Dr. Joanna Harris speaks about Jewish Women as Dance Pioneers

Between approximately 1930-1950—a period that saw the worldwide depression, the Spanish Civil War, the rise and fall of Hitler’s Reichstag, and the development of the American labor movement—a unique group of dancers began to address their concerns about social politics through their choreography. Among them were three women: Helen Tamiris, Anna Sokolow, and Sophie Maslow. On Monday, November 9th, dance historian Dr. Joanna Gewertz Harris introduced us to these pioneering dancers in a talk entitled “From Tenement to Theatre: Jewish Women as Dance Pioneers.”

After a great tsimmes over some disobedient technology and a dozen kibitzers offering solutions, we got rolling. It was held, as you might guess, at Temple Beth El in Soquel, CA for “Senior Connections,” an ongoing series of educational events. Dr. Harris introduced Tamiris, Sokolow, and Maslow in turn and emphasized their politicized approach to modern dance as well as their commitments to their Jewish identities. She supplemented her comments with videos of both early performances and contemporary reconstructions.

Each of these women was born into working class, socialist Jewish families and their work is driven by this worldview. Helen Tamiris (née Becker, 1905-66) concerned herself with issues of social justice. She is most well known for her choreographies to African-American spirituals. Harris tells us that because races couldn’t mix, especially on stage, Tamiris danced to black singers hidden behind the curtain. Interestingly, as we watched Tamiris perform to “Let My People Go,” our audience of primarily Jewish Seniors sang right along.

Anna Sokolow (1910-2000) was inspired by the spirit of revolution taking place in Spain and Mexico, by the New York Jewish urban experience (“Rooms”), and by the creation of the state of Israel (“Dreams”). Her choreographic subjects and her commitment to teaching reflect a sincere understanding of class and religious struggle.

Like other modern dance pioneers, Sophie Maslow (1911-2006) was interested in an American dance independent of European influences. She drew from American sources in “Folksay” with music by Woody Guthrie, lyrics by Carl Sandberg, and American folk dances. Her commitment to her Jewish heritage was equally strong as reflected in her choreography “The Village I Knew.” These story-dances are drawn from Sholem Aleichem’s famous stories from which “Fiddler on the Roof” was developed. For “Villages” Maslow stylized traditional Jewish folk dances like the hora.

The afternoon concluded with recently discovered footage of Joanna Harris herself performing to a story from Exodus which she choreographed and performed in 1959 at Mills College.

On the previous Sunday afternoon, a dozen or so dance aficionados gathered for a presentation of Harris’s new publication, Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing: The Early Years, 1915-1965 (which can be purchased at BeyondIsadora.com). As an east-coast trained dancer, I have long been aware of the lack of documentation about the California dance scene in this period. This book, long overdue, redresses that absence and contributes to a growing body of literature on American dance history. And I hear that the group was so inspired, they proposed a monthly salon wherein we can continue to discuss dance topics. Look for information at the beginning of next year.

For details on the lives of Tamiris, Sokolow, and Maslow go to Jewish Women’s Archives. Dr. Harris contributed the biographies of the later two. Plus, this archive is simply a remarkable resource.

See Harris’s article “From tenement to theater: Jewish women as dance pioneers.” Judaism: Summer, 1996 (vol. 45, no. 3). Dr. Harris can be contacted at joannagharris@comcast.net

Thanks again to Marlene Pitkow for arranging these lectures.

See my blog “National Dance Week 2009” for a review of Dr. Harris’s lecture on Isadora Duncan this past April.

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One Response to Dr. Joanna Harris speaks about Jewish Women as Dance Pioneers

  1. Marlene Pitkow says:

    You are a jewel in our community and so glad you are graciously offering your eloquent and insightful words through this blog.

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