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

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Dean College
Amanda Donahue, ATC, working with a student in her clinic in the Palladino School of Dance at Dean College. Courtesy Dean College

The Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College is one of just 10 college programs in the U.S. with a full-time athletic trainer devoted solely to its dancers. But what makes the school even more unique is that certified athletic trainer Amanda Donahue isn't just available to the students for appointments and backstage coverage—she's in the studio with them and collaborating with dance faculty to prevent injuries and build stronger dancers.

"Gone are the days when people would say, 'Don't go to the gym, you'll bulk up,'" says Kristina Berger, who teaches Horton and Hawkins technique as an assistant professor of dance. "We understand now that cross-training is actually vital, and how we've embraced that at Dean is extremely rare. For one thing, we're not sharing an athletic trainer with the football players, who require a totally different skillset." For another, she says, the faculty and Donahue are focused on giving students tools to prolong their careers.

After six years of this approach, here are the benefits they've seen:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

Since the dawn of time, performers have had to deal with annoying, constant blisters. As every dance teacher knows (and every student is sure to find out), blisters are a fact of life, and we all need to figure out a plan of action for how to deal with them.

Instead of bleeding through pointe shoes and begging you to let them sit out, your students should know these tricks for how to prevent/deal with their skin when it starts to sting.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

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

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less


Get DanceTeacher in your inbox