Helen Tamiris began studying modern dance at the Henry Street Settlement at age eight and at age fifteen began dancing for the Metropolitan Opera Company Ballet. In 1928 she earned praise for Prize Fight Studies and Negro Spirituals (a perennial hit that touched on themes of racism and violence). In 1929 she founded both the School of American Dance and her company Tamiris and Her Group. After lobbying the Federal government for a publicly funded dance program, she ran the Dance Project for the Works Progress Administration from 1935 to1939. In the 1940s she shifted from modern dance to musical theater, choreographing eighteen musicals including the Broadway hit Annie Get Your Gun in 1946. From 1957 to 1964 she co-directed the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company and choreographed her 1959 Memoir, about her Jewish roots, and 1960s Women’s Song, about the Holocaust.
Helen Tamiris was a pioneer of American modern dance. She brought a social consciousness to the concert hall and went on to become the director of the Dance Project for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and later an acclaimed Broadway choreographer. Her works were uniquely American, dramatically depicting important social issues of the time such as racism, poverty, and war. In 1928, she wrote the following manifesto in her concert program: “Art is international but the artist is a product of a nationality. … There are no general rules. Each original work of art creates its own code.”
She was born Helen Becker on April 23, 1902, into a poor but cultured Orthodox family on New York City’s Lower East Side. Her parents, tailor Isor and Rose (Simonov) Becker, had come with their son Maurice to New York in 1892 from Nizhni Novgorod, Russia, where they had fled from pogroms and czarist military oppression. Maurice Becker became a cartoonist and painter. Two other brothers were born in New York: sculptor Samuel Becker and art collector Peter Becker.
Early Dance Career
Helen attended New York public schools and later studied economics and labor statistics at the Rand School (1918–1920). At age eight, she began to study Isadora Duncan–style dance at the Henry Street Settlement, and at age fifteen her professional dance career began when she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Company Ballet. She danced for three seasons at the Met, toured with the Bracale Opera Company as a ballerina, and performed in the Music Box Review in 1924. Early in her career she took the name of Tamiris, a ruthless amazonian queen of Persia who overcame all obstacles.
In 1927, she presented her first solos in a concert called Dance Moods at the Little Theater in New York. The following year, a new concert at the same theater attracted excellent notices, and she was described as being in the forefront of the younger dancers of the “new dance.” This concert included Prize Fight Studies and the seminal and dramatic Negro Spirituals. Later in 1928, Tamiris became the first American dancer since Isadora Duncan to tour Europe, where the critics hailed her as the outstanding interpreter of American life. In 1929, she founded the School of American Dance and her company, Tamiris and Her Group, which she directed until 1945. From 1930 to 1932, Tamiris banded together with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman to found and direct the Dance Repertory Theater, a cooperative in which the four companies shared productions and expenses.
Empowerment through Dance
During the WPA, Tamiris became a spokesperson for American modern dance. In 1935, she went to Washington, D.C., as the head of the American Dance Association to lobby for the inclusion of a separate Dance Project in the organization of the Federal Theater Project under the WPA. The Federal Theater Project operated from 1935 to 1939, and Tamiris became the director and main choreographer of its Dance Project. She also acted as the organization’s representative in Washington. Her major productions during this period were Salut au Monde (1936), How Long Brethren? (1937), Trojan Incident (1938), and Adelante (1939). She continued to perform Negro Spirituals, which contained strong elements of protest against prejudice, violence, and human suffering, and could be considered a metaphor for Jewish oppression. From 1935 to 1945, Tamiris created many modern dance works.
As she began to perform less, Tamiris moved into musical theater. She had taught movement for actors and directors and was skilled at moving large groups effectively in her own dance works. She began to create and perform musical theater material with her partner Daniel Nagrin, whom she married on September 3, 1946. She went on to choreograph over eighteen Broadway musicals with Nagrin as her assistant. These included Up in Central Park (1945), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Touch and Go (1950), Plain and Fancy (1955), and Fanny (1955). Outstanding dancers who performed for Tamiris in these shows were Daniel Nagrin, Talley Beatty, Valerie Bettis, Dorothy Bird, Pearl Lang and Pearl Primus.
Tamiris and Nagrin continued their partnership by forming the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company (1957–1964), with Nagrin as co-director. Tamiris was also active as a teacher at various colleges. Notable works from this final period in Tamiris’s life were Memoir (1959), which explored her Jewish roots, and Women’s Song (1960), about women’s roles in society and the dehumanizing devastation of the Holocaust. She received many awards for her work.
Death and Influence
Helen Tamiris died of cancer in New York on August 4, 1966. From her cultured Jewish upbringing, Tamiris developed an active social consciousness. Highly aware of political and religious persecution through her heritage, Tamiris brought her activism to bear on all spheres of her life. From her first works protesting racism and oppression, through the WPA years when she fought to bring dance that spoke directly about social issues to a broad public, Tamiris was in the forefront of modern dance. She worked to create jobs for dancers during the Depression and made dances calling for international cooperation and peace as World War II approached. While few of her works were explicitly Jewish in theme, her Jewishness and strength as a woman echo throughout all her works.
Selected Works by Helen Tamiris
Dance Moods (1957).
How Long Brethren? (1937).
Negro Spirituals (1928).
Prize Fight Studies (1928).
Salut au Monde [Salute to the world] (1936).
Trojan Incident (1938).
Women’s Song (1960).
Arbeit, Ida. Telephone interviews with author.
Becker, Bruce. Telephone interview with author.
Becker, Paul. Telephone interview with author.
Nagrin, Daniel. Telephone interview with author.
Obituary. NYTimes, August 5, 1966, 31:1.
Schlundt, Christena L. Tamiris, A Chronicle of Her Dance Career, 1927–1955 (1972).
Tamiris, Helen. Scrapbooks (1944–1967). Dance Collection, New York Library for the Performing Arts, NYC.
Tish, Pauline. “Remembering Tamiris.” Dance Chronicle 17, no. 3 (1994).
Zurier, Rebecca. Art for the Masses (1985).