Anna Sokolow (1910–2000) was a woman of integrity. Possessed of deep convictions and a fierce commitment to social justice, she wasn’t one to do something just because it was popular. A dancer, choreographer and teacher who contributed to modern dance for nearly seven decades, Sokolow remained true to herself and devoted to dance as an expressive artform.

Her parents, Samuel and Sarah, emigrated from Russia in the early 1900s with their young son Isadore, joining the vast number of Jews who were fleeing religious and economic persecution. The family’s destination was Hartford, Connecticut, where they had friends who could help them adjust to a new life. It wasn’t easy—Samuel had few practical job skills and struggled to make a living.

Meanwhile, Sarah gave birth to three daughters: Rose in 1908, Anna in 1910 and Gertrude in 1912. Soon after Gertrude’s birth, the family moved to New York City, where they hoped Samuel would more easily find work. However, shortly after, he became incapacitated by Parkinson’s disease, and Sarah was forced to take over as the breadwinner, working in the garment industry. She became a proud union member and socialist, which made a lasting impression on the young Anna.

At age 10, Sokolow had her first encounter with dance in an after-school class. There she discovered an Isadora Duncan–inspired expressive movement style, and in her own words, “fell madly in love with dancing.” When she was about 15, her dance teachers recommended that she continue her studies at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Sokolow followed their advice and was awarded a scholarship. Soon after, she quit school and left home, supporting herself with various odd jobs like tying tea bags.

At the Neighborhood Playhouse, two of Sokolow’s teachers were Louis Horst and Martha Graham, both of whom would have an enormous impact on her career. Horst, Graham’s accompanist and composer, was beginning to develop a method of teaching dance composition through studying musical forms and applying that structure to dance. Sokolow excelled at this, meeting each challenge Horst presented. “Anna was his prize, really,” Agnes de Mille once said. “Everything she did was a little work of art, a large work of art.” Horst acted as Sokolow’s choreographic advisor for many years.

Sokolow joined Graham’s company in 1929, dancing in Heretic, Primitive Mysteries and Celebration, among other works, over the next few years. She was a strong dancer with intense, focused energy, well-suited to Graham’s stark but expressive early style. She often joked that she should have been a ballet dancer because she had such good jumps and turns, but that would have never suited her temperamentally. Sokolow was radical through and through.

By 1931, she had already begun to choreograph and present solos, often for union and political organizations. In 1933, she established her first company, Dance Group of the Theatre Union, and left Graham’s company four years later. Graham needed a faithful, devoted    following, and Sokolow was moving away from her mentor philosophically and developing her own voice.

Sokolow’s company would go through many evolutions over the next 60-plus years, the last version being The Players Project. She created more than 150 dances for her troupe and also choreographed for the theater, including the first off-Broadway production of the musical Hair in 1967.

Her works reflected the broad range of the human experience, from the bleak (Rooms, an exploration of human isolation, and Dreams, a response to the Holocaust) to the lighthearted (Ballade, a lyrical portrayal of the discoveries of youth) and the hilarious (A Short Lecture and Demonstration on the Evolution of Ragtime as Presented by Jelly Roll Morton). Today, her works are performed by the Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble and are in the repertories of companies around the world. 

Sokolow’s interest in teaching took her to studios and universities throughout the U.S. and abroad, and she taught and choreographed extensively in both Mexico and Israel. On the company’s first trip to Mexico in 1939, Sokolow was mistakenly billed as “La Gran Bailarina Russa,” or “The Great Russian Ballerina.” Mexican audiences admired her work nevertheless, and Sokolow was asked to stay in the country to teach and help found a government-sponsored modern dance company. The Mexican dancers devoted to her work became known as Las Sokolovas, and Sokolow earned the title “La Fundadora de la Danza Moderna de Mexico”—the Founder of Mexican Modern Dance. She continued to teach and choreograph there for decades.

Sokolow first ventured to Israel in 1953, having been recommended by Jerome Robbins to introduce the American style of modern dance to Inbal Dance Theatre, a company steeped in the Jewish Yemen folk tradition. After nearly a decade she returned, this time sponsored by the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation, and formed the professional Lyric Theatre with 13 Israeli actor-dancers. The company lasted 10 years, with Sokolow returning to Israel each year to choreograph and coach. She went on to work with the Batsheva Dance Company in the early 1970s and continued to visit and teach in Israel for the rest of her life.

In New York City, Sokolow taught at The Actor’s Studio for several years and had a home on the dance and drama faculty at Juilliard for more than 30 years, starting in 1957. She influenced generations of young dancers and actors. “Anna taught me to believe in myself as a performer,” recalled dancer and Juilliard alum Lance Westergard. “She also taught me what it means to love the art of dance beyond just myself doing it. She took the ‘I’ out of it.”

Sokolow demanded honesty, meaning that movements had to initiate from one’s inner being. A superficial gesture was unacceptable, and she made this clear in no uncertain terms. Students and dancers through the years remember her saying, “No, I don’t believe it,” over and over as they repeated a simple gesture.

With Sokolow’s spellbinding intensity came her occasional and unforgettable tirades. Many performers feared rehearsals with her, but most came out of the process better dancers, more in touch with their personal motivations and convictions. In a 1966 essay, Sokolow wrote: “To the young dancer I want to say, ‘Do what you feel you are, not what you think you ought to be.’” She continued: “The artist should belong to his society, yet without feeling that he has to conform to it.” This, in many ways, was the anthem of her life as well as the philosophy behind her teaching.

Elizabeth McPherson, PhD, is an assistant professor at Montclair State University. As a student at Juilliard, she had the honor of being coached by Anna Sokolow in two of her choreographic works.

Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jerome Capasso, courtesy of Man in Motion

Finding a male dance instructor who isn't booked solid can be a challenge, which is why a New York City dance educator was inspired to start a network of male dance professionals in 2012. Since then, he's tripled his roster of teachers and is actively hiring.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Courtesy of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center

For seven decades, Frank Shawl's bright and kind spirit touched thousands of dancers in the studio and in the audience.

After dancing professionally in New York City and with the May O'Donnell Dance Company, Shawl moved with Victor Anderson to the San Francisco Bay Area and founded Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in 1958. It is the longest running arts organization in Berkeley.

The two ran their own company for 15 years and Shawl-Anderson Dance Center became a home for dance for students and artists alike. It currently runs 120 classes and workshops every week for children and adults, plus artist residencies, rehearsal space and intimate performances. (If you have never visited, the Center is actually a large house converted into four studio spaces.)

Shawl taught modern classes at the studio until 1990, performed into his late 70s and took classes at the Center into his mid 80s.

As I simultaneously mourn and honor Frank—my dear friend, fellow dancer, mentor and boss—I reflect on a few lessons that I learned from him. These five ideas relate to our various roles in dance as students, performers, teachers and administrators.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Getty Images

Halloween is just a few weeks away, which means it's officially time to start prepping your fabulously spooky costumes! Skip the classic witch, unicorn and superhero outfits, and trade them in for some ghosts of dance legends past. Wear your costumes to class, and use them as a way to teach a dance history lesson, or ask your students to dress up as their favorite dancer from history, and perform a few eight counts of their most famous repertoire during class. Your students will absolutely love it, and you'll be able to get in some real educating despite the distraction of the holiday!

Check out some ideas we had for who might be a good fit. We can't wait to see who you all dress up as!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Photo by Sedge Leblang, courtesy of Dance Magazine Archives

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At 8, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle at with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

You've got the teaching talent, the years of experience, the space and the passion—now all you need are some students!

Here are six ideas for getting the word out about your fabulous, up-and-coming program! We simply can't wait to see all the talent you produce with it!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of HSDC

This fall Hubbard Street Dance Chicago initiates an innovative choreographic-study project to pair local Chicago teens with company member Rena Butler, who in 2018 was named the Hubbard Street Choreographic Fellow. The Dance Lab Choreographic Fellowship is the vision of Kathryn Humphreys, director of HSDC's education, youth and community programs. "I am really excited to see young people realize possibilities, and realize what they are capable of," she says. "I think that high school is such an interesting, transformative time. They are right on the edge of figuring themselves out."

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: What policies do you put in place to encourage parents of competition dancers to pay their bills in a timely manner?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Kim Black

For some children, the first day of dance is a magic time filled with make-believe, music, smiles and movement. For others, all the excitement can be a bit intimidating, resulting in tears and hesitation. This is perfectly natural, and after 32 years of experience, I've got a pretty good system for getting those timid tiny dancers to open up. It usually takes a few classes before some students are completely comfortable. But before you know it, those hesitant students will begin enjoying the magic of creative movement and dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Photo via @igor.pastor on Instagram

Listen up, dance teachers! October 7 is National Frappe Day (the drink), but as dance enthusiasts, we obviously like to celebrate a little differently. We've compiled four fun frappé combinations on Instagram for your perusal!

You're welcome! Now, you can thank us by sharing some of your own frappé favs on social media with the hashtag #nationalfrappeday.

We can't wait to see what you come up with!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Original photos: Getty Images

We've been dying to hear more about "On Pointe," a docuseries following students at the School of American Ballet, since we first got wind of the project this spring. Now—finally!—we know where this can't-miss show is going to live: It was just announced that Disney+, the new streaming service set to launch November 12, has ordered the series.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Tony Nguyen, courtesy of Jill Randall

Recently I got to reflect on my 22-year-old self and the first modern technique classes I subbed for at Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California. (Thank you to Dana Lawton for giving me the chance and opportunity to dive in.)

Today I wanted to share 10 ideas to consider as you embark upon subbing and teaching modern technique classes for the first time. These ideas can be helpful with adult classes and youth classes alike.

As I like to say, "Teaching takes teaching." I mean, teaching takes practice, trial and error and more practice. I myself am in my 23rd year of teaching now and am still learning and growing each and every class.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox