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Having a lighter dance schedule these days means more time to dive into your dance history— including the broader social and political issues that have influenced dancemakers past and present. Katiti King, a faculty member at Barnard College and Gibney in New York City, shares her list of who and what to read and watch right now.

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Kaja Irwin, Sabrina Comanescu, Natasha Korney of Decidely Jazz Danceworks in Calgary. Vibecke Dahle, courtesy Dance on Camera Festival

Even dancers who love their isolations and hip rolls might be totally unaware of where jazz dance comes from.

Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance, which premieres at the Dance on Camera Festival on Sunday, July 19, aims to change that. Directed by Khadifa Wong and produced by Lisa Donmall-Reeve, the feature-length documentary is a fascinating deep dive into the complex history and evolution of jazz dance. It features mesmerizing footage and boasts interviews from renowned experts like Chita Rivera, Debbie Allen and Andy Blankenbuehler.

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Like many dance traditions, it started at the Paris Opéra. (Edgar Degas' "The Dance Class")

The dance world is brimming with superstitions. One of the most common is never to say "good luck" before a show, since everyone knows uttering the phrase is, in fact, very bad luck. Actors say "break a leg" instead. But since that phrase isn't exactly dance-friendly, you and your dance friends probably tell each other "merde" before taking the stage.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "merde" is a French exclamation that loosely translates to, er, "poop." So how did dancers end up saying "merde" to each other instead of "good luck"?

To learn more, we spoke to Raymond Lukens, associate emeritus of the American Ballet Theatre National Training Curriculum, and Kelli Rhodes-Stevens, professor of dance at Oklahoma City University. Read on—and the next time you exchange "merdes" with your castmates before a show, you'll know why.

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Passing dance history on to the next generation is a bit like handing down the family jewels, says Wendy Whelan, seen here teaching. Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Whelan.

When I was a young dancer in Louisville, Kentucky, my ballet teacher used to speak a lot about Merrill Ashley. She brought neoclassical technique to exquisite new heights under Balanchine, and as a technician, she famously paved the way for today's balletic whiz kids. (Later, when I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to have her as a teacher.) Today, as I travel around the country giving master classes, I often find myself bringing up the names of quintessential American ballerinas, dancers like Merrill. But now, if I mention her name, I can't help but notice my students' eyes widening as they look to each other wondering who exactly this famous ballerina named Merrill is.

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Martha Graham in Deaths and Entrances (1943). Photo by Chris Alexander, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Martha Graham was the "Mother of Modern Dance," influencing generations of dance artists with her incomparable choreography and technique that featured the pioneering concept of contraction and release. But did you know...


1. Graham frequently created her own costumes. In a 1989 interview, Graham commented, "Dance is theater and larger than life. Makeup and costume, correctly chosen, define movement in a different way."

Take a look at the vivid costumes in Graham's Clytemnestra (1958).

2. Graham created one of her most famous works, Heretic (1929) in one night. Revered dance educator Bessie Schönberg, a student of Graham's, remembered the creation of Heretic fondly: "It was a pleading figure against a hostile group—terse, brief, stark; I think no other dance quite represented her personal statement with such power, although all her dancers were personal statements."

As was the case with many of her dances, Martha Graham danced the lead role in Heretic.

3. Graham had strong feelings about marking during rehearsals. Helen McGehee, a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1944 to 1972, recalled her mentor's stance on marking: "Don't! if you must, then mark the physical movement but keep intensely the dramatic meaning. Never mark that. And keep the true timing and musicality of the role. Always be involved with what you are intending."

Check out the energetic quality in Graham's Chronicle (1936).

Source: Martha Graham: The Evolution of Her Dance Theory and Training 1926–1991, by Marian Horosko

Want more Graham? Next week on October 17 and 18 at 7 pm, the Martha Graham Dance Company hosts NEW@Graham: Lamentation Variations 10th Anniversary Celebration. The event features conversations with choreographers who have created variations on Graham's groundbreaking solo Lamentation (1930), as well as performances of past and present Lamentation Variations.

See the emotional intensity in Graham's Lamentation.

News

American Dance: The Complete Illustrated History

by Margaret Fuhrer

Voyageur Press; 288 pages; $45

Legendary dancers and choreographers like Fred Astaire, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Martha Graham jump off the pages of this beautiful coffee-table book on the history of American dance, by Dance Spirit editor in chief Margaret Fuhrer.

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Photo courtesy of the Giagni family

Broadway choreographer Danny Daniels passed away on July 7 in Santa Monica, California, at age 92. Daniels was known for his choreography in musicals, such as Walking Happy, Annie Get Your Gun and The Tap Dance Kid, for which he won the 1984 Tony Award for best choreography.

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Bennett (center) with longtime collaborator Bob Avian (left) and dancer Margo Sappington. Photo by Friedman-Abeles, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

Michael Bennett is best known for the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Chorus Line (1975), now considered the quintessential concept musical, in which the choreography, dialogue, music and staging support a central theme. The musical's intimate subject matter—the personal lives of chorus dancers auditioning for a show—was revolutionary for its time. Bennett also introduced the concept of workshopping a musical, as a way to test material in preparation for a Broadway run. A Chorus Line ran for 15 years, then a record-breaking run for a Broadway show.

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