by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 28, 2005
WHEN POLITICS COUNTED IN ART
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When I was a young girl, my mother enrolled me in modern dance lessons at a professional school in New York called the New Dance Group Studios. Every Saturday morning I took the subway alone from Brooklyn to Manhattan, rode up a tiny, creaky, scary elevator in a narrow old building on West 47th Street, changed into a leotard, and, with other children, learned movement to the beat of a drum.
My mother, Rose Kagan, who was a far more talented dancer than I was, took classes there on Wednesdays. As a married woman with two children, she bravely tried to keep up with the young professional dancers who were her fellow students. And sometimes, in the evenings, she would take me to the 92nd Street Y, where we would watch our teachers perform. This is only a distant memory now, but it seems that if you manage to live for a certain number of years, some of the pieces of your life can enter the history books without your even realizing it. To the astonishment of my mother and myself, that's what happened last week. Mom, who is now 88 and living in Florida, was visiting me in Vermont. For a treat, we went over to Saratoga, N.Y., to see the New York City Ballet in its summer season. While we were there, we stopped in at the National Museum of Dance & Hall of Fame. To our complete surprise, we found a new exhibit, curated by two sisters, Carolyn Adams and Julie Adams Strandberg, and the American Dance Legacy Institute, called "Dancing Rebels: The New Dance Group."
It gave us a rush of astonishment to see pictures of our former teachers on the walls of a museum. Videos of their performances were on monitors scattered around the rooms. Costumes they once wore on stage were now on mannequins. Their words, their history, were on the walls. Our history, our lives were on the walls. The New Dance Group, it turns out, was formed in 1932 at a rally protesting the killing of a young labor organizer named Harry Simms by the New Jersey police. There and then, a group of modern dancers and choreographers joined together to make "great ideas real" and use them "to create works of truth and beauty." They had two rules. The first was that they must perform dances about subjects that mattered to them personally - no dying swans and handsome princes allowed. The second was that the dances must be crafted in such a way that they would be understood by "the masses." Yes, there was a certain amount of intellectual arrogance and pretentious romanticism at work. When choreographer William Bales said, "I have tried to capture the unsophisticated quality of the peasantry because I believe it is the most direct way I can communicate the simple emotion of simple people," it is clear he had never met a peasant in his life. If he had traveled in the developing world, he would have found people quite as sophisticated - and life quite as complex - as it ever gets in Manhattan. But that is a small point when we now live in a world where art is separated into categories, "fine" and "popular," and never the twain shall meet. Here was a group of dedicated artists from a variety of ethnic backgrounds - Eastern European Jews, African-Americans, Caribbean islanders - who created dances from their cultural roots with "a sense of feeling deeply about things and having them spill out into the body, into the movement," as Joseph Gifford said. These artists were not interested in "pretty." They were not interested in uniformity. Their hallmark was to "place great value on their differences and the specificity and rigor of each dance style. They were not a melting pot. They were richly diverse." The New Dance Group dancers only achieved a limited fame, if any. I'm not sure how many people know the names of Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow, Jean Leon Destine, Muriel Manings, Jane Dudley, Jean Erdman, Hadassah, Pearl Primus or Donald McKayle. But these names are very real to me. My mother and I sweated in their classes, watched them teach and rehearse, and applauded them at their performances. It was thrilling to see them and their work elevated to the importance of a museum show. My mother walked through the exhibits with her eyes shining and her hands clasped to her breast. "I learned everything from these people," she said in a whisper. "How to fall forwards and backwards, how to do splits, how to kick. I accomplished so much for someone who started so late." For 35 years as a dancer, choreographer and teacher in Florida, my mother has been using what she learned at the New Dance Group.
Dance is an elite art now, with little or no political content. In fact, it's hard to find political art of any kind in America, outside of comedians and the occasional singer-songwriter. But for the passionate dancers of the New Dance Group, art was about politics and politics was about social justice, and that's quite a legacy for an obscure dance studio in New York.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.