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Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance

Janet Mansfield Soares

Publication Year: 2009

Martha Hill (1900-1995) was one of the most influential figures of twentieth century American dance. Her vision and leadership helped to establish dance as a serious area of study at the university level and solidify its position as a legitimate art form. Setting Hill's story in the context of American postwar culture and women's changing status, this riveting biography shows us how Hill led her colleagues in the development of American contemporary dance from the Kellogg School of Physical Education to Bennington College and the American Dance Festival to the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center. She created pivotal opportunities for Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Hanya Holm, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham, and many others. The book provides an intimate look at the struggles and achievements of a woman dedicated to taking dance out of the college gymnasium and into the theatre, drawing on primary sources that were previously unavailable. It is lavishly illustrated with period photographs.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xv

Surprises come at odd moments when writing a biography that shares one’s own history. I knew Martha for forty of her ninetyfour years and became adept at second-guessing what she was going to say. As a student, I studied her every action in admiration—and she knew it. She mentored practically every aspect of my professional life in dance...

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pp. xvii-xx

It is said that dance is the most imperfect of art forms. Also, the most formid able and demanding one: from moment to moment any part of its execution is subject to total collapse. It is this risktaking in dance that ignites audiences and engages the dancer as an artist. Yet this most daring, most temporal, and most sensual of the performing arts thrives in an environment of stern discipline...


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pp. 1-24

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Growing Up in Ohio, 1900–1922

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pp. 3-11

Martha Hill liked to say that on her mother’s side, she came from the same branch of Todds as Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary. Of Scottish and Irish extraction, her mother, Grace Todd, was born and raised in East Palestine, Ohio. Early records, however, show that Grace’s paternal ancestors were Mennonites who left Zurich, Switzerland, because of religious oppression...

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Forging a Career, 1923–1928

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pp. 12-24

In the twenties, friendships among women were not questioned. Romances between women were considered innocent foreplay that did not preclude eventual marriage. The Great War had left campuses man-deprived. Onscreen kisses were chaste while filmmakers drew up contracts with moral clauses and played by the rules of the heartland. “It girl” Clara Bow became the flapper heroine and Parisian Coco Chanel’s silk crepe chemises were copied...


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pp. 25-57

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Dancing with Graham, 1929–1931

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pp. 27-38

Along with Mary Jo and Bessie, savings in hand, Martha did finally venture back to Manhattan the next summer, at the beginning of the major economic depression of 1929. Yet Martha was joyful: “These were exciting times. We were avid to learn anything in any art. We went to concerts and galleries. We taught, talked, and lived dance.” Martha’s range of cultural interests had grown considerably...

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Bennington, 1932–1933

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pp. 39-47

When Barnard College held a dance symposium in February of 1932, it was the first of its kind in the Northeast. Shelly, represent ing Barnard’s neighboring New College, lent academic strength in her guidance of the symposium’s events, and it was there that New York University’s Hill with her group of students first impressed critics and administrators alike. Martha surmised, “We were somewhat revolutionary...

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A Summer School for Dance, 1934

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pp. 48-57

If “everything fell into place in the journey to Bennington for Martha Hill and Mary Jo Shelly, as a posse of two,” as Ben Belitt said, “that place was very chary.” The February 1934 issue of the Bennington College Bulletin stated the new program’s intent (penned by Hill and Shelly): “The Bennington School of the Dance will be initiated during the summer of 1934...


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pp. 59-94

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Panorama, 1935

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pp. 61-76

Martha and Mary Jo continued their campaign to make the Bennington experiment an ongoing success. Their advance letter to potential students for the 1935 session of the School of Dance boasted thirty faculty members with students coming “from every section of the country to share common interests of work and social life.” The school offered very much the same program of study as the summer before...

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Winter, 1936

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pp. 77-87

The idea that female dancers must maintain their independence if they are to have a career in the profession is still prevalent among dancers today. It was a notion that began most dramatically with Isadora Duncan, who had many lovers and bore two children, before marrying poet Sergei Esenin. Accounts indicate that after a bad marriage, Loie Fuller’s intimates were women...

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Summer, 1936

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pp. 88-94

Of the 102 students from twenty-nine different institutions on the 1936 summer roster, 17 percent were returning for the second time. Seven were veterans of all three sessions. In what would be one of the hottest summers of the century, there were 147 “mouths to feed” including the faculty and staff, according to Mary Jo. Graham, Holm, Humphrey, and Weidman taught technique in two-week blocks...


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pp. 95-129

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Immediate Tragedy, 1937

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pp. 97-106

In 1931, the Hill family had returned to the house in Salem built and rented out before they moved to Missouri. “It was a big, nicelooking house,” Bill reminisced, “and it was where I grew up before going off to Case and then Hiram College. Martha wanted me to come to New York City to Pratt for engineering. I wish now that I had.”...

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Culmination of a Plan, 1938

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pp. 107-115

Like Balanchine, who had declared, “But first a school,” Martha saw Bennington’s summer program as central to the future of modern dance. The story of the fifth session, as the “culmination of a plan” is “best told by reciting its highlights.” Shelly wrote, Within the curriculum, two significant changes appeared among other refinements. A change of title from “Workshop Program” to “Professional Program,” meant more than a change of words. Those who met the requirement for any one of the four groups within this program had to satisfy the most stringent demands...

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California and Back, 1939–1940

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pp. 116-129

The 1939 plan to transplant the entire Bennington summer dance operation to Mills College in Berkeley, California, had consumed Martha and Mary Jo’s winter. Besides their brief sojourns, details were mainly worked out long-distance. It presented the kind of challenge that Martha always enjoyed. “Rosalind Cassidy offered us a $20,000 budget,” Martha remembered...


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pp. 131-176

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“The War Effort Hit Us All,” 1941–1942

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pp. 133-145

The effects of war raging in Europe dramatically changed the lives of Americans at home, bringing out the best and the worst in its citizens. The threat of a world war brought about the hoarding of black-market items such as sugar and silk stockings. Heated debates between the isolationists insisting on neutrality and the increasing numbers of Americans believing that war was inevitable escalated with each report of soldiers killed in battle...

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War Years and Recovery, 1943–1947

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pp. 146-158

By 1943, the horrors of war permeated every aspect of life in the United States. The government had transferred more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast to inland detention camps. Despite reports, few believed that the Nazis were gassing thousands of Jews a day in concentration camps. (More were horrified at the news that 487 had died in a fire in Boston’s Coconut Grove nightclub, trapped by doors that opened inward.)...

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An American Dance Festival, 1948

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pp. 159-168

The Summer School for Dance resurfaced at Connecticut College for Women in 1948 with Martha at its helm. The newly configured concert series was now officially named “An American Dance Festival.” Arrangements between the two schools were finally settled upon, with New York University collecting the tuition (leaving Martha responsible for all admissions and Hortie helping with mailing and odd jobs)...

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Changes, 1949–1950

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pp. 169-176

To Martha’s delight, in the winter of 1949, Lefty settled into an apartment of his own at 22 West Twelfth Street and by March landed a job that he relished. As educational director and executive assistant to the president at Town Hall, Inc., Davies handled the operations of the auditorium of the landmark theater on West Forty-third Street. A pioneer institution for adult education and a world-famous concert and lecture hall, its programming had begun to feature events in the field of international understanding...


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pp. 177-205

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Juilliard, 1951–1952

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pp. 179-188

Ready for a new challenge, Martha happily began to design a training ground for dancers at Juilliard. Bennington’s public relations representative (who happened to be Mary Jo) reported Martha’s leave of absence. That fall of 1951, Mary Jo also left Bennington to become a colonel in the Air Force; at this time the services were trying to increase their recruitment of women for the Korean emergency. Although Martha had officially resigned from both Bennington and New York University...

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Marriage, 1952–1955

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pp. 189-196

After a sixteen-year relationship as lovers, Martha and Lefty were married on the evening of 1 October 1952. One month after Lefty was finally granted a divorce, the ceremony took place in the Phil - a del phia home of Lefty’s sister and his brother-in-law, Dr. Robert Gearhart, a Presbyterian minister...

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Plans for Lincoln Square, 1955–1956

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pp. 197-205

The American dance scene of the 1950s faced a critical moment with the beginning of public and private support for the art form. The proposal of the Lincoln Center complex—America’s first major cultural center—and the choices made during this decade would influence the direction of dance for years to come. Throughout, Martha played a significant role in positioning dance at Juilliard and in the arts...


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pp. 207-227

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Time Away, 1958

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pp. 209-218

Personal letters from Martha were always handwritten and brief, basically a whereabouts report. Her correspondence to family and friends was usually limited to postcards from her travels. A letter meant the inclusion of genuine news, as in one addressed to José at his new living quarters in the Hotel Ruxton, 50 West Seventy-second Street. “You probably saw the newspaper announcement of the ANTA meeting...

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Brussels Respite, 1959

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pp. 219-227

Back home, Martha was quickly immersed in the battle for modern dance representation at Lincoln Center. Planning sessions were ongoing for Manhattan’s new arts center at Lincoln Square as President Dwight D. Eisenhower, shovel in hand, “broke ground” at an official ceremony on 14 May 1959. Tudor had joined Martha in discussions with the Juilliard architects, asking for the “elimination of uniformity” for the dance studios, which should be equipped with state-of-the-art audio...


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pp. 229-267

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Students and Master Teachers, 1960–1961

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pp. 231-238

Although lively discussions among Juilliard’s faculty members were generally confined to dining-room conversations, strong opin ions sometimes surfaced at end-of-the-year jury examinations. It was a time when the entire dance faculty came together for two to three days at hourly wages to evaluate each student’s progress. Of course, a faculty made up primarily of artists presented its own difficulties: José once qualified his admiration of a student’s study with the comment...

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Standing Firm, 1962–1965

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pp. 239-247

Throughout this period, Martha received weekly reports on the latest developments from Bill Schuman, warning of trouble ahead. Lowry was at work giving “new legitimacy” to dance by wholeheartedly advocating Balanchine’s New York City Ballet model. Although Graham, Hill, Horst, Limón, and Tudor remained in tight communication over the controversy, all avoided making any public statements...

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Contrasts and Conflicts, 1965–1968

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pp. 248-257

While a monolithic headquarters for the arts was being built at Lincoln Center, a counterculture was rapidly surfacing. Don McDonagh later wrote in his book The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance, “If anything has characterized the dance revolution of the 1960’s, it has been freedom—the freedom to move in new and unaccustomed ways in places...

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“Good Guys vs. Bad Guys,” 1968–1969

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pp. 258-267

By now it was public knowledge that dance at Juilliard was in trouble. Preparing for the worst-case scenario, Martha called a faculty meeting to express her fear that the department’s demise seemed imminent. The continuation of their work at Juilliard had been a yearto- year proposition, and now she encouraged each to consider other teaching offers. Not one left...


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Juilliard at Lincoln Center, 1970–1972

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pp. 271-279

Lincoln Center celebrated its official opening in January 1970 with festive nationally televised programs. The event also marked the beginning of a decade of remarkable growth for both ballet and modern dance companies and their audiences. Funding from the NEA bolstered touring opportunities: residencies for visiting choreographers formed new alliances with regional companies. Although the surroundings of the new Juilliard Dance Division were dramatically different from the old location...

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An Even Keel, 1973–1978

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pp. 280-289

Performances by the Juilliard Dance Ensemble in the school’s theater were now annual events anticipated by New York critics. With limited resources for commissions (a grim reminder of Mennin’s stifling hold), programs now relied on choreography by “in-house” faculty members, adding hours to their fixed teaching and coaching responsibilities...

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Matriarch, 1979–1984

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pp. 290-300

In a move to pursue dance styles beyond those of Limón and Graham, Martha hired Hanya Holm, by now a legend not only as Wigman’s leading proponent and one of the “big four,” but as an important musical theater choreographer. Hanya, at the remarkable age of eighty-six, demanded that the dancers “want something” and take “responsibility...

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Last Years, 1985–1995

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pp. 301-312

Throughout the international community, dance institutions were coming into being. Martha was a popular and enthusiastic source of professional advice. As an adviser sponsored by Arts America, an organization in Washington, D.C., Martha had helped Carl Wolz secure funding to help develop the Hong Kong Academy of the Arts, and agreed to serve as an outside examiner. Her first extended visit to Hong Kong...

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pp. 313-314

Today, dance as a separate but equal art form enjoys the ac cep - tance of the government, press, and public in the United States. It is this book’s thesis that a great deal of credit for this goes to the Herculean efforts of Martha Hill and her twentieth-century colleagues. If other cultures had long revered dance throughout their history, American culture had not...

Appendix: Works Produced during Martha Hill’s Tenure as Director at Bennington, Connecticut College/ADF, and Juilliard

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pp. 315-326


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pp. 327-328


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pp. 329-371

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 373-375


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pp. 377-400

E-ISBN-13: 9780819569745
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819568991

Page Count: 440
Publication Year: 2009

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Subject Headings

  • Hill, Martha, 1900-1995.
  • Dance teachers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Dance -- Study and teaching (Higher) -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Modern dance -- United States -- History.
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