Days on Earth: The Dance of Doris Humphrey

Days on Earth: The Dance of Doris Humphrey

by Marcia B. Siegel


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Now available in paperback, Days on Earth--originally published in 1988 (Yale University Press)--traces the dance career and artistic development of one of the founders of American modern dance. In this biography of dance pioneer Doris Humphrey, Marcia B. Siegel follows Humphrey's career from her days with the Denishawn Company (among fellos students like Martha Graham) to her creative partnership with Charles Weidman to her tenure as artistic director of protégé José Limon's dance company. Siegel's reconsideration and description of Humphrey's dances, including many that are no longer performed, sheds important light on this pathbreaking dancer/choreographer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822313465
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 02/24/1993
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 354
Sales rank: 826,976
Product dimensions: 6.19(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Marcia B. Siegel is the dance critic for the Hudson Review and teaches in the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Her works include The Tail of The Dragon: New Dance, 1976-1982 (Duke University Press).

Read an Excerpt

Days on Earth

The Dance of Doris Humphrey

By Marcia B. Siegel

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Marcia B. Siegel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9655-0



Late in August 1931 Doris Humphrey was invited to give two lessons at the Hotel Astor in New York, where the nation's ballroom instructors, gymnastics coaches, and dance educators were assembled for the 53rd Annual Convention of the American Society of Teachers of Dancing. In the published program Humphrey was respectfully given the lead-off position, and she contributed a single page of notes—actually just a list of reminders for classes she intended to give. Her plainspoken and open-ended sketch was followed by eighty-nine pages of dance routines by the other presenters: The Dainty Miss Milkmaid toe number arranged by Sonia Serova, technical exercises and ballet combinations by Alex Yakovleff, Spanish and Mexican folk dances by Angel Cansino, tap dances by Billy Newsome, bird ballets, butterfly dances, a Modern Study entitled Daybreak, and a Grecian affair with a big silk scarf, oddly reminiscent of a scarf dance called Soaring that Humphrey had choreographed ten years before. After her classes, someone asked Doris, "What do you call your work,' Miss Humphrey, dancing?"

She called it modern American dancing. Along with a handful of young women and even fewer men, Doris Humphrey was leading a crusade to liberate dance from triviality and prettiness, which were among the worst sins she knew. "Graceful dancing still abounds for those who are romantic. But the modern dance is for those who have progressed toward and accepted a wider interpretation of contemporary life, one which includes both dark and light. It is for those who believe that art is a revelation of the meaning of life and not an escape from it." This statement, which Humphrey framed for a presentation in Philadelphia in 1935, reflects a whole era in American dance with its idealism, its commitment to the rigors of art, and its possibly alarming rectitude.

Ballet was the chief target of these reformers. As they understood it, ballet was an outmoded and artificial form, drained of all but symbolic meaning and linked to a social system that had been irrevocably dislodged. With weakening ties to the Christian-monarchist tradition in which European culture was rooted, American society stood for egalitarianism and the drive toward technological mastery. American artists saw themselves as addressing an audience without previously defined standards or stratifications, and beginning with Isadora Duncan, American dancers felt entitled to reinvent their medium. By the 1920s, even ballet was rethinking itself, acknowledging developments in modern art though not fully discarding prescribed vocabularies and stage conventions. When ballet put out tentative roots in American soil it still carried the aura of an imported plant, exotic and slightly out of place. The first ballet schools had been founded by European expatriates, and the earliest companies were appended to opera houses. A few independents like Adolph Bolm, who teamed up with the American experimentalist Ruth Page, were searching for a modern ballet style, but what most Americans knew of ballet was imitative, overdecorated, and escapist.

Ballet was only a small slice of an enormous spectrum of recreational and artistic dance activity that had spread across the country by the 1920s. In fact, the same aristocratic cachet that eluded Americans in ballet was exuberantly welcomed in ballroom dancing, whose popularity reached craze proportions by World War I with Vernon and Irene Castle. Fully aware of the strong religious sanctions against dancing and especially social, body-to-body dancing, the Castles projected themselves as exemplars of elegance and propriety. Exquisitely and expensively gowned, Irene Castle seemed a lithe younger sister to the society matrons who were their sponsors; Vernon was tall and elegant, with impeccable manners. The dance routines they performed in nightclubs and taught to clerks and shopgirls at their school, Castle House, emphasized lightness, gaiety, and precision. They insisted on the same erect torso, associated with upper-class deportment, that underlies the technique of academic ballet. They wanted to smooth out the wiggles and bumps and uninhibited gyrations that went with jazz. Castle dancers were supposed to be transported by the infectious rhythms of waltz, ragtime, and tango, but they were never to indulge in tasteless intimacies like the tight body contact of the Bunny Hug or the "hoidenish romping of the Two Step, the swift rush of the Polka, and contortions of the Turkey Trot."

The little book of dance instructions that the Castles published in 1914 includes a chapter on manners and deportment, with notes on how to give dancing teas and dinner parties. It also offers Irene's sensible but high-fashion suggestions as to the proper clothes for dancing, and an endorsement of the healthfulness of dancing by Dr. J. Ralph Jacoby.

The Castles represented a fusion of stage dancing and social dancing. Their steps and music came from the ballrooms and cafés of Europe. These were dances everyone could do, to which the Castles added theatrical showiness and flair. Dancing was, at that euphoric point in our history, a peek at the glamorous life. The period of dress-up was brief. Social dancing relaxed into its more accustomed earthy, physical, and individual ways, and the showiest, classiest, most intricate embellishments of social dance steps were returned to the stage, where they had flourished during a century of minstrel shows, tent shows, medicine shows, vaudeville, and variety. After World War I, movies, radio, and recorded music gave the general public increased access to professional entertainment; once again we became spectators of fancy dancing rather than imitators.

The Astaires completed the sublimation the Castles had started, as carefree rich Americans larking through the stage-set opulence of the upper crust. By the beginning of the 1930s, talking pictures made the movie musical possible and the separation between the Saturday night date and the ballroom was complete. Social dancing continued to be taught to little boys and girls as a polite accomplishment that would help them to be agreeable, well-adjusted citizens and to pair off with suitable mates.

Both in the dancing schools and in the creation of civic pageantry and celebrations, a great deal of dancing for recreation was being taught in America. Most of this teaching was in the category of social dancing, but the distinctions between that, physical culture, and dancing for artistic presentation were blurred. Physical culture had always been a component of American education, and throughout the nineteenth century gymnastics and sports were subjected to a variety of uplifting modifications as bodily activity gradually became unified with the elevated business of the mind and spirit. Religious objections to dancing were battered down as educators and medical men argued its beneficial effects on thought and morals. Dancing and the related arts of singing and elocution could form a sort of bridge between the temporal and the spiritual life, as long as they didn't become a means of unleashing violent or unhealthy passions.

One way of keeping physicality in check was to systematize it into various types of patterned activities. Sport was an acceptable solution, though for women a limited one until dress reformers began to campaign against corsets, voluminous skirts, tight boots, and other encumbrances. As the layers of clothing came off, so did many false notions about women's frailness and their vulnerability to physical exercise. Restrictive codes of behavior that surrounded the display or expressive use of women's bodies began to moderate. By the end of the nineteenth century, these prejudices were breaking down, and girls were permitted the same use of their limbs and torsos as boys, for the sake of their health if not for their pleasure.

Calisthenics—regular exercises for developing the parts of the body—were practiced in schools and colleges, often accompanied by music. Instructors became interested in breathing and in the study of the human body as a living, working organism rather than as a system of bones, muscles, and viscera charted from laboratory cadavers. Often these exercise classes incorporated the five foot positions of academic ballet with their accompanying arm movements, and some basic ballet steps, like the arabesque. Perhaps this was thought to give refinement and grace to the worklike calisthenic movements—even as it does in present-day gymnastic training.

The Europeans had developed detailed systems of physical culture, and one of the most widely adapted concepts involved combining physical movements with musical analysis as practiced in the schools of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. Dalcroze Eurythmics, formulated by the Swiss musician in the latter years of the nineteenth century, became a popular method of training, and after the founding of the Dalcroze Institute at Hellerau, Germany, in 1911, the idea of rhythmic gymnastics filtered into American schools and studios. Physical culture became an element in the prototypical holistic health movements and back-to-nature crusades that began to appear in Europe and the United States. Spiritualism, vegetarianism, dancing, and self-expression, women's liberation, free love, and radical thought often flared up together when futuristic politics intersected with a nostalgia for the preindustrial age, and scarcely any avant-garde art of the early twentieth century was left unsinged.

The dancer who most completely enacted this Wagnerian fusion of physical liberation, spirituality, aestheticism, and the supremacy of individual expression was Isadora Duncan. With her superb performing instrument, she demonstrated ideas about rhythmic and dramatic movement that seemed, to the survivors of nineteenth-century formalism and opulence, at once simpler and more basic, and infinitely more profound on an emotional level. American dancers adopted her as a pathfinder, even those who felt she was too idiosyncratic to serve as a model. Duncan's advocacy of ancient Greek ideals as a source for dancing linked her with the American Utopians, especially in her native California, where various programs for a healthier life included outdoor living and simple food and clothing, as well as interpretive dancing in the Grecian mode.

Another primary influence on physical culture training and on early attempts at expressive dancing was the philosophy of François Delsarte. The French elocution teacher, who died in 1871, constructed an elaborate system for cataloguing emotions, their characteristic gestures, and the corresponding parts of the body. Delsarte's charts and diagrams were quickly adapted to the emotive needs of oratory, acting, and aesthetic dancing.

Steele Mackaye, Delsarte's American interpreter, lectured widely and taught "harmonic gymnastics" mainly for actors. Soon after Ted Shawn had embarked on his dancing career, he encountered Mackaye's disciples Bliss Carman and Mary Perry King in 1911. Ruth St. Denis had discovered Delsarte much earlier, at an 1892 lecture by Genevieve Stebbins. Delsarte's theories were so widely practiced and adapted in this country that exponents of the system became rivals. Although Stebbins had studied with Mackaye for two years, she rejected much of what she considered mystical and of doubtful value in Delsarte's philosophy. She concentrated on what she called Modern or Practical Delsartism, "an evolution of his system in accordance with American ideas and requirements." This meant a concentration on relaxation and breathing exercises, pantomime, and "artistic statue posing," the imitation of noble sculptures from Greek antiquity. She also published lesson books and manuals of instructions.

The legacy of Delsarte is only beginning to be fully understood. Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries seem to have had a tremendous longing for culture, and in lieu of either an art tradition or a unified folk culture, people of refinement went in for pageantry and posturing that we would now consider kitsch. As the century turned, Americans, like their European counterparts, looked toward classical Greece for models of ideal beauty and a humanized interpretation of natural forms. The flowing lines of Art Nouveau and the images of languid play found in the works of such popular painters as Alma-Tadema and Maxfield Parrish were appropriated for the stage and films. Classical ballet turned toward spectacle that was not only more representational but also attempted to re-create in plastic form the life of ancient and exotic times.

Even before 1916, when Diaghilev's Ballets Russes brought to America Michel Fokine's evocations of Greece (Daphnis et Chlöe, Narcisse) and the mysterious East (Schéhérazade, Le Dieu Bleu, Cléopâtre), Gertrude Hoffmann had presented her versions of Diaghilev subjects in New York. While the ballet was becoming more humanized and romanticized, art dancers, mimes, and aesthetic interpreters proliferated on the concert stage, creating characters with expressive gestures borrowed from Delsarte and copied from paintings and sculpture. Ruth St. Denis was perhaps the most persuasive of all those artists who tried to graft aestheticism onto a dancing presence. But finally for Doris Humphrey and some of her contemporaries, this didn't serve either.

* * *

None of the dancing they had learned seemed to portray what they felt or who they were. What was needed, Humphrey thought, was a kind of dancing that expressed both the twentieth century and the American experience. For a time it might be necessary to throw all their training away and discover if anything danceable remained. American modern dancing was not an isolated impulse; Germany and Eastern Europe experienced similar self-searching and creative experimentation, and there were other stirrings toward at least revitalizing the ballet art. Europe's greater benevolence toward art experimentation allowed its dance reformers to develop their schools and their styles. At the end of the 1920s the Americans faced a dual handicap: a very limited public acceptance for any art dancing, and a disregard, amounting at times to hostility, toward performance that was considered abstract, esoteric, or not ingratiating enough. The leading innovators of the modern dance and the critics who supported them patiently formulated their ideas, explained what they were doing, demonstrated their theories, and taught classes for the layman. They believed their dance expressed universal feelings and appealed directly to what all people could remember. But after all that, few people understood what it was, beyond the highly individual, momentarily captivating, and quickly forgotten performances of the artists themselves.

Self-expression was the first principle of Humphrey's generation of dancers. Gertrude Colby, a Duncan disciple who began a "natural dance" program at Columbia's Teachers College in 1918, spelled it out: "I wanted each girl to work out a philosophy and understanding of dance for herself." This was an exhilarating challenge, and it led to much experimentation and more emoting. Doris Humphrey distinguished herself from the rest of the expressive dancers by trying from the outset to understand dance not only for herself but for all dancers.

Duncan had made a start on this, investigating the components of her own physicality and trying to impart its elements to her young pupils. But Duncan's teaching relied heavily on imitation and the force of her own presence in the studio. She did not formulate any clear program for teaching her kind of dancing, and three generations later, her followers are still transforming her philosophical admonitions into differing forms of action and training. Martha Graham's dance is primarily a personal expression in the same sense and will likely have the same ambiguous consequences when she can no longer dictate how she wants it done. Humphrey, a far less ego-centered dancer, not only sought new movements, new sequences, new ways to move, but also tried to understand a movement's context. What did it mean, expressively, to go off balance? How could you intensify or minimize the effect? How would that look as a phrase? Where would you want to use that phrase in a dance progression? Probably the question of how to use a movement in choreography was no less interesting to her than how to use it in the classroom. She was not so much a didact as an organizer, a communicator. She saw choreography and teaching as two facets of the same process, and she played on both outlets with great skill.

She had scarcely begun choreographing as an independent when she had located her key ideas. She understood how the body creates drama without being mimetic, how form is achieved and manipulated in a composition that occurs in both time and space. She insisted on the integrity of these discoveries by doing without the ballet's traditional accomplices, the libretto and the musical score, as she established her approach. She was gifted in being able to use her insights theatrically and explain her methods in uncomplicated ways. The systematic thoroughness of her approach gave credibility not only to her dance, but to modern dance as a whole. She could demonstrate its principles, compare the way it worked to music and art, and convince a public that they were watching something serious and sound, not just an aberration or a private outburst that would dissolve the moment it had formed itself.


Excerpted from Days on Earth by Marcia B. Siegel. Copyright © 1993 Marcia B. Siegel. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1 What Do You Call Your Work, Miss Humphrey?,
2 Palace Hotel, 1895–1917,
3 Denishawn, 1917–26,
4 A New Dance, 1927–28,
5 Ecstatic Themes, 1928–31,
6 Consolidation, 1930–34,
7 Making Dances, 1934–36,
8 On the Road, 1936–39,
9 Studio Theater, 1939–44,
10 Fall and Recovery, 1944–46,
11 The Eagle, 1947–51,
12 Harmony and Counterpoint, 1952–57,
13 Descent into the Dream, 1957–58,

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