Dance History: New Dance Group

Sophie Maslow (left), Jane Dudley (center) and William Bales in Dudley's Passional (1950). Photo by Arnold Eagle, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

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.
Higher Ed
Getty Images

As we wade through a global pandemic that has threatened the financial livelihood of live performance, dancers and dance educators are faced with questions of sustainability.

How do we sustain ourselves if we cannot make money while performing? What foods are healthy for our bodies and fit within a tight unemployment budget? How do we tend to the mental, emotional and spiritual scars of the pandemic when we return to rehearsal and the stage?


The pandemic has highlighted this shared truth for dance artists: While we've been trained to dedicate our lives to the craft of art-making, we lack the knowledge to support ourselves when crisis hits. While we may have learned much about performing and creating dance in our college curriculums, most of us were not taught the answers to these questions of sustainability, or even those that come up in the normal life of a dance artist, like how to apply for a grant. Indeed, even before the pandemic, far too many dance artists faced abuse, harassment, mental health challenges, financial stress and other issues that they weren't equipped to deal with.

In 2017, inspired by the fact that dance curriculums so often hyper-focus on making and performing art but leave out the task of supporting an artistic life, choreographers David Thomson and Kate Watson-Wallace created The Sustainability Project, which seeks to create and expand discourse addressing the gap between technical and performance knowledge, and the knowledge that supports a healthy, sustainable life.

Since 2018, The Sustainability Project has been offered as a course called Artists' Sustainability at the Pratt Institute's Performance & Performance Studies graduate program, open to students of all disciplines at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The course incorporates goal-setting workbooks, discussions and projects that model artistic life postgraduation, like getting a grant funded, complete with artistic statements, proposals, budgets and a panel review.

Pratt isn't the only school to begin addressing this hole in their curriculum. At Shenandoah University, for example, Rebecca Ferrell has students in her first-year seminar for dance majors create personal and artistic budgets, and identify their personal and professional support systems.

We still have a long way to go, however, until this kind of learning is embraced as an essential part of any dance curriculum. Thomson says that while dance artists and students have embraced The Sustainability Project, school administrators have been reluctant to incorporate life-learning courses into their programs.

But if college isn't the time for this learning, when is the time? The fast-moving, demanding and exhausting life of an artist often does not leave space to learn new skills, such as balancing a budget, conflict resolution or creating a nutrition plan. And without these tools, dance artists often won't be able to put to use the artistic skills that their college programs focused on. (You can't show off your great training if you haven't been taught how to find a job, for instance.)

As the dance field struggles to survive the pandemic, it's more important than ever that dance education demystifies the working life of dance artists. Dance students are already taught to prevent injuries for the sake of their body's sustainability. Let's start thinking of dancers' careers the same way. As Thomson put it, "Would you send your child out into a snow storm with a pretty coat, hat and scarf without any shoes?"

Teachers Trending
Cynthia Oliver in her office. Photo by Natalie Fiol

When it comes to Cynthia Oliver's classes, you always bring your A game. (As her student for the last two and a half years in the MFA program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I feel uniquely equipped to make this statement.) You never skip the reading she assigns; you turn in not your first draft but your third or fourth for her end-of-semester research paper; and you always do the final combination of her technique class full-out, even if you're exhausted.

Oliver's arrival at UIUC 20 years ago jolted new life into the dance department. "It may seem odd to think of this now, but the whole concept of an artist-scholar was new when she first arrived," says Sara Hook, who also joined the UIUC dance faculty in 2000. "You were either a technique teacher or a theory/history teacher. Cynthia's had to very patiently educate all of us about the nature of her work, and I think that has increased our passion for the kind of excavation she brings to her research."


Coming off a successful choreographic and performance career in New York City and a PhD in performance studies from New York University, Oliver held her artistic and scholarly careers in equal regard—and refused to be defined by only one of them. She demands the same rigor and versatility from the BFA and MFA students she teaches today—as in this semester's aptly titled Synthesis, a grad class where students read female-authored memoirs (Audre Lorde's Zami, Gabrielle Civil's Swallow the Fish) and then create short movement studies from prompts based on a memoir's narrative structure or content. It was Oliver, too, who advocated that grad students should be required to take at least one class outside of the dance department, as a way of guaranteeing a cross-disciplinary influence on their studies.

Oliver, wearing black pants and a green shirt, dances on a sidewalk outside a building

Natalie Fiol

But alongside her high standards, Oliver has also become known for holding space for students' complexity. "I have a tendency for a particular kind of disobedience or defiance, and people usually try to punish that," says Niall Jones, who graduated from the MFA program in 2014 and has also been a performer in Oliver's work. "But Cynthia finds a way to see and attend to what's really happening in that posture. She has a capacity to listen. There's a space for otherness in her work and in her teaching, to allow people to step into different ways of being."

Though Oliver's role at the university has undergone some shifts over the last few years, the connection between her work and her art remains a thread through everything she does. Three years ago, she began splitting her time between the dance department and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, where she helps scholars and faculty in the humanities and arts find support for their research. And over the summer, Oliver was named a Center for Advanced Study professor, an appointment that she'll hold until she retires, which comes with an annual research stipend and the chance to engage with other scholars across campus.

I sat down with Oliver over Zoom to pick her brain about how she crafts her legendary syllabi and what it's been like to watch dance academia slowly embrace her approach.

Oliver sits at her desk, surrounded by books and papers, leaning forward onto her forearms

Natalie Fiol

What's kept you here at Illinois for 20 years?

I came here as an experiment. I had been an independent artist in New York for many years, and I intended to continue doing that, because that was a life that worked for me. But at the same time, I would have these periods where I thought, "What am I doing?" During one of those periods, I went to grad school for performance studies. As I was finishing up, Renée Wadleigh, who had been my undergrad teacher [at Adelphi University, before Wadleigh joined the UIUC faculty] reached out to me and said, "I've been following your career. If you ever think about teaching at a university, consider Illinois." [My husband] Jason and I decided to try it for three years. We always felt like we could go back to the city if we hated it.

Many of us think: "I'm going to go into the academy, and my career will be over." It doesn't. It might amplify it in certain ways, and it might ebb and flow. For me, I needed that ebb and flow, so I could recover from a really active period and then focus on my writing and teaching for a period. It's a different kind of intellectual engagement. That's what's kept me here.

How has your approach to pedagogy changed over your time here?

In New York, I had a class that I would teach that generally was offered to other professionals who were preparing to go to rehearsal. In the academy, I had to learn a different kind of teaching, and that's where my real education started around pedagogy.

I realized that I could either continue in a kind of dominant aesthetic vein, or I could figure out what I had to offer that was different from what the students were getting from my peers in the department. So that's what I did. I called on my Afro-Caribbean background, my club dancing background, my time with Ronald K. Brown and Baba Richard González, my growing up in the Caribbean. I started to pull that material into a structure that reflected the values that I have around community and bodies being together—people understanding a depth of engagement that is not immediately Eurocentric. There was space to do my own investigation here, to think about my own pedagogical aesthetic and cultural interests, and incorporate them in my teaching. That's also what keeps me here. I can continue to question and shape and change according to certain values and attach those to my research interests.

Oliver stands in her office, leaning back against a filing cabinet and smirking at the camera

Natalie Fiol

I've always assumed that the seminars you teach in the grad program are so writing- and research-intensive because of your experience getting your PhD in performance studies. Is that true?

I have a strong intellectual interest. My experience going into performance studies enriched my practice in ways that I could not have imagined. I remember what it felt like to have all of those pistons firing while I was making work. It was overwhelming, it was stimulating, it was exciting. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream—all at once. I think I offer that to our program. There's also my insistence on the cross-disciplinary requirement in our program. You all have to reach outside of the department to engage with other intellectuals and creative practitioners across disciplines to inform your own.

There are grad students who have cursed me for bringing that kind of rigor. But my experience in the field has been about my being able to talk about my work in-depth—about the choices I make, about epistemologies around it, about world views, influences, all of that. In order to do that convincingly, you have to have a foundation. I want you all to be legit, to know what it is you're talking about your own work in relation to. And that comes from an intellectual heft.

The syllabi you create for the grad classes are incredible. They're so thoughtful, so detailed, so well-crafted. How do you do that?

I work on my syllabi like I work on my choreographic projects. I piece these bad boys together over time. I do not do it in a rush. I take notes. If I come across something—a scholar, what I've read, what someone said—I'll jot it down. Eventually, I'll pull all of those notes together. That's when it gets exciting. There's always something serendipitous about it.

There are people who don't see the labor that goes into my class. And that's when I say, "OK, I'm going to reveal the bones of this in a way I wouldn't, ordinarily." For example, in a course I'm teaching this semester, I only used texts by women. I didn't walk in and announce it—"Well, if you would notice, all of these authors are women"—I just did it, because, for me, that was a feminist act. Because that's how a white, patriarchal voice works: It presumes authority, and it offers you this information—and you are supposed to take it, as if that's the law of intellectual curiosity, of how one should think.

Oliver, in black pants and a green shirt, dances in a grassy area by a street. She leans to the side, her arms swaying beside her

Natalie Fiol

Your longtime approach is finally being picked up by dance programs across the country that are slowly decolonizing their curriculums. Does that make you feel excited? Relieved?

There's a part of me that is tired, to be honest. Because artists of color have been doing this work for a really long time—that labor has always rested on our shoulders. I have to resist any moments of cynicism and really be willing to just seize the moment and work with folks to make the changes happen. I don't know that America as a whole is ready for it, but it feels like institutions are finally ready to look at the ways inequity has historically been established and continues through the systems in place.

So how do you combat that feeling of tiredness?

I think by seeing things happen, by seeing change—seeing more students of color in our program, for example. I'm excited that I have two additional colleagues of color [associate professor Endalyn Taylor and assistant professor C. Kemal Nance] on our faculty. We're not a perfect situation, but our department head, Jan Erkert, has made this a priority. That makes it easier to make people feel more welcome. At the same time, you have to understand that if you change your curriculum to be more inclusive—as it should be—you also have to be nimble and responsive to what the needs are of that diverse community. Those are the growing pains that have to happen.

News
Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

Since 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards have celebrated the living legends of our field—from Martha Graham to Misty Copeland to Alvin Ailey to Gene Kelly.

This year is no different. But for the first time ever, the Dance Magazine Awards will be presented virtually—which is good news for aspiring dancers (and their teachers!) everywhere. (Plus, there's a special student rate of $25.)

The Dance Magazine Awards aren't just a celebration of the people who shape the dance field—they're a unique educational opportunity and a chance for dancers to see their idols up close.


Here's why your dancers (and you!) should tune in:

They'll see dance history in the making.

Carlos Acosta. Debbie Allen. Camille A. Brown. Laurieann Gibson. Alonzo King.

If you haven't already taught your students about these esteemed awardees, odds are you'll be adding them to your curriculum before long.

Not only will your students get to hear from each of them at a pivotal moment in their careers (and Dance Magazine Awards acceptance speeches are famously chock-full of inspiration), they'll also hear from presenters like William Forsythe and Theresa Ruth Howard.

This year, all the Dance Magazine Awards are going to Black artists, as a step towards repairing the history of honoring primarily white artists.

And meet tomorrow's dance legends.

Dance Magazine's Harkness Promise Awards, this year going to Kyle Marshall and Marjani Forté-Saunders, offer funding, rehearsal space and mentorship to innovative young choreographers in their first decade of presenting work—a powerful reminder to your students that major success in the dance world doesn't happen overnight.

They'll get a glimpse of what happens behind the scenes.

Solely teaching your students how to be a great dancer doesn't give them the full picture. A complete dance education produces artists who are savvy about what happens behind the scenes, too.

In 2018, Dance Media launched the Chairman's Award to honor those behind-the-scenes leaders who keep our field moving. Each year's recipient is chosen by our CEO, Frederic M. Seegal. This year's award goes to Ford Foundation president Darren Walker, who is using philanthropy to make the performing arts—and the world at large—more just.

And, of course, see dozens of great dance works.

Where else could your students see selections from Alonzo King's contemporary ballet classics next to Camille A. Brown's boundary-pushing dance theater works? Or see both Carlos Acosta and Laurieann Gibson in action in the same evening? Excerpts from the awardees' works will show your students what it is exactly that makes these artists so special.

So gather your class (virtually!) and join us next Monday, December 7, at 6 pm. To receive the special student rate, please email dmawards@dancemedia.com.

See you there!

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