Lurching slowly forward, a homeless woman appears from the wing with her body hunched and arms extended. With ambient street sounds as the score, she traverses the stage, crawling, reaching and heaving her body. Periodically, she turns to stare at the audience. Inspired by the art of Käthe Kollwitz and a childhood memory of a poverty-stricken woman scavenging, Eve Gentry's solo, Tenant of the Street, conveys a distinct perspective about economic inequality.
This work was created in 1938 under the auspices of the New Dance Group, a modern dance collective founded six years before. It conveys the NDG's ethos but also resonates in today's political and economic climate. So much so that the Martha Graham Dance Company included it in its 2010 concert “Dance Is a Weapon." “The young artform of modern dance was empowered and validated by its alignment with political and social issues of the day," says Janet Eilber, artistic director of the MGDC. “And the NDG was really in the center of that. They were leading the charge."
Founded by a group of Hanya Holm's students, the New Dance Group was inspired by the political movements seizing Manhattan in the early 1930s. In the wake of the stock market crash, unemployed workers looked to one another for strength and gathered for rallies, parades and protests. Just a few blocks south of the workers' demonstrations, American dance was experiencing upheaval of its own: Modern dance was a fledgling form, and many of its leaders had set up shop in Greenwich Village (including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman and Holm). These pioneers were challenging the standard ballet vocabulary. So it was ingenious that a handful of Holm's students thought to blend the two revolutions. They envisioned a group that would bring dance to the masses and use movement to explore and express the issues of the moment.
The NDG presented performances, offered dance classes and facilitated choreographic collaboration and exchange. It was a complete dance entity simmering in a social, political and cultural stew. “They wanted to bring these burning social problems onto the stage," says Betsy Cooper, director of the University of Washington dance program. “Some of the artists were very political; some weren't. But they cared and wanted to use their art to raise social consciousness."
Some pinpoint the birth of the NDG to protests surrounding a 1932 shooting of Harry Simms, a 19-year-old labor organizer killed by Kentucky police. Inspired by the swarms of people gathered in Simms' honor, the NDG hit the ground running. They distributed leaflets at factories and union meetings—anywhere they thought they'd find potential participants. They rented studio space near Union Square, though their minuscule budget caused instability and they frequently bounced from place to place.
In its infancy, the NDG reflected the Marxist political leanings popular at the time. The group performed proletariat-inspired works at factories, union meetings, parades and rallies. But more than that, they wanted to make dance accessible to all. For a dime, the NDG offered three hours of classes: an hour of technique—initially based on Wigman's approach, later incorporating a variety of modern forms, folk and world dance styles—an hour of improvisation and an hour of political discussion.
No other organization provided similar training. Traditional dance schools charged upward of $1.50 per class and focused on developing skilled technicians. At the NDG, students of all ages, men and women, black and white, took classes together. It was perhaps one of the first racially integrated dance schools. Within a year, the group had 300 participants.
The NDG, however, wasn't alone in its mission. The Rebel Arts Dance Group, the Red Dancers and the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union Dance Group, among other recreational and union-based groups, used dance to engage politically. In fact, there were enough activist dance groups in New York to warrant the Workers Dance League, an umbrella organization that produced concerts and facilitated engagement between members.
But the NDG soon moved toward a more sophisticated artistic aesthetic and earned a reputation as one of the very few troupes to successfully address social and political issues through concert-quality choreography. The group's choreographic roster and teaching faculty featured dance artists—including Sophie Maslow, Jane Dudley, Charles Weidman, Anna Sokolow, Valerie Bettis, Jean Erdman, Mary Anthony and more—creating a distinctly modern but varied vocabulary.
Once Marxism fell out of favor and the New Deal and World War II got the economy churning again, the other Workers Dance League groups dissolved. But NDG continued to push for equality. It was particularly progressive in championing racial integration. Long before the civil rights movement took hold, young African American dancers, such as Pearl Primus, Talley Beatty and Donald McKayle, worked with the NDG and trained, taught and performed alongside white dancers.
As years passed, the NDG became a hub for burgeoning artists of myriad styles. Its diverse repertory included the 1947 genre-bending Shuvi Nafshi, choreographed by Jerusalem-born Hadassah, who specialized in Israeli and Indian dance; Anna Sokolow's abstract and rigorous Lyric Suite from 1954; and Donald McKayle's 1959 master work, Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder, an emotionally expansive portrait of a Southern chain gang (now part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater repertory). Yet the NDG still felt like home to amateur dancers. In Stepping Left, Ellen Graff writes that many of the NDG's students continued to enroll “year after year, even though they never progressed past the fundamentals, because they felt they had a place within the communal dance atmosphere."
Waves of change began in 1969 when Jane Dudley resigned as the NDG's president to lead Batsheva Dance Company in Israel. Sophie Maslow stepped up, but by the early 1980s, the group began to buckle under financial strain, folding in 2009 because it couldn't make its rent payments. But its work can serve as a guide for today's artists. For instance, while it's a looser and less-organized coalition, Occupy Wall Street seems of a kind with the Depression-era workers' movement—there's even an Occupy Dance group. Dancers like these who engage with political, social and cultural issues build on the foundation laid by the NDG decades ago. “They're reminding us that there's a reciprocal nature," Cooper says. “It is a conversation between artist and society."
Did you know...
- The New Dance Group began offering tuition scholarships in 1941. Among the 37 dancers auditioning stood Pearl Primus, a recent graduate of Hunter College. She became the school's first African American scholarship recipient and went on to teach and choreograph for the group.
- For a time, the NDG was based at 305 West 38th Street—now the location for DANY Studios, operated by The Joyce Theater Foundation.