Doris Humphrey, like her contemporary Martha Graham, was interested in making dance more reflective of modern times. In collaboration with Charles Weidman, she developed the concept of fall and recovery—using the pattern of breath to inform movement. She was José Limón’s teacher and mentor, and though she wasn’t interested in creating a technique, her ideas became part of what is today known as Limón technique.
Doris Humphrey (1895–1958) first encountered dance at her progressive grammar school, where she studied with Mary Wood Hinman. After Humphrey briefly ran her own dance school in her home state of Illinois, Hinman encouraged her to study at the Denishawn school in Los Angeles. Humphrey became one of the school’s stars, studying, teaching and performing over the course of 11 years. In 1928, she left to explore her own ideas beyond the colorful but superficial style of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. She and fellow Denishawn dancer Charles Weidman formed the Humphrey-Weidman Dance Company.
Over the next four years, Humphrey and Weidman choreographed more than 40 dances, touring their repertory throughout the United States in the 1930s. They and their company members served on faculty at the summer sessions of the Bennington School of the Dance, where Humphrey was given the chance to work on her own choreography. She became interested in the relationship between breath and momentum and developed a theory of fall and recovery that would become the basis of Humphrey-Weidman style. One of her earliest students at the Humphrey-Weidman school was José Limón, who quickly became part of her company.
Humphrey disbanded the company in the mid-1940s: She suffered from severe arthritis and was short of company members, due to World War II military drafts. Limón, who was beginning his career as a choreographer and was heavily influenced by Humphrey’s style of movement, invited her to become the artistic director of his own newly formed company. (His dancers included Pauline Koner, Lucas Hoving, Betty Jones and Ruth Currier.) Her fall and recovery theory has survived to this day as a fundamental of Limón technique.
She also directed the Juilliard Dance Theater (the school’s pre-professional company) and began her autobiography and wrote The Art of Making Dances, her guide to choreography, before her death; they were published posthumously.
For years, Humphrey, her husband, her son and her dance partners, Charles Weidman, José Limón and Pauline Lawrence (Limón’s wife), lived together communally in New York.
Air for the G String (1928) Set to the music of Bach, this piece was a processional walking dance for five women.
Water Study (1928) Without music, 16 women vocalized the rhythm of their breath to initiate their movement and imitate the ebb and flow of the ocean—and to make full use of fall and recovery.
The Shakers (1931) Inspired by this Protestant sect’s discipline and communal sense of spirituality, Humphrey choreographed this piece to demonstrate their strict separation of the genders and their spiritual dancing rituals.
Humphrey-Weidman technique was based almost entirely on the principles associated with Humphrey’s theory of fall and recovery—or, as she put it, the “arc between two deaths.” This technique utilized the rhythm of an inhale and exhale to emphasize the momentum of a movement—swing, suspensions, leaps, turns—giving the simplest of steps definitive moments of off-balance and eventual stability.
The Legacy Lives On
Humphrey had far-reaching influence on future generations of dancers. She served as a mentor to José Limón, eventually becoming the artistic director of his company. Her fall and recovery is easily recognized in the under- and over-curves and lush movement of the Limón Dance Company.
“Doris Humphrey: Modern Dance Pioneer,” by Janice LaPointe-Crump, Dance Teacher, January 2006
Ballet & Modern Dance: A Concise History, by Jack Anderson, Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 1992
The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of Its Creators, edited by Jean Morrison Brown, Naomi Mindlin and Charles H. Woodford, Princeton Book Company, Publishers, 1998
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org
Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives