Helen Tamiris

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Helen Tamiris

Helen Tamiris (1903-1966) was one of the founders of modern dance in the United States. Trained in ballet and influenced by social issues of the 1920s and 1930s, she developed the concert dance form of modern dance. A white woman, Tamiris choreographed eight dances that were known as the Negro Spirituals between 1928 and 1941, which rank among her finest and most often restaged works. Later in her career, she entered musical theater and choreographed Broadway plays such as Annie Get Your Gun and Showboat. She received the Antoinette Perry Award in 1949 for best choreography for Touch and Go. After co-founding the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company with her husband, Daniel Nagrin, in 1960, Tamiris continued to teach and dance until her death in 1966.

Studied Rigid Ballet Techniques

Born Helen Becker on April 24, 1903, in New York City to parents who emigrated from Russia, Tamiris grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. At the age of eight, she began studying dance with Irene Lewisohn at the Henry Street Settlement then studied with the children's chorus of the Metropolitan Opera Company and later learned Italian ballet techniques at the Met. From 1918 to 1920 she studied modern dance at the Neighborhood Playhouse before the Playhouse began to teach the style of Louis Horst.

Tamiris also studied natural dancing at an Isadora Duncan studio but disliked its emphasis on personal expression and lyrical movements. Restless at the studio, she soon left to develop her own approach to dance, a quest that would make her one of the pioneers in modern dance. She spent a couple of years as a specialty dancer playing in stage shows of movie houses and making nightclub appearances.

In 1922, Bracale Opera Company borrowed Tamiris from the Met to dance lead solo ballet in its productions that toured South America. Traveling outside the United States exposed her to international dance forms. When she returned to New York, she resigned from the Met and abandoned the rigid Italian ballet style she had been taught. For the next year she studied Russian ballet techniques with Mikhail Fokine and danced with his company in Gilbert Miller's production of Casanova.

At this time, Tamiris chose the stage name Tamiris (later calling herself Helen Tamiris) to project an exotic appeal. In 1924 and 1925, she was a principal dancer in John Murray Anderson's Music Box Revue. The next year, she toured the country as a soloist in moving picture presentation units under Anderson.

Concert Debut in 1927

Disappointed at not finding what she wanted to do with dance, Tamiris took a year off to develop her own techniques and voice. Rejecting such dance elements as mimed stories, theatricality, and technical tricks, she turned to concert dance. During the 1920s and 1930s, she became a leader in concert dance, choreographing solos or shared programs for herself and for small groups of female dancers.

On October 9, 1927, Tamiris made her concert debut at the Little Theatre in New York. With Horst playing piano, Tamiris performed a program of solos, including her pieces Florentine, Portrait of a Lady, Impressions of the Bullring, and Circus Sketches.

Tamiris's concert career lasted from 1927 to 1944, during which time she created works for herself and her contemporaries, such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and the choreographers of the New Dance League and Group, of which Sophie Maslow, Lily Mehlman, and Anna Sokolow were members.

Tamiris was establishing herself as a choreographer who searched for flow and ease of movement in her pieces. She had a striking appearance and buoyant personality. Her dances expressed her central concern for human dignity, clear expression, range, and economy. For a program book, she declared, "Dancing is simply movement with a personal conception of rhythm," according to the International Encyclopedia of Dance.

Viewing life as a conflict, she expressed herself verbally and artistically, preparing works that were vigorous and exuberant. In her choreography, she infused her dances with unique accompaniment to reflect social commentary. In her dances, she complemented urban life with sirens, evoked an aura of Ernest Hemingway with flashing colors, and made a statement on sex with frank voluptuousness. Her dancers also used kettle drums, carried instruments, beat their elbows on drums, and played triangles and cymbals.

The Negro Spirituals

With a penchant for exploring traditional American themes and believing that American dance must use indigenous sources, Tamiris was probably best known for choreographing a series of eight pieces under the umbrella title Negro Spirituals between 1928 and 1941. Dance critic Margaret Lloyd said, "The Negro Spirituals were the musts of her programs. Every new one was hailed with hurrahs. This was the thing she could really do, this was what she did best," according to Black Tradition in American Dance.

Tamiris, who was white, blended her sympathy for oppressed human beings with her uninhibited nature and love of the unpremeditated. She reveled in the emotional energy of black music and dance and incorporated black themes and movement styles into her work, which was influenced by the jazz, Harlem, and African ceremonial dances of the time. The Negro Spirituals were simple in design and execution, displaying slicing or staccato arms anchored in a deeply weighted body. For her spirituals she also used arrangements of J. Rosamond Johnson and Lawrence Brown. Not only did she produce such dances, but she broke though color barriers by choosing black performers as well. Tamiris was instrumental in introducing African American dancer Pearl Primus to the public.

Her second solo concert in 1928 featured two Negro Spirituals, "Nobody Knows de Trouble I See" and "Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho." They were very successful, and she went on to perform them in Paris and Berlin. In April 1929, she added a version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to her program in New York. By 1932, she had danced six Negro Spirituals, her latest being "Gris-Gris Ceremonial," which included percussive gourds shaken in a West African tradition. In 1933, she appeared in Lewisohn Stadium, in the outdoor concert season of the Philharmonic Orchestra, performing that piece with the Bahama Negro Dancers.

Her 1937 How Long, Brethren?, one of her best known concert pieces, was danced to songs of protest. Dramatized in dance from Lawrence Gellert's "Negro Songs of Protest" and sung by a black chorus, the piece depicted the despair of unemployed Southern blacks.

Founded Dance Companies

In 1930, Tamiris was a major organizer of the Dance Repertory Theatre. Modern choreographers such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman joined together to create a place where they could produce and perform their individual works. Tamiris was president of the company during its first two years. At the same time she worked for the American Dance Association and the Works Progress Administration's Federal Dance Project, where she encouraged the inclusion of dance and served as principal choreographer from 1937 to 1939. From 1930 to 1945, Tamiris was director and teacher of the School of American Dance.

Tamiris and her company of dancers called Her Group excelled in modern dance in the mid-1930s. Dances took on social issues, made statements on freedom and decadence, denounced war, and highlighted the schism between the haves and have-nots. Tamiris created one of the best compositions of her career with her 1934 Walt Whitman Suite, a set of six related dances based on themes from Whitman, set to music by Genevieve Pitot. This project, which contained three solos, demonstrated the maturity of the work by Tamiris and her troupe.

For the next few years, she had a satisfactory extended tour with her group; was one of the primary organizers of the weeklong First National Dance Congress and Festival in 1936; and choreographed the Dance Project in New York from 1937 to 1939. In 1938, she presented some of her solo dances at the Salzburg Festival, and in 1939 she produced the first big modern ballet, Adelante, a 75-minute, all-dance work on Loyalist Spain. From 1930 to 1945, she taught extensively outside her own school, including body movement for actors and directors, while continuing to perform and produce.

Choreographed for Broadway

In addition to her concert work, Tamiris had a successful Broadway choreography career. From 1943 to 1957 she choreographed modern dances in 18 musical comedies and worked with Nagrin as her assistant on six musicals. Her first theatrical works were created for experimental groups and were staged for the Provincetown players, the Group Theater, and the Federal Theatre Project.

As noted in the International Encyclopedia of Dance, "Rather than using chorus lines or technical displays to advance the script or to enhance the music, Tamiris integrated dance into such theater pieces as Up in Central Park (1945), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Inside USA (1948), and Plain and Fancy (1955)." She also choreographed Park Avenue (1946) and Showboat (1946). Her choreography for Touch and Go (1949) won the Antoinette Perry Award. Some of the Broadway shows she worked on toured in Europe.

In her productions, she strove to create clever characterizations and evoke the spirit of America's regions and periods. She integrated her dance numbers with acting, song, and stage pictorialisms. Also noteworthy was the caliber of dancers in her shows, such as Lidija Franklyn, Joseph Gifford, George Bockman, Dorothy Bird, J.C. McCord, Pearl Lang, Valeri Bettis, Rod Alexander, Claude Marchant, Talley Beatty, and Pearl Primus.

Tamiris continued to dance and teach later in her life. In 1951, she performed in Donald McKayle's Games that premiered at Hunter College. She performed the modern dances Pioneer Memories (1957), Dance for Walt Whitman (1958), and Memoir (1959).

She taught at Perry-Mansfield School of Theatre and Dance in Colorado and Maine in 1956 and taught stage movement for directors at the American Dance Festival in Connecticut. In 1960, she co-founded the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company with her husband and worked on Women's Song (1960) and Once Upon a Time (1961). In 1962, she conducted summer workshops with Nagrin at C. W. Post College of Long Island University.

On August 4, 1966, Tamiris died of cancer in New York City. In 1996, she posthumously received the Scripps/ American Dance Festival award with Pearl Primus. Nagrin accepted the award in her memory.

Remembered and Recreated

Tamiris's works were rarely choreographed for other companies, and her philosophy was that each dance must create its own expressive means and focus on bringing out what was unique about each dancer. Consequently, it was difficult to bequeath a "Tamiris" style or technique to her followers.

In the late 20th Century, there were attempts to reconstruct some of her most important works, such as the Negro Spiritual series (1928-1942), How Long, Brethren? (1937-1942), and sections of the Walt Whitman Suite (1934), especially "Salut au Monde" and "I Sing the Body Electric." As early as 1965, the Negro Spirituals were restaged at the School of the Performing Arts in New York City, and they were recorded in 1967.

In 1986, Arizona State University in Tempe published The Tamiris Conference, edited by Nagrin. Nagrin is also the author of Helen Tamiris and the Dance Historians: Why Has She Been Neglected by Contemporary Historians?, parts of which were presented at the Society of Dance History Scholars Conference held at the university in 1989. Portions of the Negro Spirituals were restaged at Emory College, and the University of Utah restaged her "Dance for Walt Whitman." Dianne McIntyre re-created the Negro Spirituals, which were performed in the 1990s by the Scripps/American Dance Festival.


Chujoy, Anatole & P.W. Manchester, Dance Encyclopedia, Simon & Schuster, 1967.

Cohen, Selma Jeanne, ed., International Encyclopedia of Dance, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cohen-Stratyner, Barbara, Biographical Dictionary of Dance, Macmillan, 1982.

Lloyd, Margaret, Borzoi Book of Modern Dance, Dance Horizons, 1949.

Long, Richard, Black Tradition in American Dance, Rizzoli International Publishers, 1989.

Martin, John, America Dancing, Dance Horizons, 1968.


"Helen Tamiris," Women in American History by Encyclopedia Britannica,http://search.eb.com/women/articles/Tamiris_Helen.html (March 5, 2003). □

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