Dance educator Martha Hill had to constantly fight battles within the realm of higher education. After founding dance degree programs at New York University, Bennington College and Juilliard, she worked to earn dance the same respect as other academic majors. When Juilliard considered cutting the dance program in 1968, Hill saved it. Along the way, she designed a rigorous curriculum—now adopted by college dance programs everywhere—to produce well-rounded, highly skilled dancers.
But her path didn’t always point directly to education. After the 25-year-old Hill saw Martha Graham perform in New York City, all she really wanted to do was dance in Graham’s brand-new company. For the next couple of years, Hill alternated between teaching dance at the University of Oregon during the school year and studying with Graham and taking classes toward a bachelor’s degree at Columbia University during the summer. (Hill would continue to be a champion multitasker for the rest of her life.) Graham invited her into her company in 1929, and Hill moved permanently to NYC, accepting a position at Columbia’s Lincoln School and rehearsing with Graham in the evenings.
It wasn’t until Hill accepted a part-time job teaching dance at an NYU graduate student summer session in 1930 that she permanently altered the course of her career. The part-time gig soon became a full-time dance position within the school’s physical education department, and Hill had to quit Graham’s company.
When NYU decided to offer dance as a major in 1932 (though still under the physical education umbrella), Hill was put in charge of the curriculum—even as she simultaneously accepted a position to found the first bachelor of arts degree in dance at Bennington College. For the next 18 years, she would commute by train between the two campuses, arriving in Vermont on Thursday and returning to Manhattan on Sunday. In 1938, Hill created a master of arts in dance at NYU—and got her own MA in 1941.
Even Hill’s summers were consumed by dance education: In 1934, she established the Bennington School of the Dance, an annual festival of classes and performances that eventually became the American Dance Festival.
Though she was deeply devoted to both Bennington and NYU, an offer came along in 1951 that Hill couldn’t turn down: She was asked to design and direct a dance program at Juilliard. She remained there for nearly 35 years, though she had to fight in 1968 to keep the dance division during the school’s difficult and expensive transition from Morningside Heights to Lincoln Center. When it looked as if the dance program would be cut in order to afford the move, Hill instituted a letter-writing campaign, passed out flyers and informed the press. She managed to not only save the department but assure dance its own division at Juilliard—though she was forced to give the School of American Ballet four of the six new studios in exchange.
The strong-willed Hill retired in 1985, at the age of 85, though she continued to advise students and served as the artistic director emerita of the dance division for the next seven years. DT
Fun Fact When dancing for Graham, Hill sometimes performed under the stage name Martha Todd, to avoid adversely affecting her teaching career.
New York University (1932) The dance major that Hill directed was part of the physical education program. She hired adjuncts like Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Helen Tamiris to help her train students in modern. In 1938, Hill established an MA in dance.
Bennington College (1932) Hill created the first bachelor of arts degree in dance at this all-women’s college in Vermont. The dance department was placed in the fine arts division and, for the first time, treated equally with other academic majors.
Juilliard (1951) Hill’s conservatory curriculum was the first of its kind in a college setting, with attention equally divided between ballet and modern. The original faculty was Antony Tudor, Margaret Craske and Agnes de Mille for ballet, and Graham, Humphrey and José Limón for modern. When Juilliard decided to move to Lincoln Center in 1968, Hill successfully fought to keep the dance division from being cut.
The Bennington School of the Dance (1934) For this summer festival held on Bennington’s campus, Hill brought in the “big four” of modern dance—Graham, Humphrey, Weidman and Holm—to teach and choreograph with their companies in residence. The festival was later reborn at Connecticut College and eventually renamed the American Dance Festival in 1969. It is now held on Duke University’s campus in North Carolina.
The Legacy Lives On
Hill was committed to developing well-rounded dancers. The college curriculum she developed, with classes in technique, dance history, critical writing, repertory, dance composition and music for dancers, has been used by programs everywhere. Her students—who include Pina Bausch, Paul Taylor, Carolyn Brown and many others—went on to achieve far greater fame in the performance world than Hill could. She is the subject of a new documentary: Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter (2014), by Greg Vander Veer.
“Martha Hill: Mentor to generations of dancers,” by Elizabeth McPherson, Dance Teacher, December 2006
The Contributions of Martha Hill to American Dance and Dance Education, 1900–1995, by Elizabeth McPherson, The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008
Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance, by Janet Mansfield Soares, Wesleyan University Press, 2009
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org
Photos by Thomas Bouchard, courtesy of Dance Camera West