A ‘hands-on’ choreographer, Helen Tamiris


When I was a dance student, it was perfectly normal to be utterly terrified of certain instructors. But they didn’t often man-handle you. Two generations ago, however, this was not the case. A student of Jack Cole described him banging her head on the ground as she stretched on the floor in second position. Banging away (she remembered it, as “about twenty times”), he told the other pupils, “This is what I want!”

Helen Tamiris (1902-1966) the socially conscious choreographer who changed her birth name of Becker to Tamiris, a “ruthless amazonian queen of Persia who overcame all obstacles” came from the same school, apparently. In the video, she is working with very young dancers and maybe giving verbal instructions was not effective. She may have been overly intense, even bossy. Who knows? Other dancers remember her as a fabulous, funny woman. Lately, in conversations with other critics, I hear her many works honoring African-American culture labeled as “racist.” But these are the times in which we live — unfortunately.

I do like this clip from Tamiris’s “How Long, Brethren” (1937). The work won Dance Magazine’s first award for group choreography. American modern dance concerned itself with inclusion, civil rights and the plight of the African-American since the beginning of the art form. It is one of the main reasons I’m proud to have spent my life devoted to the form.

A portrait of Tamiris dancing “Let My People Go” from “Negro Spirituals” (1928) by the great theatrical photographer Marcus Blechman below.

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