Dance, Modernity and Culture: Explorations in the Sociology by Helen Thomas

By Helen Thomas

By way of interpreting the improvement of contemporary dance within the united states within the inter-war interval, Thomas develops a framework for analysing dance from a sociological standpoint. She applies her method of, between others, St Denis, Ted Shawn, and Martha Graham.

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On an extrinsic level, the dance can be analysed in terms of Graham’s development away from a recital format, with the minimum of theatricality in terms of costume, music and setting, and towards that of an integrated dance theatre. It can also be viewed in terms of the wider concerns of modern dancers at that time to generate a strong American dance culture. Moreover, its thematic concerns resonated with a number of issues that engaged the country during the Depression years of the 1930s. Furthermore, this work is the result of a collaboration between two highly influential figures in the development of American modern dance and American art music, Martha Graham and Aaron Copland.

It is clear, for example, that the Puritans did not succeed in banning social dancing (see Chase 1955, Cole 1942, Kraus and Chapman 1981). There were enough settlers of different social classes and different denominations in the other colonies and in New England who did not view dancing as a moral threat and continued their respective native dance traditions. This was particularly so in the south, where dancing was positively encouraged as an essential part of the education of the élite. The social order of the south was based on a plantation economy involving slave labour imported largely from the west coast of Africa.

Many of these were factory girls who had come from the farms to work in the cities and whose families were too far away to know what they were up to. (Ruyter 1979:8) THEATRICAL DANCE IN AMERICA 37 During the latter half of the nineteenth century the opportunity to study ballet increased, particularly in major cities like New York. Many of the European dancers who came to America to perform stayed on to teach. For example, the Italian dancer, Marie Bonfanti, who was one of the stars of the original production of The Black Crook, settled in New York to teach and included among her pupils were Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis.

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