Choreographer for social justice

Anna Sokolow was a prolific choreographer fiercely committed to social justice and unafraid to deal with difficult subjects in her work—like war, poverty, isolation and strife.

Born in Connecticut to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Sokolow moved to New York City as a child and studied dance at an after-school class in Manhattan. She showed promise early on, so her teachers sent her to the Henry Street Settlement and Neighborhood Playhouse to continue training. There, Sokolow met Martha Graham and her accompanist, Louis Horst. At age 20, Sokolow was invited to join the Martha Graham Dance Company. She swiftly became a principal dancer and stayed with the company for eight years.

While dancing with Graham, Sokolow began choreographing for union and political organizations and soon created her own group, Dance Unit. Though her choreography did contain classic Graham contractions and spirals, technique was always secondary to content. Believing that dance could be a voice for underserved populations, she choreographed pieces that dealt with social and political issues, like antiwar sentiment and workers’ rights.

Sokolow’s Steps of Silence, an antiwar piece, in which people and trash commingled onstageIn 1939, Sokolow traveled to Mexico to give a series of concerts at the request of the Mexican government. She ended up establishing a school and company, La Paloma Azul, in Mexico City, unofficially becoming the “founder of Mexican modern dance.” Over the next 10 years she traveled back and forth between Mexico City and New York. During this time, she started choreographing for Broadway shows like Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real (1953).

In her later years, Sokolow began fusing dance, theater, literature and music to create multimedia works. She also taught movement for actors at the Actors Studio in 1947. In her work there, she used the Stanislavski Method, developing character and choreographic narrative through personal experiences.

In 1958, she joined the dance and drama faculty of Juilliard, where she taught for more than 30 years. She kept choreographing well into her 80s and died in 2000, at the age of 90. DT

Fun Facts:

Anna Sokolow was the original choreographer for the musical Hair (1967) but was dismissed from the project before it opened, due to staging disagreements.

She served as Louis Horst’s assistant in his composition class at Neighborhood Playhouse, which earned her the nickname “Louis’ Whip.”

Her piece, Rooms (1955), was so depressing that it was dropped from the repertories of Joffrey Ballet (after one performance) and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (after a few performances), later to be returned to AAADT’s repertory.

The Work

Strange American Funeral (1935) A group piece that explored the harsh lifestyle of American industrial workers, based on a poem about a mill worker who fell into a vat of molten metal.

Rooms (1955) Her most famous work, in which chairs symbolized rooms in a hotel. Dancers moved on and around the chairs, representing urban isolation and anxiety. The piece was made into a short film in 1966 and is frequently set on companies and college dancers throughout the United States today.

Dreams (1961) After reading The Last of the Just, a novel about persecution of the Jews, Sokolow began having recurring dreams about the Holocaust. She translated these dreams into a dance which captured hopelessness and despair in heavy, repetitive movements.

The Legacy Lives On

Choreographers Pina Bausch and Martha Clarke studied under Sokolow at Juilliard; Jerome Robbins and Alvin Ailey both named her as a choreographic influence. Sokolow strongly supported Labanotation as a way to preserve choreography and began working with the Dance Notation Bureau in the ’60s to have her dances notated. Works like Rooms, Dreams and Kaddish (1945) can be seen today in the repertories of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, José Limón Dance Company and Kansas City Ballet. The NYC-based Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble, directed by Sokolow disciple Jim May, re-creates Sokolow works and holds workshops at Keystone Studio and Peridance Capezio Center.



“Anna Sokolow: Modern dance choreographer,” by Elizabeth McPherson, Dance Teacher, January 2009

Anna Sokolow: The Rebellious Spirit, by Larry Warren, Routledge Publishers, 1998

No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century, by Nancy Reynolds and Malcolm McCormick, Yale University Press, 2003


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


Photos from top: by Jim Frost, courtesy of Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble; by Tom Brazil, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox