In many ways, modern dance can be viewed as feminist. For one thing, several of the key figures, leaders, and choreographers of modern dance have been women. These key leaders include but are not limited to Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Isadora Duncan. According to Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, men have always dominated classical ballet (Jones 423). When thinking about the big names in ballet, most people have heard of George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, or Mikhail Baryshnikov, but few can recite the names of women dancers. In addition, modern dance has disrupted the rigid restriction of other dance genres with its free movement and non-specific positions that women of all shapes and sizes can perform. As Amelia Jones explains, “Most important, modern dance has transformed the types of movement seen on the stage, abandoning the purity of the line and denial of weight of classical ballet, and introducing angularity, pelvic movement, emphasis on body’s weight and relationship to the ground”(423). Modern dance is certainly feminist in form, because it gives dancers the freedom to move their bodies in ways that are strictly prohibited in many other styles of dance while also allowing for a variety of interpretations and expressive movements.
Stories told through modern dance often strive to convey political messages. Because these stories are often told from a female perspective, women’s experiences and concerns are highlighted. Josie Metal-Corbin, a Physical Education Professor at UNO, argues, “Modern dance allows for and embraces an interpretation of women’s issues” (Interview). Metal-Corbin also describes modern dance as being “of the earth” (Interview). Her explanation of this notion stems from the idea that in modern dance, the dancer is allowed to roll around on the ground with complete and total freedom of expression. In other words, female dancers are not restricted to dance like “ladies.”
Modern dance has embraced multiculturalism as well, encouraging people of all races and ethnicities to learn and perform the dance form in order to tell their stories through artistic expression. African Americans founded some of the most prestigious modern dance companies in the United States, such as the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in New York City. In fact, African Americans and other racial minorities in the U.S. have transformed modern dance. The pictures below were taken in 1988 at an anti-apartheid rally at the Gene Leahy Mall in downtown Omaha. Apartheid was a system of legal racial segregation that was present 1948–1994 in South Africa. Through movements of expression, Omaha dancers protested this unjust government structure, taking place in a different part of the world.
Photographer Jim Williams comments on the first picture: “The rally’s guest speaker was an African diplomat who discussed how neighboring countries were trying to restrain apartheid’s effects. Unfortunately, between his French-tinged accent and the noisy location, almost no one could understand what he said.” However, Mary Waugh Taylor was also part of this event, using modern dance as a way to protest the horrible injustices of apartheid. Williams explains the powerful effect of Taylor’s performance. “Mary’s dance, on the other hand, communicated clearly to everyone.” Williams’s comment shows that often expression through movement can do more than expression through word, especially when communicating across differences.
Modern dance was first pioneered at UNO in 1931 by Ruth Diamond, dance instructor and head of the Women’s Physical Education Program 1931–1942 (Wittman 16). Ruth founded the University’s first advanced dance group in 1935, which she called Orchesis. Orchesis is derived from a Greek word meaning “expressive gesture” (Anderson 111). During Ruth’s years as a dance educator, pioneer, and innovator at UNO, she also established the first-ever Men’s Modern Dance Group, which performed alongside the UNO Orchesis dancers. According to Jack Anderson, author of Art Without Boundaries: The World of Modern Dance, the origins of Orchesis groups in American colleges and universities date back to 1917, when lesser-known dance pioneer Margaret H’Doubler founded the first group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as a university dance club for students interested in studying dance (111). H’Doubler also established the first