Twentieth-century American choreographers found inspiration in the expansive landscape of folk culture that included ballads, hymns, spirituals, and the rituals of Native American and African diaspora peoples. They built dances based on the bedrock of America, a nation founded on principles of revolution, protest, reform, and freedom of expression.

Believing in the power of American political reform, dancers protested social injustices between the world wars. During the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, under which was founded the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). The FTP included a dance unit that became a stand-alone project in 1936. Although the FTP was terminated in 1939, this was the first time the United States government had provided direct funding for the arts.

Ted Shawn's Invocation to the Thunderbird

Dancer and choreographer Ted Shawn (1891–1972), an early pioneer of modern dance, wrote about American dance: “Its organization will be democratic, its fundamental principles freedom and progress.” Shawn found inspiration in indigenous dance rites and created numerous dances based on his interpretations, including Invocation to the Thunderbird (1921); The Feather of the Dawn (1923); Zuni Ghost Dance (1931); and Hopi Indian Eagle Dance (1934).

Robertson, photographer. Ted Shawn in his work Invocation to the Thunderbird, 1931. Courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Massachusetts (001.00.00)

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Lester Horton's Pueblo Eagle Dance

California dancer and choreographer, Lester Horton (1906–1953) choreographed works centered on rituals of native peoples in the U.S. and Mexico. He noted: “If dancers would only make an effort, to preserve this beauty which exists literally at our back doors, something magnificent might be born. A dance can be built upon these art forms that would be truly representative of this great country, something new and fundamental.” Horton and Ted Shawn responded to the admiration for the eagle. Frequently performed to guarantee good hunting, these dances portrayed the bird as noble, beautiful, and strong.

Toyo Miyatake, photographer. Lester Horton in his 1929 work Pueblo Eagle Dance, ca. 1929. Larry Warren Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)

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Martha Graham and the American Southwest

Martha Graham (1894–1991) used a modernist lens to construct her new American dance form. She created Primitive Mysteries (1931) after visiting the Southwest, where she studied the practices of Native Americans, who blended indigenous rites with Catholicism introduced by Spanish missionaries. The work premiered during a Broadway concert series that included Doris Humphrey’s (1895–1958) Americana work, The Shakers (1931).

Martha Graham and Group in her work Primitive Mysteries, ca. 1931. Martha Graham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (003.00.00)

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Blues Traditions in Jane Dudley’s Harmonica Breakdown

During the Depression, choreographers often employed American folk traditions to express the concerns of “the common man.” Jane Dudley (1912–2001) created Harmonica Breakdown (1938), set to the blues of Sonny Terry (1911–1986). The work addressed the plight of African American sharecroppers. “I think of it as a dance of misery—and defiance rising out of it.”

Barbara Morgan. Contact sheet of Jane Dudley in her work Harmonica Breakdown, 1938. New Dance Group Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00) © Barbara Morgan, The Barbara Morgan Archive

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American Folk Traditions in Sophie Maslow’s Folksay

Sophie Maslow (1911–2006) choreographed Folksay (1942), based on verses from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes and accompanied by ballads composed by singer-songwriter Woodie Guthrie (1912–1967). Guthrie accompanied the dancers on stage with a guitar signed, “This guitar Kills Fascists,” to protest the political threat in Europe during WWII.

David Linton, photographer. Sophie Maslow and William Bales in “Sweet Betsy” from Maslow’s work Folksay, 1942. New Dance Group Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)

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Asadata Dafora Explores African Diaspora

Sierra Leone-born musician, dancer, and choreographer Asadata Dafora (1890–1965) explored dance within the experience of the African diaspora. A New York Herald Tribune review of A Tale of Old Africa (1946) noted that the performance “not only provided memories for those who knew the rich continent and its richly gifted peoples, but it also provided others with a glimpse of a culture alien to some of us but worthy of our interest and our fostering.”

Walter E. Owen, photographer. Asadata Dafora and Bernice Samiels in Dafora’s work A Tale of Old Africa, 1946. New Dance Group Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)

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Caribbean Culture Inspires Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham (1909–2006) studied the African-based dances and rituals of the Caribbean area and based many choreographic works on that research. Dunham’s Bal Negre (1946) toured the United States for nine months before opening in New York. One of its most popular numbers was Shango (1946), based on Haitian vodun (voodoo) ritual.

Jack Mitchell, photographer. April Berry in Katherine Dunham’s work Shango from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 1987 “The Magic of Katherine Dunham,” ca. 1987. Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (008.00.00) Photo © Jack Mitchell

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Alvin Ailey Finds Inspiration in American Spirituals

Alvin Ailey (1931–1989), who studied with both Sophie Maslow and Lester Horton, set his Revelations (1960) to spirituals. He stated: “Revelations began with the music. As early as I can remember I was enthralled by the music played and sung in the small black churches in every small Texas town my mother and I lived in. There we would absorb some of the most glorious singing to be heard anywhere in the world.”

Marc Enguerand, photographer. Judith Jamison (center) and members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ailey’s Revelations, 1974. Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00)

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Dance and the Works Project Administration

The stock market crash of 1929 resulted in the Great Depression, creating rampant unemployment and poverty. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal included the Works Progress Administration that led to the establishment of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in 1935. Many of the radical dancers, who came to believe in reform rather than revolution, joined the government projects that sought economic change. One of the earliest productions of the FTP was The Eternal Prodigal (1936) with choreography by Gluck Sandor (1899–1978).

Poster for The Eternal Prodigal, 1936. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (010.00.00)

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Helen Tamiris and How Long Brethren

In her signature work How Long Brethren (1937), a production of the Federal Theatre Project, Helen Tamiris (1905–1966) exposed poverty, injustice, and the hopelessness of unemployed Southern black workers. It was performed to Lawrence Gellert’s “Negro Songs of Protest,” sung by an African American chorus and accompanied by a full orchestra. Dance Observer noted: “It is Tamiris at her best, Tamiris turned back to her jazz rhythms—richer for all her long work with themes of basic social input.” How Long Brethren ran for forty-two performances and won the 1937 award from Dance Magazine for the best group choreography.

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  • James Cochrane. Costume design for Helen Tamiris’s 1937 How Long Brethren, ca. 1937. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (011.00.00)

  • Helen Tamiris (center), Augusta Gassner, Dvo Seron, Ailes Gilmour, Marion Appell, and Lulu Morris in Tamiris’s How Long Brethren. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (012.00.00)

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Katherine Dunham’s L’Ag’Ya

Katherine Dunham produced her first full-length ballet, L’Ag’Ya (1938) in Chicago under FTP sponsorship. Dunham based L’Ag’Ya on a fable of love, jealousy, and revenge. The work combined ballet, modern dance, and traditional folk and social dance forms and culminated with the ag’ya, a fighting dance of Martinique. In 1938, she was named director of the Negro Unit of Chicago.

Swisher Studio. “Zombies Dance” from Katherine Dunham’s work L’Ag’Ya, 1938. Federal Theatre Project Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)

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