Anna Sokolow: Using Art as Activism

Most of the time, harsh world realities leave us feeling powerless. Violence, illness, prejudice, and war cause us to ask: does our work really matter? Artists might be confronted with this question more often than others. When families can’t put food on the table, Art may seem irrelevant. But modern dance pioneer, Anna Sokolow, reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. Sokolow was much more than a performer and choreographer; she was a radical artist who probed deeply into social and political issues, broke gender barriers, and danced “because [she] wanted to say something.”

Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1910, Sokolow was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants whose liberal activism had a powerful impact upon her drive to challenge the status-quo by using dance as a vehicle for confronting difficult social realities and exploring a range of human emotions. From anti-war sentiments, to the dangers of Fascism, to the oppression of industrial workers, to the rights of juvenile delinquents and the aftermath of the Holocaust, all of Sokolow’s pieces carried political messages that influenced dance culture in Israel, Mexico, Holland, Japan, and the U.S.

Sokolow also paved the way for women in the dance world when, in 1936, she entered jazz dancing during an era when jazz dancing was exclusively the domain of men. Her defiance of gender norms is also evident in her dance piece called “Kaddish,” choreographed in 1945, which depicts a lone woman immersed in the prayer of mourning wrapping black leather straps around her arms—tefillin—a Jewish ritual that has been historically associated with men.

Since her death in 2000, Sokolow’s achievements and artistic vision continue to have a lasting impact on the dance world in establishing dance as a social and political change-agent as well as an expression of intense humanism. As a Jewish woman, Sokolow understood the continuity of her impact in a unique way. She once wrote:

“I don’t end it, because I don’t feel there’s any ending… Rooms end where they began. Dreams have no ending. That’s the Jew in me. Ask the world a question, and there’s no answer. All I do is present what I feel and you, you answer. You answer.”

How do today’s Arts Movements present a challenge to politics and offer a just vision for the world? To viewers and audience members, how can art be more than just a product or a performance?

This Sunday, December 10th, the 92nd Street Y in New York City will host "70 Years of Sokolow" to honor Sokolow's legacy.

Check out JWA’s “Women of Valor” exhibit to learn more about Anna Sokolow and her extraordinary achievements.

Topics: Activism, Dance
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So much to say about this topic, as an artist/activist myself.

I'll just share 2 little bits.

1. From the book "But is it Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism" Edited by Nina Felshin. In Chapter 9: Making Art, Reclaiming Lives: The Artist and Homeless Collaborative (A&HC) Andrea Wolper writes/says:

"If, as I believe, all human beings are born with the ability to sing, dance, and make art, the A&HC may help to reawaken what our repressive, violent world most often puts into a state of dormancy."

- Art is a tool for change.


2. From the book: "Between Security and Insecurity" by Ivan Klima (a Czech writer). In Chapter 8: The Abdication of Art, Ivan writes about being 10 years old in a Nazi concentration camp. He remembers having a novel that he read over and over again, entering that world, away from daily life. He also recalls that at one point in another barrack, an opera was being put on with no costumes nor orchestra, but that space at the camp was transformed even for those dark moments. This "Opera-Art" was saving lives.

As Audre Lorde says: "Art is a necessity."

May we go forward with all of our poets, singers, painters, builders in hand; for we must build this truely violent but beautiful world together.

How to cite this page

Namerow, Jordan. "Anna Sokolow: Using Art as Activism." 5 December 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 4, 2023) <>.

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