Tamiris, Helen

Dancer, Choreographer

Biography

By Carol A. Stabile, Jeremiah Favara, and Laura Strait

Overview

Helen Tamiris (1902-1966) was an influential dancer and choreographer. She is widely considered to be one of the founders of modern American dance, distinguished by her belief that the importance of dance lay in its ability to express social problems and to move people to action.1 Her work often focused on issues of social inequality, including issues of race and poverty. Tamiris helped to ensure dance programs were included in the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. 2Tamiris’ career, which spanned four decades, included dance, ballet, and musical theater. 3

 

Early Life

Tamiris was born Helen Becker on April 21, 1902 to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Russia, the only daughter of five children. 4 Her father was a tailor; her mother died in 1905, when Tamiris was three years old.5

Tamiris reportedly ran “wild in the streets” until one of her brothers suggested that she try dance. 6

The family signed her up for dance classes as the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of New York City. 7

Helen Tamiris

Career

Over her father’s objections, Tamiris decided to pursue dance after completing high school. Rather than attending college, she enrolled instead in the Metropolitan Opera ballet school. She danced for three seasons at the Met. 8 The following year, she toured South America with the Bracale Opera Company, completing another season at the Met after her return. 9 Tamiris went on to study with Michel Fokine and at the Isadora Duncan School. 10 Tamiris gave her debut solo concert on October 9, 1927, presenting twelve dances. 11 She founded the School of the American Dance, which she led for 12 years.

  • 1. Pauline Tish, “Remembering Helen Tamiris,” Dance Chronicle 17, no. 3 (January 1, 1994): 327–60.
  • 2. Tish.
  • 3. “Helen Tamiris, Dancer, Is Dead,” New York Times, August 5, 1966.
  • 4. Tish, “Remembering Helen Tamiris.”
  • 5. Elizabeth McPherson, “Helen Tamiris (1902-1966),” Dance Heritage Coalition, 2012.
  • 6. McPherson.
  • 7. “Helen Tamiris, Dancer, Is Dead.”
  • 8. McPherson, “Helen Tamiris (1902-1966).”
  • 9. McPherson
  • 10. McPherson
  • 11. McPherson

 

 

Tamiris, Helen

 

In 1936, Tamiris successfully advocated for the inclusion of a Federal Dance Project within the Works Progress Administration.  She choreographed four major works for the Federal Dance Project, including her acclaimed How Long Brethren?, which was based on seven African American songs of protest. 1

Tamiris choreographed eighteen musicals between 1943 and 1957, for which she was widely praised.2 Critics lauded Tamiris’ ability to meld modern dance with musical theater. A 1946 review of Park Avenue said of Tamiris:

“By carrying over the tenets of the modern dance, she has introduced into the musical a wonderfully frank and honest expressiveness that is quite novel.”3

In 1950, Tamiris won a Tony Award for best choreographer for her work in Touch and Go. Tamiris’ work was revived in a series of performances in the 1990s and recognized with the 1995 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award.4Tamiris Show Poster

Tamiris was often passed by for honors and accolades (unlike Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, and Charles Weidman, she was not invited to join the faculty of the Bennington School of the Dance) because of her interest in what traditionalists considered less artistic forms, like folk music, burlesque, and musical theater.5

Personal Life

Tamiris married Daniel Nagrin, a dancer and choreographer with whom she often collaborated, on September 3, 1946.6 In 1957, they formed the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company. Although the company was well-received, when Tamiris and Nagrin separated in 1963, the company dissolved.7 Tamiris died of cancer on August 4, 1966 at the age of 64.8

  • 1. McPherson.
  • 2. McPherson
  • 3. John Martin, “The Dance: Tamiris,” New York Times, December 1, 1946.
  • 4. Jack Anderson, “Scripps Award Recalls Two Pioneers,” New York Times, June 20, 1995.
  • 5. McPherson, “Helen Tamiris (1902-1966),” 2.
  • 6. McPherson, 2.
  • 7. “Helen Tamiris, Dancer, Is Dead.”
  • 8. “Helen Tamiris, Dancer, Is Dead.”