Humphrey, Doris (1895–1958)

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Humphrey, Doris (1895–1958)

American pioneer in the performance, teaching and choreography of modern dance, known for articulating the meaning of dance and the process of choreography. Born Doris Batcheller Humphrey on October 17, 1895, in Oak Park, Illinois; died on December 29, 1958, in New York City, of cancer; daughter of Horace Buckingham Humphrey (a journalist and hotel manager) and Julia Ellen (Wells) Humphrey (a musician); completed high school; married Charles F. Woodford, on June 10, 1932; children: Charles Humphrey Woodford (b. July 8, 1933).

Began dancing at age eight; trained and performed with Denishawn (1917–27); with Charles Weidman, co-founded the Humphrey-Weidman Group (1927); gave first independent concert in New York (1928); helped found the short-lived DanceRepertory Theater (1930–31); received Choreographic Award of the year from Dance Magazine (1937); with Weidman, founded the Studio Theater (1940); offered first dance composition class (1945); was artistic director of José Limon dance company (1945–50); granted Guggenheim fellowship (1948); was official director of the Dance Center at the 92nd St. YMHA (1952); received Capezio Award (1954); was artistic director of the Juilliard Dance Theater (1954); wrote The Art of Making Dances, published posthumously (NY: Rinehart, 1959).

Selected choreography:

"Soaring" (1920); "Water Study" (1928); "Life of the Bee" (1929); "Salutations to the Depths" (1930); "The Shakers"(1931); "New Dance" (1935); "Theater Piece"(1936); "With My Red Fires" (1936); "Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor" (1938); "Decade" (1941); "Partita in G Major" (1943); "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias" (1946); "Day on Earth" (1947); "Night Spell" (1952); "Ritmo Jondo" (1953); "Ruins and Visions" (1955); "Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major" (1958).

If Martha Graham was the mystical "artiste" of modern dance, Doris Humphrey was its unremitting technician and engineer. Humphrey invented the new American art form of modern dance, along with Graham. Devoted to abstraction in movement and choreography, she gave the form an intellectual underpinning, developing a theory of dance, a technique of movement, and a process of choreography. She also performed, started and directed her own company, choreographed prodigiously, and authored a book about her art form; most important, she talked about and taught the art of choreography. Although she was generally over-shadowed in her career by the genius of Graham, and has often been forgotten and overlooked since, her influence spanned the whole of the early modern dance world and indelibly shaped its formation.

Born in 1895 in Oak Park, Illinois, Doris Humphrey came from pioneer Yankee stock, claiming to be a tenth-generation American on both sides of her family. She spent her childhood in the Midwest, where her father Horace B. Humphrey was first a journalist and then a manager of the Palace Hotel in Chicago. Her mother Julia Wells Humphrey was a graduate of Mt. Holyoke College for women and the Boston Conservatory of Music, and the couple raised their daughter in the hotel. Julia Humphrey began her daughter's training in the arts with dance lessons at the Parker School when Doris was eight. The lessons were primarily in ballet, and often with European masters who happened to be traveling through Chicago. Following graduation from high school, Doris herself taught ballroom and interpretive dancing in her hometown of Oak Park.

Humphrey's life took a sharp turn when she came into contact with Denishawn, the company and school devised by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Precursors of modern dance, these two performers created theatrical spectacles, usually based on Oriental themes, recreating movements borrowed from cultures around the world, particularly India, Japan, and Siam (pre-sent-day Thailand). St. Denis also concentrated on what were known as music visualizations, which she described in a 1924 Denishawn Magazine as "the scientific translation into bodily action of the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic structure of a musical composition."

In 1917, Humphrey was 22 when she went to Los Angeles to train at the Denishawn School, and she stayed with the group for the next ten years. She began to choreograph in the Denishawn style, creating a popular solo in 1920 entitled "Soaring" which used a huge scarf that billowed

like a wave. By the time she traveled with the company to Asia on their two-year tour from 1925 to 1927, she was known as a close protege of St. Denis, and she formed other crucial relationships with company members that were to last throughout her life: Charles Weidman became her dance and choreographic partner, and Pauline Lawrence became their accompanist, manager, and indefatigable champion.

Humphrey, Weidman, and Lawrence set out in 1927 to form a new company, after personal and professional squabbles created a rift between St. Denis and Shawn. The Humphrey-Weidman Group included both men and women, a unique feature in the female-dominated world of modern dance. Humphrey and Weidman also began to move beyond the Asian-inspired movement and choreography of Denishawn to investigations of movement based on abstract aesthetic principles as well as contemporary American issues. Humphrey and Weidman were like other artists and intellectuals of the late 1920s and 1930s in their concerns about the problems and injustices of their society and hopes for a better world. They were eager to create a dance form characteristic of the modern age—confrontational, relevant, and weighty.

Humphrey's "Life of the Bee" (1929) pursued this vision. Adapting the movements described in Maurice Maeterlinck's 1901 study of bees, she was able to explore the subjects of evolution, work, and hierarchial human relations through dance. As she described in a program note: "the workers dance and beat their wings around the cradle of the adolescent princess … [and] the pitiless duty of the hive decrees the sacrifice of the individual at last to the immortality of the republic."

Formalistic concerns were what truly captured Humphrey's interest, however: how to coordinate a group, relate movement to music, and work aesthetic principles into the human body. Although she demonstrated social concern over issues such as workers' rights, she never became politically engaged to the degree of Helen Tamiris or other dancers of her era. For Humphrey, the individual and the ideals of art remained sacrosanct. Biographer Selma Jeanne Cohen relates that Humphrey's husband once reflected on her lack of interest in politics by saying "that his wife would have given a concert under the auspices of Satan himself—as long as he put up the production money and did not interfere with artistic decisions."

While Humphrey's sources of inspiration were often literary, Nietzschean philosophy formed the basis of her understanding of dance. In the Apollonian-Dionysian dialectic, Apollo represented stability and stolidity, and Dionysus was the anarchic impulse, opposing elements in which Humphrey found her metaphor for the "fall and recovery" of the human body moving through space. For her, the most poignant moment of movement lay between the struggle to resist gravity and the euphoria of suspension in giving into it, and the Humphrey-Weidman technique and choreography contained many falls, arcs, swoops, and rebounds. Balance and unbalance were to battle onstage throughout Humphrey's career.

By the early 1930s, the Humphrey-Weidman Group was recognized as a leading force in modern dance when it joined Graham and Tamiris in forming the short-lived Dance Repertory Theater for concerts in 1930–31. The group was also invited to teach and choreograph at the Bennington Summer School of Dance throughout the 1930s. In the dance world, where everyone struggled to survive financially, teaching was a means to choreograph and perform, and the group scraped together an existence devoted to performing when and where they could.

Humphrey rarely took very good care of herself, relying on Pauline Lawrence to provide the type of maternal nurturing she needed. In the summer of 1931, depressed by a recent knee injury, she went off alone on a cruise to the West Indies to give herself a much-needed rest. This uncharacteristic move changed her life when she met Charles Woodford, an English naval officer, who became her husband the following June. In July 1933, their son Charles Humphrey Woodford was born. Despite the couple's constant separations because of his time at sea and her devotion to her career and touring, the marriage probably gave both what they preferred. They carried on an unflagging correspondence, providing each other unceasing support and encouragement.

Meanwhile, Humphrey continued to focus most of her energy on dance. In the mid-1930s, she created a number of masterpieces that solidified her position as the consummate choreographer of modern dance. Her crowning achievement was a triumvirate of works celebrating human relationships. According to Humphrey's notes, "New Dance (1935)" presented the world as it should be. It was a dance in three sections—the first for women, the second for men, and the third for men and women together—which celebrated the possible harmony of relationships. "Theater Piece" (1936) depicted the present world as "a grim business of survival by competition," while "With My Red Fires" (1936) was an exposé on love. Although the three were never performed in one night, nor given critical attention as the connected pieces of a whole, each dance received individual success. It was Humphrey's vision of them as a trilogy, however, that bespoke her larger artistic purposes. In her endless investigation of the social interactions of humans, the individual remained the defining element, although she did not spend time creating solos or constructing group dances to show the individual in conflict with a larger group. Her focus was on the many ways that people relate to one another. Logically enough, her greatest success was achieved in group choreography, when she was given the Choreographic Award of Dance Magazine in 1937 for her work "To the Dance."

Constant, difficult touring consumed the years from 1936 to 1940, with the tours providing a paltry income but a way to get the works before the public. Home base remained New York City, where Humphrey kept a communal apartment with Weidman, Lawrence, her son, her husband when on leave, as well as occasional visitors. The arrangement helped to provide care for her son, to whom Humphrey never gave her full attention. Humphrey also served on the Dance Theater Project of the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) for a short stint in 1936 and continued to go to Bennington in the summer and then to Mills College in California, when the summer program moved there in 1939. She and Weidman also gave classes at their studio. In 1940, they devised a Studio Theater, a brilliant concept not fully realized until it took off in the loft performances of the 1960s and 1970s. Within the studio space they used for classes and rehearsals, they created a small theater of 150 seats for the performance of their own works and rental to other dancers, gaining independence from the grandiose expenses and time restrictions of commercial theaters.

Almost always sold out, the Studio Theater helped to sustain the Humphrey-Weidman Group. But by the early 1940s, the personal and professional relations between Humphrey and Weidman began to crumble, and in September 1941 Humphrey took an apartment on her own for herself and her son. Weidman began choreographing many more Broadway and variety shows, and the two rarely collaborated after that time. Humphrey also began to suffer physically, with pain in her left leg and hip. In May 1944, she performed for the last time.

The years after World War II proved particularly difficult for Humphrey, as her role switched from performer to teacher and choreographer and she was forced to reconcile herself to not being able to dance. From the early 1940s to the end of her life, arthritis caused her to walk with a limp. With her collaboration with Weidman essentially ended, she now looked to her student and protege, José Limon, to inspire her.

Returning from military service in World War II, Limon found the Humphrey-Weidman Group in dissolution and decided to form his own company, with Humphrey as its artistic director. Humphrey choreographed some of her best works for Limon's dancers and also served as mentor for his own choreography. During the late 1940s, the Limon Company dominated the new summer school for modern dance at Connecticut College, then became a huge success in its European tour of 1950. Humphrey, teaching and choreographing at this time without being able to demonstrate, now became particularly interested in teaching dance composition. In 1945, she taught her first composition class at the 92nd St. YMHA, and despite her physical frailty she continued with resolute determination, becoming official director of the Dance Center at the 92nd St. YMHA in 1952. Named the artistic director of the Juilliard Dance Theater in 1954, she won the Capezio Award that same year for outstanding contributions to dance.

To be master of one's body: to find a perfect union between the inner thought and the outer form—to draw from this a radiance and power that makes of life a more glorious and vital experience—this is to dance.

—Doris Humphrey

Doris Humphrey devoted her remaining years to the Limon Company. But as Limon gradually gained a reputation independent of her, she realized that she had given up much of her own recognition to further his. In 1957, she broke with her former student after their European tour, during which she felt painfully forgotten. The following year, she finally turned to completing the book that been on her mind for some time, for which she had been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to pursue ten years earlier. By the fall of 1958, she was suffering from inoperable stomach cancer, but she managed to complete The Art of Making Dances just before her death on December 29, 1958. The book was published posthumously in 1959 and remains an incomparable guide to modern dance.


Humphrey, Doris. Doris Humphrey: An Artist First. Edited and completed by Selma Jeanne Cohen. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1966, 1972.

Lloyd, Margaret. The Borzoi Book of Modern Dance. NY: Knopf, 1949.

Siegel, Marcia. Days on Earth: The Dance of Doris Humphrey. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

suggested reading:

Jowitt, Deborah. Time and the Dancing Image. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.

McDonagh, Don. The Complete Guide to Modern Dance. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976.

related media:

"Doris Humphrey Celebration," concert commemorating 50th Anniversary of the Doris Humphrey company and school; produced by Dance Notation Bureau, New York, 1978.

"Trailblazers of Modern Dance," WNET-NY's Great Performances: Dance in America Series, 1977.


Extensive correspondence, manuscripts, notations of dances, programs, scrapbooks, and photographs at the Dance Collection, Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, New York Public Library.

Julia L. Foulkes , former Rockefeller Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago, Illinois