One of modern dance’s greatest champions, Helen Tamiris was born Helen Becker on April 23 of 1902 or 1903. Raised on New York City’s Lower East Side, she tried to escape the trials of tenement life by studying interpretive dance at the Henry Street Settlement House. By 15, she was a professional dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. She soon quit the Metropolitan to join the Bracale Opera Company on a tour through South America. There, a lover rechristened her “Tamiris” after an ancient Persian queen. She subsequently adopted first Tamiris, then Helen Tamiris as her stage name. Feeling hemmed in by the highly regimented ballet technique, Tamiris gravitated toward the improvisational dance style pioneered by ISADORA DUNCAN in the 1920s. While studying at Duncan’s studio, Tamiris made ends meet dancing at nightclubs. For six months, she also appeared in the Music Box Revue, sharing the stage with vaudeville legend FANNY BRICE.
In 1927 Tamiris abandoned these popular dance venues to organize her own modern dance concerts. In addition to performing as the lead dancer, she choreographed and designed the costumes for seven concerts held in New York and Europe. These early works were consciously provocative, stretching the limits of what modern dance could be. In 1927 (1927), Tamiris became one of the first dancers to perform to jazz. In The Queen Walks in the Garden (1927), she performed without musical accompaniment. And in Subconscious (1927), she dared to appear on stage in the nude.
Despite her innovations, Tamiris had less impact on modern dance than her contemporaries MARTHA GRAHAM and DORIS HUMPHREY, largely because Tamiris never developed a uniform technique. She instead encouraged her students to find their own natural style. In an era when modern dance purists held that dance should be abstract and free of content, Tamiris invited criticism for her insistence that movement be inspired by specific feelings and motivations. As Tamiris wrote in 1927, “The dance of today must . . . be vital, precise, spontaneous, free, normal, natural and human.”Tamiris was far more infiuential as a passionate promoter of modern dance. In 1930 and 1931, she was instrumental in organizing the Dance Repertory Theater, a week-long revue that showcased works of the day’s leading choreographers. She also helped organize the Dance Association (later renamed the American Dance Association), an organization dedicated to looking out for dancers’ financial interests.
After the establishment of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Project, Tamiris was the leading force behind its Dance Project, which staged modern dance performances using federal funds. The Dance Project sponsored several of Tamiris’s greatest works, including How Long Brethrenfi (1937), which won Dance Magazine’s first annual award for choreography. Refiecting her long-time interest in social issues, Brethren, a commentary on the plight of American blacks, was performed to spirituals sung by an African-American choir. Although often branded as a communist sympathizer because of her politics, Tamiris contributed to the war effort by dancing in a show organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She appeared as “Porterhouse Lucy” in a dance piece meant to caution Americans not to buy rationed goods on the black market. Tamiris stopped performing in 1944 to devote herself to choreographing Broadway musical comedies. Although many choreographers resisted working in the popular theater, she embraced the chance to bring her style of dance to a larger audience. Often working with her former student Daniel Nagrin (whom she married in 1946), Tamiris choreographed 18 shows during the 1940s and 1950s. Among them were Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Touch and Go (1949), for which she won a Tony Award. In 1960 Tamiris and her husband formed the Tamiris-Nagrin Dance Company, which dissolved after the couple separated in 1964. Two years later, suffering from cancer, Helen Tamiris died on August 4 at the age of 63. In her will, she bequeathed a third of her estate to further the cause of American modern dance, a mission the Tamiris Foundation was subsequently founded to pursue.
Schlundt, Christena L. “Tamiris: A Chronicle of Her Dance Career, 1927–1955.” Studies in Dance History 1 (fall-winter 1989): 65–154.
Tamiris, Helen. “Tamiris in Her Own Voice: Draft of an Autobiography.” Edited by Daniel Nagrin. Studies in Dance History 1 (fall-winter 1989): 1–64.