Doris Humphrey was an early twentieth century dancer and choreographer, hailed as one of the first modern dance choreographers who played a pivotal role in shaping the course of modern dance in the United States. She was a contemporary of the famous choreographer Martha Graham, and had also worked with the highly acclaimed dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. What set Humphrey apart from other pioneering choreographers of her time was the fact that she, as an early abstractionist, represented the principle of "fall and recovery" by exploring the nuances of the human body's responses to gravity. Her rise to glory as one of America’s topmost choreographers of the twentieth century seemed to be destined from her childhood when even as a young girl she displayed great poise and grace. Her parents ensured that she received training in several dance forms including the ballet. Being trained under great teachers like Ottokar Bartik and Serge Oukrainsky helped her polish her inherent skills and shaped her into a highly talented and intuitive dancer. Even though she always wanted to be a professional dancer, she had to put this dream on hold due to financial reasons. Eventually she did realize her dreams and not only did she become a professional dancer but also a world-renowned choreographer revolutionizing the modern dance movement.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born on October 17, 1895, in Illinois, as the daughter of Horace Buckingham Humphrey, a journalist cum photographer, and Julia Ellen Wells, a trained concert pianist. Doris was a graceful child who displayed an interest in dance from an early age.
She attended the Francis Parker School in Chicago, from kindergarten to high school. Recognizing her daughter’s interest, her mother arranged for her to receive dancing lessons from famous ballet masters.
At school she learned dance from Mary Wood Hinman who she cited as a great source of inspiration. She undertook a concert tour of the western states as a dancer while still at high school, in a group sponsored by the Santa Fe Railroad for its Workman’s Clubs.
She realized that her true passion was to pursue dance as a career and dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. Her dreams, however, would have to wait because of financial problems.
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She opened her own dance school in 1913 when she was just 18 years old. Her mother served as the manager and pianist. Even though she would have loved to further her training in dance, the circumstances forced her to start earning a living.
In spite of her young age, she ably ran the school and soon it was a big success. She offered training in classic, gymnastic and ballroom dance for children and young adults.
She kept in touch with her mentor from high school, Mary Wood Hinman, who advised her to join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts. Thus the young girl moved to California in 1917 and entered the reputed dance school where she studied, performed and learned choreography.
She had joined the school as a student but because of her brilliance was soon appointed a dancer in the company. She rose to become the company’s leading soloist, and St. Denis, one of the school’s founders, influenced her as a dancer and choreographer.
She began doing choreography work with St. Denis by 1920 and among her earliest works was ‘Soaring’, set to the music of Robert Schumann.
With time Humphrey was becoming more experimental in her approach and this did not go well with Denishawn. By emphasizing on self-expression and ensemble pieces, she moved further away from the principles of the Denishawn School.
However, she continued with Denishawn and toured Asia in 1925-26. She was later put in charge of the New York City-based Denishawn House along with Charles Weidman, another Denishawn dancer.
Humphrey and Weidman eventually left Denishawn to form their own school and company in 1928. Collaborating with another dancer, Pauline Lawrence, the duo founded Humphrey-Weidman.
The company became very successful and thrived even during the Great Depression and received funding from the Federal Theatre Project of the Works Progress Administration.
The company toured all over America and developed new styles, thanks to Humphrey’s innovative skills and imagery. She developed new works based on current events which was received very positively by the audiences.
She created the ‘New Dance Trilogy’ which included ‘With My Red Fires’, ‘New Dance’ and ‘Theater Piece’ in the 1930s. Humphrey and Weidman pioneered the concept called ‘modern dance’, a radical dance form that was open to innovations and addressed contemporary concerns.
She retired from performing in 1945 due to arthritis and took up the position of artistic director for the Jose Limon Dance Company, and continued her career as a successful choreographer. Her later works include ‘Day on Earth’, ‘Night Spell’ and ‘Ruins and Visions’.
Awards & Achievements
She was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987.
Personal Life & Legacy
She married merchant seaman Charles Francis Woodford in June 1932. The couple had one son, Charles Humphrey Woodford.
During her later years she developed arthritis in her hip which became increasingly severe with time. She also suffered from arthritic seizures. She died of cancer on December 29, 1958.