Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Remembering Tamiris, Part 5: A sense of social responsibility that was a perfect fit for the New Deal

(Helen Tamiris, 1927. Photo by Soichi Sunami, part of the New York Public Library's Dance Collection, used here for historical, educational, and non-commercial purposes. Image scanned from a personal copy.)

After Helen Tamiris passed away in 1966, the New York Times noted her sense of social responsibility: "As the nineteen-thirties unfolded Miss Tamiris's dancing and choreography showed a strong social and political involvement. The despair of the unemployed, the plight of the Southern Negro and the horrors of war all found expression in her work" (August 5, 1966).

Tamiris came from a low-income background and was aware of Jewish persecution through the centuries (her parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia). Add in the misery of the Great Depression, and this probably goes a long way towards explaining why she had sympathies for the downtrodden.
Tamiris's background and social concern were a perfect match for the New Deal. Specifically, both Tamiris and New Deal policymakers wanted to lift up those who had been excommunicated from society due to their unemployment, poverty, or race. Tamiris saw the WPA's Federal Threatre Project (from which she would help carve out the Federal Dance Project) as a way to give work to jobless performers, and also as a way to bring modern dance to lower-income Americans - Americans who could not normally afford such high-brow entertainment: "Fired by her sense of mission... She alone of all the major dancers working in the Thirties gave up her career, her [dancing] group, almost her very self for the sense of purpose she felt in the Project" (Christena L. Schlundt, Tamiris: A Chronicle of Her Dance Career, 1927-1955, New York Public Library, 1972, pp. 38-39).  

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