Off-campus UMass Amherst users: To download dissertations, please use the following link to log into our proxy server with your UMass Amherst user name and password.

Non-UMass Amherst users, please click the view more button below to purchase a copy of this dissertation from Proquest.

(Some titles may also be available free of charge in our Open Access Dissertation Collection, so please check there first.)

Dancing America: Modern dance and cultural nationalism, 1925-1950

Julia Lawrence Foulkes, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In 1930, the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham proclaimed the arrival of "dance as an art of and from America." Doris Humphrey, Ted Shawn, Katherine Dunham, and Helen Tamiris joined Graham in shaping a new art form: modern dance. Confrontational and experimental, modern dancers questioned their own roles in society, the role of art in America, and the place of America in the world. This dissertation is about how modern dance developed in the midst of debates about national identity. In the wave of cultural nationalism of the 1930s, modern dancers attacked ballet because of its elitist roots in European courts. Influenced by communist and socialist politics, they danced in bare feet, with unadorned costumes, and privileged individual expression and portrayals of abstract concepts over fairytale narratives and escapist entertainment. White women (many of whom were Jewish), gay men, and some African American men and women populated modern dance. Separate chapters explore how each of these groups negotiated what it meant to be an American through dance. Challenges to gender, sexual, racial, and class norms coalesced in idealized visions of American democracy and pluralism such as Graham's 1938 "American Document." Dancing American heretics, pioneers, and workers toppled corps of European swans, sylphs, and snowflakes. The convergence of these marginalized groups in modern dance demonstrates the critical role that social identities played in this movement of cultural nationalism. Modern dancers found in dance the medium through which they could explore what set them apart from the white male so often depicted as the consummate expression of American individualism: their bodies. The case of modern dance highlights the interplay of different identities--as women, Jews, or African Americans--that undercut a unified national identity. In this art form that attracted physically distinct groups of people, those distinctions, particularly of race, fractured ideas of a national culture. In the wake of World War II, Merce Cunningham led a new phase of modern dance that rejected nationalist themes and social purpose. In dancing America, modern dancers exposed the physical and social dimensions of nationalist beliefs in 1930s and 1940s American society.

Subject Area

American history|Womens studies|Dance

Recommended Citation

Foulkes, Julia Lawrence, "Dancing America: Modern dance and cultural nationalism, 1925-1950" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9721448.