‘The Revolutionary Dance Movement’ by Edna Ocko from New Masses. Vol. 11 No. 11. June 12, 1934.
THE DANCE, because it immediately establishes rapport between audience and performer, is a remarkably flexible vehicle for the conveyance of revolutionary ideas. It concretizes a situation more graphically than music, with more mobility than painting, and at times, with more poetic beauty than the drama. Ideally, as the film, it is a projector of movement-forms into space and time; its focal point, however, instead of being the externalization of an idea or sequence of ideas (viz. drama, film), is the depiction of kinesthetically-realized emotional states. In the revolutionary dance, these emotional crystallizations, apart from technical considerations, must be compounded of not only “sympathy” for the working-class movement, but a thorough intellectual grasp of Marxian dialectics as well. Our true revolutionary dancers cannot be those who from time to time include on their programs numbers possessing vague “revolutionary” titles or still vaguer “revolutionary” ideas; as yet they pay only body service to the movement, and a perfunctory one at that. Working-class ideology, no matter how thinly sketched, cannot be a superficial integument slipped on to any skeleton of a dance technic, nor can it be an innovation in movement imposed on to an idea that becomes revolutionary by annotation.
The revolutionary dance can emerge only after the significant (revolutionary) emotion and the mode of expression have moved together for so long a time and have interpenetrated the composition to such an extent that the very movement of the dancers has revolutionary implications and the very idea arises not from casual inspiration, but from a living with and a thinking for the proletariat. It must be so subtle a welding together of manner and matter, of emotional content and dynamic ideational form, that it can, at its best and greatest agitational heights, commandeer revolutionary mass feelings of the profoundest and most stirring sort, and project proletarian ideas of vast implications on the one hand, or specific everyday class issues on the other. And it is beginning to do so. More and more is it becoming part of the daily cultural education of the working-class, more and more is it entering the theatre as vaudeville ally of the drama (vide: Newsboy, prize-winner at Theatre Competition), more and more is it assuming through performance on the concert stage an independence and vitality never before enjoyed by this type of art in the bourgeois world.
Yet it remains one of the most shabbily treated of all the revolutionary arts, with its progress being unquestionably retarded by the total disregard it receives from professional workers in other fields. Artists in the vanguard of the revolutionary movement from whom the dance groups are so eager to receive criticism and aid, neglect to a reprehensible extent the work of these people. Either they retain unpleasant associations of bourgeois dancers of the past whom they once observed, or else they receive erroneous reports of the actual work of these groups; at any rate, they have remained, out of misguided preference, totally detached from activities in this field. They have failed to realize the potential drawing power of the dance for the masses, and the importance that a movement of such dimensions should be not only adequately publicized, but painstakingly analyzed and directed.
At present, our revolutionary dancers and dance groups are part of the Workers Dance League. This coordinating body has 800 dues paying members. In addition to its performing units, it has twelve amateur groups and over 50 classes. It has an Eastern section comprising groups in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and has formed groups in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles. It has received information of a revolutionary dance group in Paris, and one in Berlin.
One of its aims at this time is the building up of performing troups so that they can reach ever-increasing masses of people through dancing at strike halls, union meetings, affairs, benefits, concerts, etc., and activize more of their audience into sympathy and cooperation with the working class movement of which they are a definite part.
They have contacted a tremendous audience already. On January 7th for the benefit of the Daily Worker, these performing groups presented a program of dances at City College Auditorium. Not only was the hall full (seating capacity 1500), standing room sold out, but hundreds were turned away at the doors. On April 20th, these same groups performed, again a benefit, this time for the Labor Defender, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to a capacity crowd of 2,000. Between October and April, the W.D.L. had requests for 240 paid performances, of which only 140 were accepted, due to limited forces. Assuming that only 200 people attended each of these 140 affairs, which number is ridiculously small, considering the fact that among the performances are numbered those at the U.S. Congress Against War and Fascism, when 6,000 packed the St. Nicholas Arena, the Daily Worker Bazaar at Madison Square Garden and the 10th anniversary of the Daily Worker at the Bronx Coliseum, the League performed, in one season before about 34,000 workers.
Nor do workers alone attend these performances; the faces of the most important bourgeois dance critics, dancers, pedagogs, and students appear time and again, watching with an admixture of admiration and envy; the one for the indubitable talent the groups possess, the other for the cheers the audience gives a performance that is not solely an exhibition of physical virtuosity, but in addition, a presentation of revolutionary working-class ideology and rich emotional content. John Martin, dance critic of the New York Times, in an article appearing there, refers to the W.D.L. as one of the most important trends in the American dance. “E.E.,” of the World-Telegram, who seems constantly at variance with Martin on other issues, in his review of the April recital, not only substantiates this praise, but commends the groups more specifically.
Who are these groups? At the time of the April 20th recital, they were the Red Dancers, the New Dance Group, the Theatre Union Dance Group, the New Duncan Group, and the Modern Negro Dance Group. These groups in toto represent all technical trends in the American dance today. The Red Dancers and the Theatre Union Dance Group stem from the Martha Graham School, the New Dance Group from the Mary Wigman School, the New Duncan Group from its namesake, while the Negro group is a product of the now deceased Hemsley Winfield, the witch-doctor in Emperor Jones at the Metropolitan Opera House. On June 2nd, these groups again performed at the Second Annual Dance Festival, which was held at Town Hall with both amateur and professional groups competing. A new group had been added at that time to the list of performing units, the American Revolutionary Dancers, and a Children’s Dance Group was presented for the first time. Van der Lubbe’ s Head, performed by the New Dance Group to a poem by Alfred Hayes, was awarded first place at the competition, with the Anti-War Cycle of the Theatre Union group and the Kinder, Kiiche, und Kirche of the Nature Friends Dance Group receiving second and third places respectively.
There is no doubt that these groups as a whole have among their numbers some of the best of our young American dancers today, giving up the fame they could undoubtedly achieve in bourgeois circles on the basis of their talent, to be active in the revolutionary movement. Soloists, however, have not as yet been encouraged, and it is the groups in combination who offer a full evening of outstanding revolutionary art.
Yet the Workers Dance League, with these groups as a nucleus, has unending promise. Its future is assured it by the generous masses who support each concert with unwavering enthusiasm. Besides a completer artistic and ideological development in its own ranks, it looks forward to a more friendly acceptance of its activities from co-workers in other fields on the cultural front, whose traditions are more firmly intrenched in the movement and whose assistance could be of great benefit. One cannot be too urgent in requesting that support be given to this popular ally of the workers’ movement in the United States.
The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1934/v11n11-jun-12-1934-NM.pdf