Anna Sokolow


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

Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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Teachers Trending
Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

Finally compelled to speak up, Griffith led a virtual seminar in June for the entire dance community entitled "Racism and the Dance World." Over a thousand people viewed her presentation, which was inspired in part by the mentorship of longtime family friend Dr. Joy DeGruy, an expert on institutionalized racism. Floored but encouraged by such a large turnout, Griffith quickly prepared a follow-up seminar, which also had a positive response.

"Teachers kept reaching out to me and saying, How do I talk to my students about this? They don't care about anything but steps," she says.

In response, Griffith designed a six-week professional-development program—Roots, Rhythm, Race & Dance, or R3 Dance—for teachers of any style seeking ways to introduce age-appropriate concepts about race and dance history to their students. The history of the art form, she points out, is the context in which we all teach and perform every day.

Griffith laughs, with eyes closed and fingers snapping to the side, as she demonstrates in front of a class of adults. A toddler is at her side, also in tap shoes

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"The white hip-hop teacher asking why Black people are trolling them on Instagram happens against the same backdrop as Tamir Rice holding a pellet gun and not surviving a confrontation with police," she says. "We try to see them as separate things, but they're really not."

R3 Dance isn't the first program Griffith, a 43-year-old mother of two, created for teachers. Since 2018, she has run the Facebook group "Dance Studios on Tap!," a space for sharing struggles and successes in the classroom, teaching tips and ideas on growing studio tap programs.

She has also offered a 10-week, online teacher training program, "Tap Teachers' Lounge," since 2018. Through lecture-demonstrations, discussions, dance classes and workshop sessions, Griffith helps studio instructors increase student enrollment, engagement and success in their tap programs.

"I had started to feel what so many professionals know from experience," she says. "There are huge gaps in people's training, and teachers don't get the benefit of individualized, process-oriented feedback about their pedagogy, especially when it comes to tap dance."

Griffith knew she could help fill in many of those gaps. She also suspected her resumé would appeal to a variety of tap teachers: Some might be impressed by her teaching credits at Pace University and Broadway Dance Center, while others would notice her experience with the Rockettes and Cirque du Soleil, or her connections to tap artists such as Chloe Arnold and Dormeshia.

Griffith also knew that many tap teachers are the sole tap instructors at their studios and have few opportunities to attend tap festivals or master classes. With her programs, they can learn exclusively online, without having to travel, while still teaching their weekly classes.

A key feature of the teacher training program is that participants submit video of exercises they've been working on and get feedback from Griffith. They're expected to implement that feedback and report back on their progress the following week. For Griffith, that accountability is a cornerstone of her pedagogy.

"Teaching is a practice—you have to put it on its feet, you have to do it," she says. "I want to give teachers the tools they need for their practice, and then talk about how that practice informs their preparation in the future, just like how you would teach anything else."

Griffith walks across the front of a studio, clapping her hands, as a large class of teen students practice a tap combination

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

Griffith takes a similar approach for R3 Dance, which last year included 180 participants from around the world working in public schools, private studios, universities and other settings, teaching both tap and social dance. Teachers might bring an anti-racist statement they're drafting for their studio, for example, or a lesson plan or proposed changes to a college syllabus.

Griffith also gives teachers the knowledge to confidently structure and lead conversations about race in the dance industry. Participants typically come with a range of comfort levels in discussing race, says Griffith, some just beginning to comprehend race as a factor in dance. Others have read books and watched documentaries but don't know how to translate what they've learned into lessons. Some worry that starting difficult conversations with colleagues or students will get them fired or reprimanded.

But Griffith says she's been encouraged by the ways in which participants have reflected on everything from their costuming and choreography to their social media presence and hiring practices as a result of the program.

"It's been really inspiring to see more teachers taking this part of history with the gravity that it deserves—not in a way that makes them cry, but that makes them get to work," she says.

For instance, Maygan Wurzer, founder and director of All That Dance in Seattle, Washington, found her studio's diversity and inclusion program enhanced after attending R3 Dance with two of her colleagues. This includes a living document where all 19 instructors share materials that they're using to diversify their curriculum, such as lessons on tap and modern dancers of color, and asking teen students to research the history of race in various dance genres and present their findings.

These changes address a common problem that Griffith notices: Teachers give lessons on certain styles, steps or artists without providing sufficient historical context. For example, it's important to know who Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers were, but it's equally vital to understand how racism contributed to the former having a more prominent place in the annals of dance history.

Griffith stands next to a large screen with a powerpoint presentation showing the name "Bill Bojangles Robinson" with some photos. She holds a microphone and speaks to a large group of students who sit on the ground

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

"Topics like privilege and cultural appropriation need the same kind of thought and vision as teaching technique," she explains. "You have to layer those conversations, just like you wouldn't teach fouetté turns to a level-one student."

For educators who have finished one or both of her programs, Griffith is scheduling regular meetings to discuss further implementation strategies and lead additional workshopping sessions.

"As educators, we're excavators who bring out what we can in our students," she says. "But sometimes our tools get dull, and we need to keep sharpening them."

Ultimately, Griffith says that this work has been empowering not just for her students but also for her.

"Dance teachers are completely fine with being uncomfortable and taking feedback," she says. "I found an energy to do this work because there are so many people who are willing to do it with me."

Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.

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