The Rockettes, a ubiquitous all-American, all-female dancing troupe that graces the stages of New York’s Radio City Hall every Christmas, found themselves to have become a surprisingly radical chorus line in 2017. Having performed in two presidential inaugurations in 2001 and 2005, the group was now invited to appear at the inauguration of Donald Trump in an effort to bolster his flagging event with some star power. The Rockettes were divided, with many resenting being forced to support a man known for his degrading “locker room” comments about women, and a presidential campaign replete with attacks on the LGBT community and none-too-subtle racism.
Many Rockettes stepped out of their typically uniform chorus line and refused to perform. Their union, the American Guild of Variety Artists, was less enthusiastic about their decision and ruled that all full-time dancers were under a contractual obligation to perform at the inauguration.
They may not have known it, but the rebellious Rockettes were part of a long line of American dancers who refused to surrender their artistic talents to the forces of reaction. In fact, the history of dancers using their bodies to express their opposition to racism, sexism, and attacks on minorities runs deep in the cultural DNA of the United States. The story of modern dance, and its leading lights, is deeply intertwined with the history of radical politics itself.
Laying the Foundations
Antifascism, workers’ organizations, and antimilitarism were all bubbling below the surface in prewar New York, the center of American commercial and public life. Working in a small studio not far from Union Square, the site of Emma Goldman’s pro-contraception agitation and the headquarters of the Communist Party USA, the luminary of modern dance, Martha Graham, developed a language of radicalism in movement. Dissent ran in her veins, and her legacy extended into the longest-running and oldest professional dance school in the United States, the Martha Graham School.
Graham’s early piece Heretic, premiering in 1929, presented a stark image of a woman wearing white against a backdrop of other women clad in dark tubes of material moving in sharp, angular motions and blocking her every move. The performance was a visceral articulation of resisting evil and wrongdoing. Graham brought to the stage the price individuals pay when sticking up for their convictions and going against popular opinion if necessary, a price she had already paid on many occasions both on and off stage.
Already a celebrated artist, in 1936 Graham refused to perform in the Berlin Olympics and declared her solidarity with those facing persecution there: “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time. So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted . . . have been deprived of the right to work for ridiculous and unsatisfactory reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible. In addition, some of my concert group would not be welcome in Germany.”
Martha Graham’s powerful condemnation of fascism and her willingness to state what was right even in the darkest of times were expressed choreographically in her work Chronicle, which premiered that same year. Powerful women inhabit the stage in acts of solidarity and togetherness, while an outlier leads the way, firm in her own voice. Chronicle is a forceful articulation of dissent and opposition to the evils of war, poverty, and creeping fascism.
On February 14, 1937 Graham testified before the American Committee for Anti-Nazi Literature, reporting on the changing mood in Europe and pleading with artists to be watchful of the world and sincere in their art. Graham argued for united resistance and for artists to know their place in the movement against a rising tide of fascism and the suppression of individual voices. This was to become Graham’s central ethos throughout her life.
A revolutionary to her core, Graham epitomized the tension between the individual and the masses and the power and possibility of a singular voice to advocate for social change. Although she herself was a direct descendant of the Mayflower pilgrims and thus by no means from a “marginalized” background, she used her position and her work to champion the radicals and revolutionaries who were punished for raising their voices. Graham’s commitment to the truth in her art was unequivocal, and her legacy paved the way for many women and men who followed to seek paths of dissent through movement while working in solidarity with others.
Graham’s early company was all-female, and many of her Lower East Side dancers were immigrants — particularly Jewish immigrants, who were part and parcel of the social fabric in New York’s radical cultural hub. One of Graham’s early dancers who went on to an illustrious choreographic career of her own was Anna Sokolow. Born to a Jewish family fleeing Russia and settling in the United States in the early 1910s, Sokolow was a child of socialism and cultural radicalism. She received dance education in the Neighborhood Playhouse, an institution offering cultural education to working-class immigrant children, and grew up skipping school to visit New York museums, never lacking in cultural stimulation.
Anna Sokolow’s childhood was shaped by the labor struggles fought and won by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and Yiddish theater, and her choreographic work was always sensitive to injustice. No Jewish person at the time could ignore the mass murder inflicted upon their brethren in Europe, and Sokolow was no exception. In 1945 she premiered Kaddish, a solo dance in which Sokolow wears Tefillin, a religious dress traditionally worn only by men. Full with somber movement, Kaddish was a call to recognize the loss of humanity inherent in any murder, and simultaneously an extension of her own sorrow and pain: “I felt a deep social sense about what I wanted to express, and the things that affected me deeply personally [are] what I did, and commented on.”
Sokolow’s unique legacy intertwined feminism, humanism, and radicalism, articulating in movement the dictum that an injury to one is an injury to all. Sokolow’s 1961 work Dreams was the first dance performance to comment on the Holocaust, inspired by testimonies emerging from death camp survivors. Sokolow realized that her dreams were literally turning into nightmares. Cited alongside Käthe Kollwitz and Oscar Kokoschka as a masterwork responding to unspeakable acts, Dreams overflowed with emotion and evoked the bravery of everyone who lived through the camps, regardless of which period. Sokolow’s work was a call to remember the power of humanity even in the bleakest of times. By watching the performance, even the spectators felt braver.
The New Dance Group: Continued Radicalism
Anna Sokolow worked closely with the New Dance Group, a company dedicated to dance for social change that followed two rules: “Dance about something important to you, and create work whose social meaning is palpable to the audience.” Its motto was simple: “Dance is a weapon.” The program to a gala performance commemorating the group decades later stated that the “New Dance Group aimed to make dance a viable weapon for the struggles of the working class. They were artistic innovators against poverty, fascism, hunger, racism, and the manifold injustices of their time.”
The group was an essential and integral part of a social landscape that interlinked socialist struggles with dance training. The most elaborate study of the New Dance Group and radical American politics, Stepping Left, written by leading dance historian and former Graham dancer Ellen Graff, reveals many little-known links between the workers’ movement and dance. Workers could pay small sums of money for dance classes — thereby consciously linking the power of human bodies in shared movement all the way from the picket line to the theater stage.
Socially conscious dance performances were often a part of workers’ meetings. The revolutionary atmosphere of the time reshuffled the way bodies moved on the streets, but also fostered radical new ways of dancing together. These two revolutions were not only simultaneous, but in fact, intimately connected.
One of the dancers training and working with the New Dance Group was Pearl Primus. Born in Trinidad and raised in the United States, she studied with both Martha Graham and Paul Robeson. In 1948–49 she traveled to Africa, commenting: “I shall go to the land of my forefathers. My heart will be filled with music and drums, and my soul will dance with the people.” That transpired to be prophetic, and she was given the name Omowalw — “Child Returned Home.” Her research trip proved to be the first of many, and she later earned a PhD in Caribbean and African studies.
Her first work, African Ceremonial, was characteristic of her career’s focus, drawing upon the cultures of Africa, the Western Caribbean, and the American South. She had a clear vision for her art: “Why do I dance? Dance is my medicine. It’s the scream which eases for a while the terrible frustration common to all human beings who because of race, creed, or color are ‘invisible.’ Dance is the fist with which I fight the sickening ignorance of prejudice.”
Over a fine New York City lunch in 1940, Pearl Primus and Billie Holiday discussed with lyricist Lewis Allan his poem Strange Fruit. The poem evokes the pain of African Americans in an era in which many white people considered lynching to be the appropriate method of dealing with a person of color who dared to challenge their oppression. Pearl Primus went on to choreograph Strange Fruit (originally known as A Man Has Just Been Lynched), which became one of her most famous works.
Primus’s performance expanded the term “black dance,” as she herself danced the role of a white woman witnessing a lynching. Primus’s radicalism was not only in bringing the subject matter center stage, but in creating the perspective of the white observer — and her complicity and inaction while witnessing the horrific act. The dancer crawling, leaping, and falling back to the earth ends with a burst of running that Primus described as “gathering the consciousness of mankind to this act of cruelty and injustice.” A final thrust of her fist implores the audience to never allow these harrowing injustices to happen again.
Dancing for Our Lives
Renowned New York Times dance critic Anna Kisslegoff quoted Martha Graham in her 1991 obituary: “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that others are behind the times.” Dancers like Graham, Sokolow, Primus, and many others paved the way for dance as political dissent. Their choreographic work opened a vista for radical artistic interventions, presenting injustices and new visions for a better world by using their bodies.
Today, history appears to be repeating itself, and many phenomena which were the catalysts for these pioneers once again dominate our headlines: whether racism and fascism, warmongering and anti-Semitism, or new forms of violence and hatred. Racist, patriarchal capitalism seeps into every pore of our bodies, and yet at the same time, our bodies are always the most forceful place from which we can resist, our most primordial material possession.
And so, as contemporary artists face new challenges, it is essential to look back at resources already there to understand the power and responsibility of bodies to move together, act with integrity, and ensure their messages for equality and dignity for all are heard loud and clear. After all, none of us are mere nameless bodies in never-ending chorus lines — if the Rockettes could learn that, surely we all can take the message to heart.