The New Dance Group: Transforming Individuals and Community

The New Dance Group Gala Concert: Retrospective 1930s-1970s

The New Dance Group Gala Concert: Retrospective 1930s-1970s

By Elizabeth McPherson © 2016

The New Dance Group was a pioneering force in dance field for over three quarters of a century, providing a haven for dance to flourish both recreationally and professionally through their school and through sponsoring performances. The group was founded in New York City by Miriam Blecher, Fanya Geltman, Edith Langbert, Edna Ocko, Rebecca Rosenberg, Pauline Schrifman, and Grace Wylie in 1932 during the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929. It was a community of like-minded individuals dedicated to transformation. The social, political, and economic upheaval and instability of the United States in the 1930s led many artists to feel a personal responsibility to be agents of change through art. Many felt kinship with the key components of communism that seemed to support the well-being of all members of our society and not just those in the top rung, the “one percenters” as we might call them today.

In those bleak times, communism seemed to offer hope for a better life to the unemployed and disenfranchised masses, who were suffering immensely. The New Dance Group was not attached to any one choreographer (as most other modern dance groups at the time were), but rather run as a collective, dedicated to enacting social change through dance. Their first bulletin proclaimed: “Dance is a Weapon of the Class Struggle.” The specific impetus behind the formation of the New Dance Group was the desire of the founding members to participate in a rally mourning the shooting of a communist youth during a miner’s strike in South Carolina.

For the members of the New Dance Group, the idea of enacting change was partly through creating work about and in response to social and political issues to both stimulate and educate. Although their audience consisted of some regular dance concert attendees, they performed regularly at rallies, union halls and other places and events where they could reach and influence the working class. Margaret Lloyd noted, “They were perhaps the first revolutionaries against the existing order of modern dance. Rule One was to reach people it was necessary to dance on subjects that concerned them, and without ambiguity” (1949, 174).  Common themes included:  “life situations, in the home, the shop, the daily struggle, the class struggle” (Lloyd 1949, 175).  

An early important performance work of the New Dance Group was Van der Lubbe’s Head, which premiered in 1934. (Marinus Van der Lubbe was a Dutch man who was executed for setting fire to the German Reichstag building in 1933.) Although not credited to any single choreographer, John Martin of The New York Times indicated that it was largely choreographed by Miriam Blecher (1934, X5). The dance won an award in a Worker’s Dance League competition. Martin’s appraisal of the piece was also commendatory. He deemed the dance “of a high order” (1934, X5). Martin explained that Van der Lubbe’s Head differed from many of the “propaganda” dances that suffered from being too literal and lacking choreographic form as well as “kinetic design” (1934, X5). The New Dance Group, as well as other revolutionary dance groups, eschewed abstraction and mysticism, wanting dances to be accessible to their proletarian audiences (Lloyd 1949, 174). However, in so doing, some of the choreography lacked a sense of artistry and was, by some accounts, dismal and monotonous. Critic Emanuel Eisenberg described  that, although the themes were admirable, there were some general issues with the “propaganda” dances:

This pattern, broadly speaking, was along the following lines: Six or ten young women, clothed in long and wholly unrepresentative black dresses, would be discovered lying around the stage in varying stages of collapse. Soon to the rhythm of dreary and monotonous music, they would begin to sway in attitudes of misery, despair, and defeat. The wondering observer in every case was brought to the choiceless, if tired, realization that this must be the proletariat in the grip of oppression….” (1934, 24)

One can imagine that this was not so compelling repeated over and over again. The dancers did not lack in commitment and even fervor, however their working class audiences were, according to Jay Williams, somewhat perplexed by the “curious posturing and symbolic representations of the performers” (1974, 130). Their audiences were more used to seeing ballet and tap dances that were entertaining and light, and these dances were anything but (Williams 1974). In Martin’s review, he described that with Van der Lubbe’s Head, the use of poetry (by Alfred Hayes) helped the movement be less literal and more engaging because the poem could tell the story so that the movement did not carry that task, and this was one reason for the dance’s success compared to other early work of the New Dance Group (1934).

The second defining aspect of the New Dance Group was their school, which offered classes that were inexpensive enough at ten cents a class (which would be valued at just under $2 in 2016) to provide access to dance training to virtually everyone at any level. Other “bourgeois” schools of the era were charging $1.50 a class (Ocko 1934, 28). The three hour classes offered in the early days included technique, improvisation, and discussion on Marxist theory (Burns and Korff 1993, 8). Classes were open to people of any racial, ethnic, or religious background, at a time when discriminatory tactics were commonplace. By the end of the first year, there were 300 members/students (Burns and Korff 1993). In 1934, the students (or members) of the school included: “office workers, school teachers, shop workers, unemployed, housewives, college students” (Ocko 1934 29). It was quite an eclectic group, but one that included very few dancers (Ocko 1934). Edna Ocko, writing in 1934, made the recommendation that the group attract more dancers, which would become an actuality in just a few years (1934).

The founders of the New Dance Group were all students of Hanya Holm at the Mary Wigman School in New York City. The group soon expanded to include dancers, choreographers, and teachers from other techniques besides Holm’s. These included Jane Dudley, Jean Erdman, Sophie Maslow, and Anna Sokolow teaching Graham technique; William Bales and Joseph Gifford and Nona Schurman teaching Humphrey –Weidman technique; Louise Kloepper teaching Holm technique; and Bessie Schonberg teaching choreography. Mary Anthony and Eve Gentry (from Hanya Holm’s Company) also became important participants. This eclectic teaching of modern dance from many perspectives was unusual for the time period when most schools focused on one style. Although originally centered on the teaching of modern dance, other classes were added in time: Hindu Dance taught by Hadassah; Hawaiian dance taught by Erdman; Caribbean and African Dance forms taught by Beryl McBurnie and Pearl Primus; and even ballet taught by Ann Wiener in the 1940s (Jackson 2000).

The practical reality was that The New Dance Group was constantly in a financial difficulty because of the low fees for classes and meager if any income from performances. They struggled to find rent money and pay teachers, so were often moving from one studio to the next. Their first rented space was on East 67th Street, but they soon moved to a more suitable studio on East 18th Street, then West 19th and then to East 24th. Judith Delman, who was working on the administrative side part-time in 1939, remembers that the New Dance Group was always in debt, and the studios where they held classes were in poor shape (Lloyd 1949). In one they had no telephone. In the next, the heat was shut off at 6pm just as the classes for workers were beginning (Lloyd 1949). Delman typed with “icicle fingers, woolen gloves on her feet, legs wrapped in a coat” (Lloyd 1949, 178). That they survived these early years is testament to the members’ sheer will as well as that the group was fulfilling a need in their community. As Stanley Burke noted, “What the participants may have lacked in business acumen, they surely made up for with extraordinary motivation, energy, and community spirit. This was a hallmark of the Group’s experience, and it sustained them for years” (Berke 2001, 60).

The New Dance Group constantly shifted and developed throughout its existence. While in the beginning there was a strong focus on classes for workers, by the later 1930s, although the school was still giving classes for beginning level and amateur students, they also offered professionally oriented training. The group moved away from participatory dances to more developed artistic works performed by trained dancers. Addressing issues of poverty and unemployment had been central to the New Dance Group’s early years, but these societal issues were significantly reduced by the later 1940s in the post-World War II boom in the United States. The USA entered a phase of prosperity and hope, and the New Dance Group modulated their goals and priorities with the new social and political climate.  

The group turned more towards developing artists and was less focused on achieving political and social revolution. The emphasis on themes related to working class life as well as political and social commentary did not vanish, but became less of a priority. The group evolved from the slogan “Dance is a Weapon” to one more akin to “We the People” (Berke 2001, 60). Writing in the late 1940s, Margaret Lloyd observed that: “art began to prevail over politics” (1949, 176). The New Dance Group entered a new phase.

However, throughout the New Dance Group’s shifts with the times, a constant and unwavering undercurrent was its openness to people of all races, ethnicities and religious backgrounds.  Judith Delman wrote about the New Dance Group in The Dance Observer of January 1944: “It exists today as a place where people from all walks of life may come for whatever type of dancing appeals to them and for whatever reason; where talented young people may study regardless of their means; where new talent is sought, developed, encouraged through constructive criticism and opportunity to dance” (Delman 1944, 8). William Korff described: “It provided an open, interracial atmosphere that welcomed black dancers” (2001, 35). This commitment to inclusiveness would be a vitally important, fundamental objective of the group that would remain in place throughout its existence. The New Dance Group created a haven in the dance community for multi-faceted growth from multiple perspectives, very much influencing the future of modern dance in all its diversity. The group was fundamentally humanistic, as Delman described in 1944: “We hold our heads a little higher because we not only enrich people’s lives through making the dance available, but through an awareness of the unity of the needs and aspirations of mankind, and because of the validity of our contribution toward a better world” (Delman 1944, 11).

Delman who had been working as a part-time administrator for the New Dance Group, was appointed as the full-time Executive Director in 1944, with Jane Dudley as President (elected in 1936). Delman led the group in achieving non-profit status and re-located them to East 59th Street. Their Articles of Incorporation of 1944 stated three goals: “to foster the art of dancing and particularly the art of modern dance; to maintain and operate a school for instruction in modern dance and other forms of dancing; to promote a more general appreciation and comprehension of the cultural significance and value of the art of dancing” (Kirpich 2001, 39). The school began to offer work-study scholarships. Recipients (who included Muriel Manings, Donald McKayle, Joe Nash, and Pearl Primus) took seven classes per week and had duties like office work and cleaning (Boroff 1958; Manings, 1993; Korff 2001 Schwartz 2011).  Children’s classes were offered for ages 6-16, and a student performing group was created (Kirpich 1993).

Students from the 1950s and 1960s experienced the New Dance Group as a vital force – a place to study dance that was serious but also fun, disciplined but not high-pressured. It was also a place that sparked intellectual curiosity and interest in humanistic ideas while promoting community. Here are some reflections from some noted alumni:

  • Author and dance critic Deborah Jowitt was a student at the school and a member of the youth performing group in the 1950s (Lancos 2007). She recalled: “I went to the New Dance Group, because that was the only other studio that I knew, and there were many quite wonderful classes, such as Graham technique with Jane Dudley or Sophie Maslow. Charles Weidman and Donald McKayle taught….. The New Dance Group formed something called Young Professionals, so I got a chance to perform” (Kolcio 2010, 152).
  • Stanley Berke, Associate Professor Emeritus at Nassau Community College, who first studied at the New Dance Group in 1953, recalled: “In those halcyon days the NDG was not only a group of individuals who stimulated my imagination and intellectual curiosity but a vast landscape of myriad realizations. A new emergent self was to be unearthed and transformed”  (Berke 2001, 59-60).
  • Dancer, teacher, and choreographer Muriel Manings recalled: “What an education that was – in an atmosphere that was so supportive and inclusive in its approach to all forms of dance, and also connected philosophically to a humanistic world view that helped me become a more aware citizen” (Manings 1993, 3).
  • Ann Hutchinson Guest (one of the founders of the Dance Notation Bureau) remembered studying at the new Dance Group: “There seemed to be a lot of stairs, the studio was quite modest but big enough. What I liked was the atmosphere, very friendly. Serious work but a class to be enjoyed” (Guest 1993, 58).
  • Barbara Palfry, former Editorial Associate of Dance Chronicle and Ballet Review, was the student representative to the New Dance Group board of directors from 1960 to 1972. She recalled: “There was simply no place like it, for the feeling of community and for the breadth of exposure to myriad aspects of dance. It was never only a school; it was a cosmos” (Kirpich, 2001 40).

The New Dance Group had two performing groups (the professional company and the youth company) who performed in various locations. They also sponsored performances of choreographers at their studio and many theatres around the city such as Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Park Theatre, the Civic Repertory Theatre, Mecca Temple (now New York City Center), The Grand Street Playhouse, the 92nd Street Y, and the Heckscher Theatre. The concerts they sponsored were generally critically acclaimed events that showcased new or less-established choreographers, providing them the needed exposure to develop their careers. The Dudley-Maslow-Bales Trio was an important group that first performed in a concert sponsored by the Dance Observer Magazine and The New Dance Group (Maskey 1965). The choreographers were Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, and William Bales, all three important members and faculty of the New Dance Group.  John Martin reviewed their concert on December 6, 1942 with great enthusiasm: “This particular combination of dancers got itself together for the first time last Spring under the auspices of the Dance Observer magazine, and gave a pair of highly impressive performances” (1942, X5). He continued: “If this is what we are to expect from the next generation of creative leaders the American dance has nothing to fear; the dancers have discovered America” (Martin 1942, X5). To give a sense of the choreography they were presenting, works performed in the 1942 concert included: Maslow’s Folksay (1942) which was steeped in Americana although with a somewhat anti-establishment undertone; Dudley’s Harmonica Breakdown (1940) which again was distinctly American and also distinctly about the working class and hard labor; and Bales’ Es Mujer (1941) based on Mexican folk tradition, specifically the initiation into womanhood.  

Anna Sokolow’s much acclaimed Lyric Suite (1953) was given its American premiere in a New Dance Group concert of 1954 with a cast that included Mary Anthony, Jeff Duncan, Donald McKayle, Beatrice Seckler, and Ethel Winter. The dance, in its series of groupings of dancers for various sections has a starkness that is both gripping and haunting. Sokolow considered it an artistic turning point for her (Warren 147). Donald McKayle’s Rainbow Round My Shoulder (1959) was performed in a New Dance Group concert at the 92nd Street Y in 1962. Yet another critically acclaimed work, Rainbow Round My Shoulder illuminates the back-breaking laborious work as well as dreams of chain gang workers. Choreographer Talley Beatty who rehearsed daily at the New Dance Group in the 1960s (Kirpich 2001), premiered Dance au Noveau Cirque Paris  (about a group of American performers stranded in Paris) in a New Dance Group concert of 1963 (Hughes 1963). These are just a small sampling of the wealth of groundbreaking works of emerging choreographers that were part of New Dance Group sponsored concerts.

In the 1950s, the New Dance Group purchased a building at 254 West 47th Street. They raised the money by “selling” the bricks of the building for $1-$100 dollars. It was a distinctly cooperative and grassroots approach whereby the members of their community literally came together to raise the money to buy the building (Burns and Korff 1993).

By 1965, the school boasted 1800 classes taken per week (Maskey 1965). However, despite this real estate investment and the prospering numbers of both professionally–oriented and amateur students, by the later 1960s and 1970s, the New Dance Group was again having serious financial struggles (Berke 2001, 61-62). Their egalitarian mission of having low fees for classes (still considerably lower than other studios) was simply not working financially. By the 1980s, the 47th Street building was in dire need of repair with no money to do so. The organization by necessity shifted to a system in which each teacher operated individually, assuming financial liability for their classes. The New Dance Group’s core philosophy of community really ceased to exist at this point. It was no longer a collective of artists, but individual teachers offering their own philosophies under their own financial management (Berke 2001). In the early 1980s, when a fire tremendously damaged the restaurant that had been renting the lower two floors of the building, the financial crisis came to a head. The owners of the restaurant just departed without paying owed rent, leaving the devastation to be dealt with by the owners, The New Dance Group (Rosen 2001).  In addition, the building had been mortgaged and the money invested in the stock market, but the stock market hit a serious decline, and the money was lost (Phillips 2012). The New Dance Group eventually sold the building and rented new space that they renovated for dance and which they leased for rehearsals and auditions for Broadway shows as well as offering their own classes in various styles of dance (but only one modern class per week) (Rosen 2001). However, deficits mounted, and the New Dance Group closed operations entirely in 2009 (Phillips 2012).

The last important concert of the New Dance Group was a Retrospective Performance on July 11, 1993, featuring the work of the many uniquely talented artists who were affiliated with the New Dance Group through the years. The concert, titled “The New Dance Group Gala Historic Concert 1930’s-1970’s,” was initiated and then shepherded from beginning to end by Muriel Manings. It was presented by the American Dance Guild in the theatre at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City. The choreographers whose work was represented were: Mary Anthony, Ronne Aul, Eve Gentry, Talley Beatty, Valerie Bettis, Irving Burton, Jane Dudley, Jean Erdman, Joseph Gifford, Hadassah, Sophie Maslow, Donald McKayle, Daniel Nagrin, Pearl Primus, Anna Sokolow, Joyce Trisler, and Charles Weidman. The pieces showed much breadth and dimension from the weary industrial worker of Jane Dudley’s Time is Money to the lynching mob of Charles Weidman’s Lynchtown.  The dances created over an expanse of time also showed the evolution from more gestural and literal, to the more abstract and lyrical. It was a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate modern dance lineage through the lens of the New Dance Group’s sponsorship and support of so many choreographers.

Marilyn Hunt of Dance Magazine reviewed the concert saying, “It’s an important event when a chapter of dance history comes alive onstage, as it did at the New Dance Group Gala Concert” (78).  She continued: “The works (some shown in excerpt) ranged from dances of protest to later, more lyrical, pieces” (78). And she summed up:  “These choreographers told us that to bear witness was to lay claim to hope” (79). In her last statement Hunt succinctly captures an important aspect of these dances, all connected to the New Dance Group – namely that sharing human emotions and experiences through art ties us together and leads us to believe in the power of community and hope for the future. George Dorris wrote of the concert: “Appropriately the evening ended with Maslow’s Folksay to Woody Guthrie’s folksong arrangements and Carl Sandberg’s text reflecting faith in the individual – whether up or down—that summarized the group and the occasion” (1993, 1068). With this statement, he is making reference to the many ups and downs in the life of the New Dance Group as it held steadfastly to important elements of its mission (like inexpensive class fees) that ultimately made existence very difficult.

The significance of the New Dance Group cannot be underestimated. Although tracing modern dance’s lineage, is often more focused on individual choreographers and their performance groups, this collective supported their community through: offering low-fee classes; establishing and maintaining an inclusive admissions policy; providing teaching and performance opportunities; providing a cohesive community that was a contrast to the fragmentation of allegiances to individual choreographers; and providing training for the amateur as well as the professional. Many of the important choreographers and dancers of the 20th and 21st century (some mentioned in this article and many not) passed through the doors of the New Dance Group, and many lay people had the experience of dance as a life-changing activity. Though its tenure was bumpy and full of challenges as well as successes, the New Dance Group maintained a vital and distinguished presence for 77 years with a never-ending commitment to humanism, service to the community, and the betterment of mankind.


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