Jewish Women and Modern Dance
Anna Sokolow, 1910 - 2000
As modern dance developed in the early 20th century, Jewish women were disproportionately represented among the new art form's students, teachers, performers and audience members. Many of these women grew up amidst the working-class Jewish immigrant communities of New York's Lower East Side. Emerging from a culture shaped by Jewish unions, socialist movements, and other left-wing social and political concerns, they were particularly attracted to the radical dance movement of the 1930s.
Like Sokolow, many of these Jewish women "radical dancers" were first exposed to dance in the settlement houses that arose to serve the needs of large immigrant populations. The Henry Street Settlement House and the Neighborhood Playhouse, especially, served as conduits for Jewish women into the classes and companies of Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and other leading modern dancers. Many of these young women faced opposition from friends and family, who often assumed that all dancers—especially female ones—were of loose moral character.
Jewish women also struggled against anti-semitism within the modern dance movement. Seeing their goal as the creation of a uniquely American art form, many of the pioneering modern dancers shied away from Jewish dancers, whom they considered not fully American. Seeking to exclude Jews, Ruth St. Denis, co-founder of the first important modern dance group Denishawn, even stipulated that 90% of her dancers be Anglo-Saxon. Yet despite the hurdles, Jewish women such as Helen Becker (known as Tamiris), Sophie Maslow, and Pearl Lang joined Sokolow among the best-known modern dancers of the day.
- Julia L. Foulkes, "Angels 'Rewolt!': Jewish Women in Modern Dance in the 1930s," American Jewish History 88, no. 2 (June 2000): 233-252.
- Joanna Gewertz Harris, "From Tenement to Theater: Jewish Women as Dance Pioneers: Helen Becker (Tamiris), Anna Sokolow, Sophie Maslow," Judaism 45, no. 3 (Summer 1996): 259-276.