Profile By: Angelika Walker
Ruth Diamond danced her way into Omaha in 1931, knocking down barriers and disrupting gender norms as she pioneered, introduced, and established modern dance as an art form and area of study at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and across the Midwest. Besides her groundbreaking innovations in dance education, Ruth served as head of the Women’s Physical Education Program at UNO until 1942.
Graduating from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL) in 1931 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education, Ruth held an interest in all sports, but she was particularly passionate about dance (Wittman 9). It was this passion for dance that carried her to the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), formerly Omaha University, in the capacity of innovator, dance instructor, and head of the Women’s Physical Education Program. William E. Sealock, President of Omaha University from 1931 –1935, hired Ruth in the fall of 1931 (Thompson 56). In the years that followed, Ruth became one of the most important figures in Omaha’s art culture, impacting not only a town and a school, but also dance education in the Midwest.
In 1932, Omaha citizens voted for Omaha University to become a municipal university, funded by local tax revenues (Pollak and Valentine 31). This transition to a publicly funded institution proved to be a massive undertaking; the University was required to undergo “reorganization, the infusion of faculty with terminal academic degrees, the attrition of less-qualified faculty, the dedication to improve library facilities, the application for federal assistance, and the search for a new location…” (31). Ruth came to UNO as part of this immense transition, replacing her poorly-qualified predecessor who lacked the necessary academic credentials in dance or physical education that were required for the transition from Omaha University to a publicly funded municipal university (Wittman 16).
By the end of the 1920s, dance was becoming so popular that it was no longer limited to New York audiences. A woman by the name of Margaret H’Doubler from the University of Wisconsin received training in New York under notable dancers of the time, and, in 1917, she carried her knowledge and expertise back to the Northern Midwest. Returning to the University of Wisconsin, H’Doubler established a college-level dance education system and founded the first Orchesis group, a dance group for advanced students that would grow to have chapters in universities all over America (Anderson 111), including UNL and, eventually, UNO. Beatrice Richardson, Ruth’s earliest formal dance instructor at UNL, used the H’Doubler system for dance education and was largely influenced by the theory and technique of H’Doubler. Consequently, Ruth was trained in modern dance according to the H’Doubler
Ruth continued her education in dance throughout her teaching career, eventually earning a master’s degree in physical education from Columbia University Teachers College in January of 1934 (Wittman 35). Looking for new creative inspiration, she also studied at Vermont’s Bennington College in 1936 in a special six-week modern dance course. Ruth states, “… if I were to continue teaching what I call modern dance and if I were to continue doing programs as I had started, then I’d have to know more about it… it was a very beneficial summer and I learned a great deal… I had firsthand experience… with the real artists” (qtd. in Wittman 63). She was instructed at Bennington by her idols, who she refers to as “the real artists”—Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman (63). After her studies at Bennington under these famous dancers,
Although Ruth’s dance education courses were grudgingly tolerated her first year at UNO, as her reputation as an excellent instructor grew, so did her reputation within Omaha and the Midwest as a dance pioneer. Former student Adeline Speckter admiringly remarks, “Ruth was an excellent teacher—clear, disciplined and disciplining. I guess she was the prototype of the young, eager, committed teacher” (qtd. in Wittman 33). Ruth was eager for her students not only to enjoy what they were doing but also to understand what kind of political, social, and cultural change they were affecting in Omaha. The interest in dance education in Omaha only increased during Ruth’s years at UNO, as evidenced by the growing number of participants, performances, and audience members each year (42–43). Ruth’s dancers were often front-page news in The Gateway. Tommy Thompson, author of A History of The
After breaking tremendous ground in Omaha with her advanced women’s dance group, Orchesis, Ruth continued her pioneering in the field of modern dance and disrupted traditional gender roles with her establishment of the first men’s dance course and group at UNO in September of 1939 (75). Community response to the men’s group was widely varied; many resisted the idea of men engaging in an activity that was traditionally associated with femininity and worried that modern dance had gone too far (75). Ruth, supported by faculty men and women, persisted in her efforts, and thirteen male students signed up for the first course: “They danced in bathing trunks and wore no shoes. And they received full physical education credit, as they would have done for any other sport” (75).
Ruth had tremendous success in spreading the appreciation of dance as an art form and introducing interpretive modern dance to UNO, Omaha, and the larger Midwest community. In addition to her passionate teachings and performances, Ruth further grew the appreciation of dance as an art form by bringing renowned dance companies and troupes to Omaha such as Martha Graham in 1935 and the Humphrey-Weidman Company in 1938 (60). Such performances were the talk of the campus, as evidenced by the front-page announcement in The Gateway for the Humphrey-Weidman performance:
In the midst of World War II, many of Ruth’s students and colleagues were leaving to enlist or volunteer for the war effort. At the age of 31, Ruth left UNO as well to answer her country’s call to service as a Red Cross overseas volunteer (Pollak and Valentine 45). She acted as Assistant Program Director at a Red Cross recreation club in Bournemouth, England, greeting and welcoming soldiers upon their arrival and supervising recreational activities (Mooney). To learn more about Ruth’s service as a Red Cross volunteer during WWII and the history of her G.I. Josephine outfit see the Nebraska State Historical Society article “G.I. Josephine”.
Although proud to serve her country, Ruth felt homesick during her time abroad and often wrote home to her students; her letters were frequently reprinted in the UNO Gateway feature titled The War and
Ruth held a number of administrative roles and positions during her years at UNO and after her return from World War II. Ruth served as Member-at-Large of the National Legislative Board of the Dance Section of the American Association for Health and Physical Education in 1937 and State Representative to the National Section of Women’s Athletics in 1949. She participated in the Central District Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation as well as in the national association. For the Central District Association, she served as Section Chairman of Women’s Athletics 1934–1935 and as Section Chairman of Dancing 1935–1936. She was active in the Nebraska Physical Education Association, serving as president 1937–1939 and as President of the Central Association of Physical Education for College Women in 1938 (54-55). These positions often allowed Ruth to secure performing opportunities for her students,