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Doris Humphrey Educational Spotlight

As one of the most profound choreographers of her generation, preserving Humphrey's choreography and technique is vital to RDT's mission.

About Doris Humphrey

doris HDoris Humphrey was born in 1895 in Illinois in a suburb of Chicago. Her early dance training was comprised of ballet, ballroom, Delsarte, and Dalcrose’s Eurythmic System. At a young age, Humphrey opened her own dance studio for children, teaching social and classical forms of dance, with her mother supervising the business side of the endeavor. Seeking more challenging dance experiences, Humphrey moved to California where she entered the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in 1917. At the Denishawn school, she trained, performed, taught, and created works under the direction of modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. It was here that she created one of her most iconic pieces of choreography, Soaring, featuring a dramatically large white silk scarf and 5 female dancers.

094 dorisnewdance 226x300In 1928 Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, a fellow dancer and choreographer from the Denishawn School, moved to New York City to pursue their own style of dance, moving away from the romanticism and decadence of the Denishawn style and creating a new way of moving, a “modern” dance form. It was in New York City that they founded together the Humphrey-Weidman School/Training facility and Dance Company. Humphrey’s development of her own principles of movement began with an oppositional theory centered around the body’s relationship to gravity, which is often referred to as “fall and recovery”. She called this idea “the arc between two deaths”. At one end of the spectrum, a dancer surrenders completely to gravity. On the other end, a dancer resists gravity seeking balance. Also explored was how dancers’ use of breath helped to facilitate movement choices and illustrated different movement qualities. Her movement vocabulary became known for highlighting the body’s natural rise and fall connected to breath, resulting in thrilling choreographic climaxes of suspension and release.

1 jose limon 1908 1972 modern dancer everettThe Humphrey-Weidman Dance Company featured several of the most prolific dancers of that generation, notably a Mexican American immigrant named José Limón. With the onset of World War II and her worsening arthritis, Humphrey and Weidman disbanded their company in the 1940’s. In 1946, Jose Limón began his own company, featuring his choreography, and he invited Humphrey to be his Artistic Director, making it the first American dance company to have an Artistic Director that differed from its founder. With the José Limón Dance Company, Humphrey further explored her movement theories and continued to choreograph. Even today, the Limón Company carries on her legacy of movement in relation to breath and gravity.

In addition to being a renowned choreographer, Humphrey was also a prolific educator and was on the faculty of Bennington College and The Julliard School, as well as many other schools and festivals. Her book The Art of Making Dances, written in 1958, and published shortly before her death, is still widely used in composition classes today.

Over the past 58 years, RDT has acquired and performed numerous pieces of Humphrey’s choreography. As one of the most profound choreographers of her generation, preserving Humphrey’s choreography and technique is vital to RDT’s mission. The following pieces are a part of RDT’s historical dance library. How many pieces have you seen? Which one was your favorite?

  • Soaring (1920)
  • The Shakers (1930)
  • Two Ecstatic Themes (1931)
  • Variations and Conclusion from New Dance (1935)
  • Day on Earth (1947)
  • Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (1938)
  • Invention (1949)
  • With My Red Fires (1936)
  • Night Spell (1952)
  • Fantasy and Fugue (1952)
  • Ritmo Jondo (1953)
  • Water Study (1928)
  • Invention (1949)

Humphrey Educational Spotlight Video

Humphrey Related Lesson Plans


What People are Saying

The diversity of the dancers really spoke to my students! It was great to see boys and girls dancing, and different races. The high level of engagement was so refreshing and got students excited about thecontent.
This activity was valuable because it helped students make connections between dance, rhythm, healthy lifestyles, and expression. The students were impressed by the talent of the dancers and it was motivating to them.
Opportunities for art and expression are so limited at school but so essential and valuable for all students, especially those who struggle to learn through traditional methods. My Kindergarteners have been dancing since you left!
This was so engaging. I looked around the auditorium and every student was watching. Not one person was talking or distracted
This activity is valuable to teachers and students because it gives them a creative outlet. We need movement in the classroom to engage, energize and deepen student learning.
I got great ideas on how to incorporate movement into math and science lessons.
I loved how you made movement and exercise relatable to the students. The dancers were full of energy and there was very little down time so students stayed engaged.
Our children were captivated by the performance. They listened to you and they were learning without knowing. They usually giggle when bodies are shown and talked about. But the way you presented it was so tastefully done, they now do poses and movement around the room and outside. You brokesome barriers and they took that permission and literally ran with it!