Holm was born Johanna Eckert, the daughter of Valentin Eckert, a German wine merchant, and Marie Mörschel, an amateur scientist who held several patents. Johanna had one sibling. Her parents gave their physically active daughter a progressive education in a convent school in Mainz, Germany. As well as gaining respect for knowledge, an iron self-discipline, and a craving for perfection, she was awakened to a love of music. From 1917 to 1920 she sought additional music training at Dalcroze Institutes in Frankfurt am Main and Hellerau, where she earned a teaching certificate. Through the Dalcroze method she learned to value spontaneity and improvisation. Holm married the painter-sculptor Reinhold Martin Kuntze in 1917. When they divorced in February 1921, Holm retained custody of their son.
A solo concert by Mary Wigman, a pioneer of German modern dance, inspired Holm to change her allegiance from music to dance. She was accepted as a student at the Wigman School in 1920 and after one year became an assistant teacher. She assumed the stage name “Hanya Holm.” Petite, blonde, articulate, and keenly intelligent, Holm became an indispensable member of the faculty and in 1929 became codirector of the Wigman Central Institute in Dresden.
Holm danced in the original Wigman company from 1923 to 1928 and also took charge of the organizational
details on the group’s many European tours. When the company disbanded, Holm took advantage of two opportunities for choreography and direction, the staging of Euripides’ Bacchae in Ommen, Holland, in the summer of 1928 and the choreography of Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat (1918) in Schauspielhause, Dresden, in 1929. In May 1930 she directed the dancing chorus for Wigman’s epic Totenmal (1930), created for a dance congress in Munich.
Wigman’s solo tour of the United States in 1930-1931 inspired the formation of a branch Wigman School in that country. Holm arrived in New York on 25 September 1931 to serve as the chief teacher. Contracted with the responsibility for promoting the Wigman method in the United States, she successfully adapted German dance training to American needs and the American temperament. An invitation to teach at the premier U.S. dance institution, the Bennington Summer School of Dance (1934–1942), recognized her as one of four major American modern dance artists along with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman.
The rise of fascism in Germany compromised Holm’s position in New York, as the Wigman School came under suspicion of Nazi affiliation. In 1936 Holm broke her ties to Wigman and put her own name on the school and the company with which she had been touring. She brought her son out of Germany and began an independent personal and professional life, living in an apartment above her school on the corner of Waverly Place and West Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village. Holm became a citizen of the United States in 1939.
Holm often gave lecture demonstrations that captivated audiences while explaining the building blocks of dance creation. In 1936 she presented her first full program of dances and a year later created one of America’s dance masterpieces. Trend, a work of epic proportions about social destruction and rebirth, was chosen the best group choreography of 1937 by the New York Times critic John Martin. In 1939 she created two other works in response to the crisis in Europe, They Too Are Exiles and the award-winning Tragic Exodus. Her lighthearted satire Metropolitan Daily (1938) was the first dance televised in the United States. Other notable works are Dance of Work and Play (1938), From This Earth (1941), and Namesake (1942). Some dances touched deep universal themes, and others were lyrical celebrations of movement. In 1941 Holm established a summer program of instruction and dance production at Colorado College, where she continued to choreograph for the concert stage after she disbanded her company in 1945 and turned to Broadway.
In 1948 Holm scored three successes as a choreographer in the high-stakes arena of commercial theater: “The Eccentricities of Davey Crockett,” one of three independent sections of Ballet Ballads (1948); José Ferrer’s production of the Karel Čapek and Josef Capek play The Insect Comedy (1933); and Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (1948). The Porter production won her a New York Drama Critics Award. In 1950 she choreographed another Porter show, Out of This World (1950). Eight other musicals followed. The most memorable were The Golden Apple (1954), for which she won three awards, My Fair Lady (1956), for which she was again recognized with a Drama Critics Award, and Camelot (1960). Holm built a reputation for clever, imaginative detail and for crafting dance that sprang in seemingly spontaneous fashion from story and song.
Perhaps Holm’s immigrant status allowed her a holistic view of dance culture that embraced several genres and appealed to many different audiences. She directed the world premiere of Douglas Moore’s opera The Ballad of Baby Doe at the Central City Opera House in Colorado in 1956 and staged Christoph Gluck’s opera Orpheus and Euridice in Vancouver and Toronto in 1959. She choreographed a musical film, The Vagabond King (1956), and several television specials. In the last decade of her life she choreographed four dances for the Don Redlich Dance Company, one of which, Jocose (1982), toured the world with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s White Oak Project in 1994 and 1995.
Witty, human, and uncompromising, Holm was a legendary teacher. She was a strict disciplinarian who inspired students to use their instincts. She mentored many dance artists, whom she equipped to discover their own styles. Her theory-based teaching method has been an important influence in college and university dance programs. For her contributions to musical comedy and the concert dance, Holm was honored with the Capezio Award (1978), the American Dance Festival Scripps Award (1984), and the Dance Magazine Award (1990).
Holm moved comfortably in elite social circles and could be playful and irreverent with friends. A frequent guest in homes of the wealthy, she often gathered with Broadway luminaries and attended glittering parties at the Stork Club. She was also embraced by the old-money social elite of Colorado Springs during the forty-three summers she directed her dance institute there. Never abandoning her German accent, she had a seemingly endless repertoire of aphorisms that heightened the fun of her conversation and intensified the profundity of her meaning. In 1956 she purchased a town house on West Eleventh Street, where she lived until her death from pneumonia at the age of ninety-nine. She is buried in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Holm’s papers are in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundation. Her only biography, Walter Sorell’s Hanya Holm: The Biography of an Artist (1969), is marred by sentimentality. The distinguished dance critic John Martin praised Holm’s successful adaptation of German training to American rhythm in his Introduction to the Dance (1939). Margaret Lloyd gives Holm’s early choreography and her teaching lengthy consideration in The Borzoi Book of Modem Dance (1949). Recent discussion on her teaching, choreography, and importance to American dance culture can be found in Jack Anderson, Art Without Boundaries (1997), and Claudia Gitelman, “Finding a Place for Hanya Holm,” Dance Chronicle 23, no. 1 (2000). Two journals that devote issues to essays, photographs, and a chronology of her works are “Hanya Holm: A Pioneer in American Dance,” Choreography and Dance 2, pt. 2 (1992); and “Hanya Holm: The Life and Legacy,” Journal for Stage Directors and Choreographers 7, no. 1 (spring/summer 1993). An obituary is in the New York Times (4 Nov. 1992). A documentary videotape is Hanya: Portrait of a Dance Pioneer (1984).