Tamiris, Helen (1902–1966)

views updated

Tamiris, Helen (1902–1966)

American dancer and choreographer who contributed to a political outlook in modern dance and strived for communal support of the nascent art form. Name variations: Helen Becker. Pronunciation: Ta-MEERiss. Born Helen Becker on April 24, 1902, in New York City; died of cancer on August 4, 1966, in New York City; only daughter and youngest of five children of Isor Becker (a tailor) and Rose (Simoneff) Becker (d. 1905, both Russian-Jewish immigrants); completed high school; married Daniel Nagrin, on September 3, 1943 (separated 1964); no children.

Made New York solo concert debut (1927); organized Dance Repertory Theater (1930–32); was a primary choreographer for Dance Project within the Federal Theater Project of the Works Progress Administration; served as the first president of the American Dance Association; choreographed for Broadway musicals (1940–50s); won Tony award for Touch and Go (1949).

Concert dances:

"Subconscious" (1927); Manifesto (1927); Negro Spirituals (1929); Walt Whitman Suite (1934); Harvest 1935 (1935); How Long Brethren? (1937); Trojan Incident (1938); Adelante (1939); Dance for Walt Whitman (1958).

Selected theater:

Annie Get Your Gun (1946); Inside USA (1948); Touch and Go (1949); Fanny (1954); Plain and Fancy (1955).

A tall woman with fiery red hair and dramatic features, Helen Tamiris became as notable for her political dynamism as for her appearances onstage, energizing the burgeoning modern-dance movement in America with her penchant for organizing and her concern for social issues. Her career as a dancer and choreographer encompassed various dance styles, from vaudeville to modern dance and the Broadway stage, and her captivating stage presence enlivened her performances, but it was ultimately her role as an organizer that had the greater impact on the dance field. In 1927, at the beginning of her entree into modern dance, she wrote a self-titled "Manifesto" declaring the intentions that were to underlie her life's work:

The dance of today is plagued with exotic gestures, mannerisms and ideas borrowed from literature, philosophy, sculpture and painting. Will people never rebel against artificialities, pseudo-romanticism and affected sophistication? The dance of today must have a dynamic tempo and be valid, precise, spontaneous, free, normal, natural and human.

Helen Becker was born on April 24, 1902, the daughter of Isor Becker and Rose Simoneff Becker , Russian-Jewish immigrants living on New York City's Lower East Side. The poverty, endless work of sewing sweatshops, and squalid living conditions of immigrant life indelibly shaped the children of the Becker family, as did the early death of their mother, when Helen was three. Along with two of her four brothers, Tamiris found solace in creativity. One brother became an artist and another a sculptor, while Helen began her dance career with classes at the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse (later known as the Neighborhood Playhouse). This remarkable institution, offering poor children opportunities to develop artistic skills, proved particularly successful in its program of dance classes, providing starts to a number of people, including Tamiris and Anna Sokolow , who went on to professional dance careers. Classes in Interpretive Dancing and Character Dancing (later known as folk dancing) introduced young girls to the beauty and pleasures of movement and music. By the end of high school, Tamiris had decided to get out of the family house now populated by a stepmother and stepsisters and make dancing her life.

In 1920, Tamiris was hired for the corps de ballet of New York's Metropolitan Opera, where she was paid $12 per week. She stayed for three seasons. Because performance in the opera's ballet corps required more disciplined technique than she had learned, management provided her with three ballet classes per week along with her salary. The artificiality of ballet annoyed Tamiris, however, and pointe work prompted a later scornful remark, "Toe dancing…. Why not dance on the palms of the hands?" She soon developed a reputation as "wild Becker" for not keeping to the corps line, and for an exuberance that sometimes overtook others on the stage. The yearning to break out of ballet's restricting confines and to have the stage to herself were desires she would soon heed.

One benefit of the job at the Metropolitan Opera was that it allowed for summers off, during which she toured with other opera companies. On tour in South America, she became romantically involved with a South American writer who introduced her to political activism and new forms of literature and art. He also christened her with a new name from a poem about an ancient Persian queen: "Thou art Tamiris , the ruthless queen who banishes all obstacles."

In 1923, Tamiris was 21 and still in the Metropolitan Opera corps when she attended a performance of the renowned modern dancer Isadora Duncan at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Duncan's presentation cemented Tamiris' break with ballet. Taking up classes at the Duncan school, she also recalled the lessons from the Henry Street Settlement, encouraging her to listen attentively to the music and move from the soul. Eventually Duncan's classes would inspire Tamiris to stop studying at schools and go out on her own.

But first the need to support herself led her to take various jobs with revues, where she earned far more money than with the opera (up to $125 a week). She grew increasingly dissatisfied, however, with being forced to be an entertaining spectacle. Each dance, she wrote in a draft of an autobiography, "was designed to astonish the audience—one surprise movement after another, like placing one brightly colored bead after another on a string with no relationship between them." What she longed to do was to create an entire program of meaningful dance.

On October 9, 1927, when Tamiris was 25, she at last made her debut as a soloist in modern dance to a sold-out audience at the Little Theater in Manhattan. Her program included 12 dances, ranging from the use of jazz music to the depiction of a circus, a piece inspired by Freud, entitled "Subconscious" and performed to Debussy, and one using no music at all. John Martin, the influential dance critic of The New York Times, gave the recital a mixed review; though he extolled her as a dancer of natural gifts, with long lines and a good sense of rhythm, he thought that she lacked technique. But reviewing her second concert, only a few months later, he placed her at the "forefront of the younger generation" of modern dancers, adding that she possessed a "warmth of style."

In the 1930s, while ceaseless accolades were paid to Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, it was Tamiris who gave modern dance both a coherent social structure and a political voice. Her entrenched sense of mission, best displayed in her 1927 "Manifesto," placed her as a noticeable leader of the modern-dance movement, without her being its most talented progenitor. In 1930, just three years after her modern-dance debut, she organized the Dance Repertory Theater in an effort to combat the almost insurmountable costs of theatrical productions. Her idea was to have four leading modern dancers—Graham, Humphrey, Weidman and herself—perform on alternating nights for a week in a single theater. The benefits of this approach were to greatly reduce the cost of solo productions, consolidate the scattered audience of modern dance, and widen its support. The repertory company lasted for two seasons (with the addition of Agnes de Mille in the 1931–32 season) but fell to the egoistic squabbles of the performers and the worsening economy of the Great Depression. In the next significant grouping of modern dancers, at the Bennington Summer School of Dance begun in 1934, Tamiris was not invited to participate. Why she was excluded remains obscure. Recalling the Bennington years for an oral history project, participants did not offer a definitive reason, but suggested a variety of reasons, including the belief that Tamiris did not measure up to the quality of a dancer like Graham, and that her political stances diminished the artistry of her work.

Despite the Bennington snub, Tamiris remained at the forefront of New York's modern-dance scene. In 1935, she was elected the first president of the Dance Association (renamed the American Dance Association in 1937). Before that, she served on the board of directors of the Concert Dancers' League, where she engaged in a battle to allow dance concerts on Sundays. Puritanical standards about the prurience of live performances still ruled the law books, making it illegal for plays, musical comedies, and dance to occur on Sunday, the Christian holy day. The fact that theaters were closed to regular performances made Sunday the only night some stages were available for smaller and less costly productions. The law was finally rescinded in 1932.

During the years of the Great Depression, Tamiris attempted to form a union of dancers, to help combat the greatly diminished opportunities for work. She was a strong supporter of the Dance Project of the WPA's Federal Theater Project, and choreographed works performed by the group. Later, during World War II, she worked again for the federal government, performing in a show presented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, It's Up to You. In a bit of well-intended government propaganda, the USDA aimed to discourage people from buying illegal

items on the black market that were being rationed for the war; Tamiris danced as Porterhouse Lucy the Black-Market Steak. In 1944, she staged The People's Bandwagon, a revue for the reelection campaign of Franklin Roosevelt which utilized an interracial cast.

Throughout her career, Tamiris' strong advocacy for African-Americans distinguished her within the modern-dance movement. During the 1930s, other modern dancers ignored racial issues or treated them thematically in their choreography without actually employing black dancers. Tamiris included dances to Negro spiritual music as early as her second solo concert, in 1928, and such pieces became signatures of her repertory for the rest of her career. In 1936, she staged a piece of a larger work of hers for the Federal Theater Negro Ensemble, and How Long Brethren?, first staged in 1937, became an even more compelling achievement. Choreographed as part of the Dance Project of the Federal Theater Project, the show employed a large black chorus to sing seven songs of protest while dancers depicted the many injustices suffered by African-Americans. How Long Brethren? played to standing-room-only audiences, changing locations as the run was extended to several months.

The validity of modern dance is rooted in its ability to express modern problems and, further, to make modern audiences want to do something about them.

—Helen Tamiris

Like many others in the field during the 1930s, Tamiris used the nascent and expansive form of modern dance to create works making political statements. Artists and intellectuals of the 1930s frequently became politicized, particularly in debating the merits of socialism and communism. For many, the political awareness of the era was manifested in an artistic preoccupation with defining America and an American style for a particular art form. Louis Horst, the influential accompanist to many modern dancers "could not understand my insistence upon calling my dances American," wrote Tamiris. "To him it seemed paradoxical and inconsistent that I could speak of an American dance and a Universal dance in the same breath."

This combination, in fact, was exactly what she hoped to achieve. With her Walt Whitman Suite (1934), she showcased the problems facing Chinese laborers and African-Americans in the U.S. and ended with a more abstract plea for unity and peace, again at the forefront of putting African-Americans into such visions of America. From her Negro Spirituals to the multiracial cast of a Broadway revue entitled Inside U.S.A. (1948), she provided an integrated, diverse picture of America well before Jim Crow laws were outlawed in the South.

In 1944, at age 42, Tamiris ended her performing career. Concentrating on choreography, she became well known in the 1940–50s for her work in Broadway musicals. Bringing a modern dancer's sensibility to the meaning of movement (along with Agnes de Mille and Hanya Holm ), she gave a new importance to the role of the choreographer in musicals. Her Broadway work included Annie Get Your Gun (1946), starring Ethel Merman as Annie Oakley , Fanny (1954), Plain and Fancy (1955) and Touch and Go (1949), for which she was awarded a Tony. Unencumbered by standards of art that had caused many modern dancers to disdain Broadway, she choreographed for musicals and demonstrated to actors how to better the rhythmical action of their bodies, and in doing so broadened the impact of dance.

In 1960, Tamiris came back to modern dance more fully, when she formed the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company with her husband Daniel Nagrin, whom she had married in 1946. The company lasted only a few years, as Nagrin and Tamiris separated in January 1964, but the return drew her back to promoting modern dance. She proposed a company similar to the earlier Dance Repertory Theater, but this one, the American Modern Dance Theater, was to be one group made up of leading stars and an ensemble instead of the fractious grouping of different companies. In 1963, she was also outspoken in berating the Ford Foundation for its massive $8 million grant to bolster ballet in the United States, while lending no support to modern dance. Tamiris correctly prophesied the formation of an audience that would provide continued financial security for ballet companies, while modern dance would be forced to struggle for survival and not even begin to attain the popularity and support allotted to ballet.

Tamiris remained involved in raising the status of African-Americans in dance. At a 1964 conference on "Creative Use of Minorities in Theater," she praised dance for the general acceptance of dancers of various ethnic backgrounds across the spectrum of companies, but she also accurately noted the problem that remained: training. African-Americans more typically ended up dancing in a jazz style because they were deprived of the opportunities to learn ballet or modern dance at a young age. In urging people to address this more subtle form of discrimination that relegated African-Americans to only a small selection of roles, her prescient perspective again mirrored trends in American society as a whole.

Dispirited by the tumultuous break with her husband and financially impoverished by medical bills, Tamiris lost her vivacious and defiant spirit in her last months. On August 4, 1966, at age 64, she died of cancer in a nursing home in the Bronx. Fittingly known as the "social conscience" of modern dance, she had added a commitment to social change to the passion of artistry, and left a legacy of moral purpose for other dancers to follow.


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

Obituary, in Dance Magazine. September 1966, p. 6.

Schlundt, Christena L. Tamiris: A Chronicle of Her Dance Career 1927–1955. NY: New York Public Library-Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, 1972.

Tamiris, Helen. "Tamiris in Her Own Voice: Draft of an Autobiography," in Studies in Dance History. Trans., ed. and annotated by Daniel Nagrin. Vol. 1, no. 1. Fall–Winter 1989.

suggested reading:

Jowitt, Deborah. Time and the Dancing Image. NY: William Morrow, 1988.

related media:

Film excerpts of Walt Whitman Suite, Negro Spirituals, Memoir, Women's Song in the Dance Collection, Performing Arts Library, New York Public Library.

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


Correspondence, papers, film clips, photographs in Helen Tamiris Collection, Dance Collection, Performing Arts Library, New York Public Library.

Julia L. Foulkes , University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts