretch different muscles.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by Jim Lafferty

Have you ever attended an audition and wished that you knew what the director was looking for? We've rounded up some of our favorite quotes from our Director's Notes column over the past few years to give you a deeper glimpse into the minds of 10 artistic directors.

Ashley Wheater, Joffrey Ballet

"I want to develop and nurture artists," says Wheater, seeking "people who are not afraid to be expressive, and understand all the layers that go into making a work above and beyond the steps."

Ingrid Lorentzen, Norwegian National Ballet

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Via Kenedy Kalls Instagram

Dancers have a language all their own. From French technical terms to scatting out choreography dynamics, it's a wonder any nondancers understand a word we say! Perhaps some of the most confusing dancer terms are the various foods we use to describe our feet. To help dance outsiders out, DT broke down the foods that are commonplace in dancer lingo. Share them with your loved ones, so they can better understand the weird and wonderful breed of dancer that you are.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health

Injuries can be devastating to a dance career, but you can reduce their occurrence or avoid them—if you know what to look for. To learn why certain injuries happen and what can be done to prevent them, we consulted a group of experts: Jacqui Greene Hass, director of Pilates and Dance Medicine at Wellington Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Therapy Services; Marijeanne Liederbach, director of research and education at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries; Jennifer Deckert, assistant professor at University of Wyoming (holds an MFA in ballet pedagogy and has presented at the International Association for Medicine and Science); and Michael Kelly Bruce, associate professor at The Ohio State University (certified in Pilates and specializes in conditioning).

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Image via Michaels' Instagram

We all know and love Mia Michaels. She's a fearless choreographer and teacher, who's inspired a generation of dancers with her unique style, grace and brilliance. What's not to love? And now we can't help but gush over a personal confession she recently shared on Instagram.

Bottom line: No matter your age, size or shape, don't wait to love your body or yourself.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health

I recently started back in modern dance after a long hiatus—I stopped dancing at age 11 and went back two years ago at age 24. I've found that when I'm on the floor, I can't open to a very wide second. Also, if I'm sitting in butterfly on the floor with my feet together, my knees are some distance from the ground. What can I do to loosen my hips?

Keep reading... Show less





Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!