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In response to the 1917 Russian Revolution, dancers began choreographing works that celebrated the new Marxist state led by Vladimir Lenin. Although many were politically naïve, these artists supported the Soviet Union’s communist “experiment.” In the same year, the United States entered World War I.

The lack of U.S. government action to address social and economic hardships during the early years of the Great Depression, and circulating communist propaganda that promised radical change and success for Americans, compelled a number of artists to join the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA). Others became “fellow travelers,” a term used for those who believed in Marxist principles, but did not join the Party.

As early as 1934, seven years before the U.S. entered World War II, these fellow-traveling choreographers protested the rise of fascism and the Nazi Party in Germany. After the Soviet Union agreed to a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, most dancers withdrew their support for communism, although they retained their beliefs in economic equality, the rights of workers, and racial justice.

Supporting the Russian Revolution

Isadora Duncan (1877–1927), an American-born dancer and expressionist choreographer, became a fervent supporter of the 1917 Russian Revolution. To celebrate the fourth anniversary of the Revolution, Duncan and 100 of her students performed her work Internationale (1921), set to the Communist anthem, in Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater with Communist leader Vladimir Lenin in attendance.

Arnold Genthe, photographer. Isadora Duncan, between 1916 and 1918. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (015.00.00)

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Edith Segal and the Red Dancers

In 1930, Edith Segal (1902–1997) traveled to Soviet Russia alongside a group of American artists. When the group returned to the United States they declared, “Art is a Weapon.” Segal was committed to leftist ideals, including racial equality, as represented in her work Black and White (1930). Segal had formed her company, the Red Dancers, by 1929 and in 1933, the Red Dancers joined with other dance groups, including the New Dance Group and the dance company of Anna Sokolow (1910–2000) under the slogan, “Dance is a Weapon.”

Edith Segal (center) with the Red Dancers in a rehearsal for a memorial to Lenin, ca. 1928. Courtesy of Paul C. Mishler. Victoria Phillips Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (016.00.00)

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The New Dance Group

In 1932, the New Dance Group (NDG) was founded “for the purpose of developing and creating group and mass dances expressive of the working class and its revolutionary upsurge.” The NDG performed at rallies and marched during protests. Ten-cent classes for workers included lessons in technique and improvisation, as well as Marxist political discussion. The choreographic collective supported revolutionary ideals with works such as Strike, Hunger, and Parasite.

Members of the New Dance Group in Improvisation, 1932. New Dance Group Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (017.00.00)

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The Dance Unit

Anna Sokolow’s company, the Dance Unit, performed repertory reflecting her social concerns. She created Homage to Lenin (1933), and in 1934, she was invited with her partner, composer Alex North (1910–1991), to visit the Soviet Union. Disillusioned, she wrote, “It was provoking to find that in a country with the most advanced political ideas in the world, the most modern experimental theatre, with unsurpassed cinema, they still cling so tenaciously to this [balletic] dance form.”

Anna Sokolow and Alex North in Russia, ca. 1934. Larry Warren Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00)

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Two Songs About Lenin

Although musician Alex North returned to the United States from his visit to the Soviet Union discouraged by its musical formalism, he brought back the film, Three Songs About Lenin, which celebrated the accomplishments of the USSR and Lenin. Sophie Maslow (1916–2001), an active member of the New Dance Group who believed that dance must serve as a vehicle for social change, used this film as inspiration for her solo work that was performed as both Three Songs About Lenin and Two Songs About Lenin.

Sophie Maslow in her work Two Songs about Lenin, ca. 1934. Sophie Maslow Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)

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Jane Dudley and the New Dance Group

Jane Dudley (1916–2001) led a choreographic collective at the New Dance Group and created Strike, which described the triumph of the worker over the factory owner and financier. Her political beliefs led her to join the Communist Party in its celebration of Lenin and support of Soviet youth movements.

Jane Dudley in her work Song for a Soviet Youth Day, ca. 1937. New Dance Group Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (020.01.00)

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Choreographers Protest Against Nazism

In August 1939, the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. As a result, most dancers split with the Communist Party. However, they continued to demand the eradication of injustices in the U.S. and as the Nazi threat loomed larger, they used their choreography to assert their passionate resistance to fascism. Choreographers who protested the rise of Nazi Germany included Lester Horton, who choreographed The Dictator (1933), and Jane Dudley, who created Under the Swastika (1937).

Jane Dudley in her work Under the Swastika, ca. 1937. New Dance Group Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (023.01.00)

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Van der Lubbe's Head

In February 1933, the German Reichstag (parliament building) was set on fire and the newly elected chancellor, Adolph Hitler, blamed the Communists. The Nazis arrested and beheaded by guillotine Marinus van der Lubbe for the crime in 1934. To protest the execution of van der Lubbe, the New Dance Group collective choreographed Van der Lubbe’s Head (1934). The work was lauded for artistry by New York Times critic John Martin and won first place in the 1934 Spartarkiade, an annual choreography competition modeled on the Soviet system and sponsored by the Worker’s Dance League.

Alfredo Valente, photographer. The New Dance Group performs the collective choreography Van der Lubbe’s Head, 1934. Muriel Manings and William Korff Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)

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Martha Graham Declines 1936 Olympics Festival

Nazi Olympic officials invited Martha Graham to participate in the Berlin 1936 Summer Olympic Games festival. Graham wrote: “I would find it impossible to dance in Germany at the present time. So many artists whom I respect and admire have been persecuted, have been deprived of their right to work, and for such unsatisfactory and ridiculous reasons, that I should consider it impossible to identify myself, by accepting the invitation, with the regime that has made such things possible.”

Invitation to Graham from the Third Reich to participate in the 1936 Summer Olympic Games. Martha Graham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (022.00.00)

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Warsaw Ghetto

Lester Horton and Anna Sokolow responded to the November 1940 Nazi closure of the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world. The ghetto housed more than 400,000 Polish Jews and in 1942 thousands of its residents were deported to Treblinka. In January 1943, the remaining people began an armed resistance but in mid-April, the Nazis sent in several thousand troops. One month later, the Warsaw Ghetto had been leveled, resulting in the deaths or extradition to Treblinka of more than 56,000 people. Lester Horton addressed these wartime Holocaust horrors in his production Warsaw Ghetto.

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  • Kenneth Finch, costume designer. Costume design for Lester Horton’s work Warsaw Ghetto, 1949. Lester Horton Dance Theater Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00)

  • Constantine Photos. Bella Lewitzky (left) and Sondra Orans in Lester Horton’s work Warsaw Ghetto, 1949. Lester Horton Dance Theater Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)

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