Doris Humphrey

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Humphrey and dance partner, Charles Weidman

Doris Batcheller Humphrey (October 17, 1895 – December 29, 1958) was a dancer and choreographer of the early twentieth century. Along with her contemporaries Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham, Humphrey was one of the second generation modern dance pioneers who followed their forerunners – including Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn – in exploring the use of breath and developing techniques still taught today. As many of her works were annotated, Humphrey continues to be taught, studied and performed.

Early life[edit]

Humphrey was born in Oak Park, Illinois, but grew up in Chicago, Illinois. She was the daughter of Horace Buckingham Humphrey, a journalist and one-time hotel manager, and Julia Ellen Wells, who had trained as a concert pianist. She was a descendant of pilgrim William Brewster who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620.[1][2] In Chicago, with the encouragement of her mother, she studied with eminent ballet masters as well as with Mary Wood Hinman, who taught dance at her school, the Francis Parker School. While still at high school she undertook a concert tour of the western states as a dancer, with her mother as accompanist, in a group sponsored by the Santa Fe Railroad for its Workman’s Clubs.[3]

Partly due to financial concerns Humphrey opened her own dance school, with her mother as manager and pianist, in 1913 at the age of 18. It was a great success, offering classic, gymnastic and ballroom dance for children and ballroom dance for young adults.

In 1917, at the instigation of Mary Wood Hinman, she moved to California and entered the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts where she studied, performed, taught classes and learned choreography. Her creations from this era, Valse Caprice (Scarf Dance), Soaring, and Scherzo Waltz (Hoop Dance) are all still performed today. She remained involved for the next decade. Humphrey toured the Orient for two years followed by a successful career in American vaudeville theaters.

Personal life[edit]

Short in stature, Doris was no taller than 5'3" and had a slender build. In 1932 she married Charles Francis Woodford (a merchant.) She had one child, a son named Charles Humphrey Woodford (born 1934.)

Dancing through the Great Depression[edit]

In 1928, Humphrey and Charles Weidman, a close worker with Humphrey, separated from the Denishawn School, and moved to New York City to become key figures in the modern dance movement. Along with Humphrey and Weidman, Martha Graham also rebelled against the Denishawn establishment during this time. Both Humphrey and Graham searched for the core drive in movement, and evolved theories that eventually became the basis of their techniques.[4]

Humphrey’s theory explored the nuances of the human body's responses to gravity, embodied in her principle of "fall and recovery". She called this “the arc between two deaths”. At one extreme, an individual surrenders to the nature of gravity; at the other, one attempts to achieve balance. Through the fall and recovery principle, Humphrey is able to illustrate emotional and physical climax of struggling for stability and submitting to the laws of gravity.[5]

Her choreography from these early years includes Air for the G String, Water Study, Life of the Bee, Two Ecstatic Themes and The Shakers. Unlike the Denishawn approach in choreography, finding inspiration from abroad, Humphrey sought inspiration from within her home, America. “The Shakers”, a movement about the 18th century American religious group, is a notable example of finding inspiration from America.[6]

The Humphrey-Weidman Company was successful even in the Great Depression, touring America and developing new styles and new works based not on old tales but on current events and concerns. In the mid-1930s Humphrey created the New Dance Trilogy, a triptych comprising With My Red Fires, New Dance and the now-lost Theater Piece. Though the three pieces were never performed together, they were danced to the score by Wallingford Rigger. Humph illustrates the competitive lifestyle that people of society face. She uses characters such as businessmen, working women, athletes and actors, who all seek out personal goals.

Ms. Humphrey was a participant of the Federal Dance Project (FDP) which was created in the 1930s as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Second New Deal. FDP was the first national program created to financially support dance and dancers.

Humphrey expanded her choreographic work to Broadway in 1933 with School for Husbands and once again the following year with Life Begins at 8:40.

During the 1940s Humphrey spent significant time with Jose Limon, one of her former students. After She retired from performing in 1944, due to arthritis, she became artistic director for the Jose Limon Dance Company, and successfully created works for the company such as Day on Earth, Night Spell, Ruins and Visions and Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias. Humphrey’s dance style was carried on by Limon and his dance company.[7]

One of her last pieces, Dawn in New York, showed the strengths she demonstrated throughout her career – her mastery of the intricacies of large groups and her emphasis on sculptural shapes. Humphrey was on the original faculties of both The Bennington School of the Dance (1934) and The Juilliard School (1951), both directed by Martha Hill.

In 1952 Humphrey started directing a new dance company for children called The Merry-Go-Rounders.


Shortly after her death in 1958, Humphrey's book, The Art of Making Dances, in which she shared her observations and theories on dance and composition, was published. In the introduction she observed that ballet had changed radically in the 20th century. "Suddenly the dance," she said, "the Sleeping Beauty, so long reclining in her dainty bed, had risen up with a devouring desire.” She believed in emotions and movement moving “from the inside out”, but she also believed in working abstractly where specific events and characters were not illustrated in a way that made sense. For example, “she believed that the concept of democracy was more convincingly conveyed by a fugue uniting four different themes than by a woman in red, white and blue”.[8]

In looking for the fundamental principles of movement, Humphrey realized the theory of Fall and Recovery. She described this as "The arc between two deaths." Moreover, this idea was based in the change in center of gravity, balance and recovery. Humphrey theorized that moving away from center should be followed by an equal adjustment to return to center to prevent a fall. The more dramatic the movement, the more dramatic the recovery should be.[9]

Thirty-five of Doris Humphrey's dances are documented in Labanotation[10] by the Dance Notation Bureau. Introductory material includes original casts, history of the dances, stylistic notes, and other information.

The book, Days on Earth: The Dance of Doris Humphrey, by Marcia B. Siegel was published in 1993. Siegel makes a case for Humphrey being one of the more important figures of modern dance.[11]

Humphrey was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987.

A street in her home town of Oak Park is named for her paternal grandfather, the Reverend Simon James Humphrey.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Doris Batcheller Humphrey, Horace Buckingham Humphrey, Simon James Humphrey, Rebecca Brewster m John Humphrey, Simon Brewster, Jr., Simon Brewster, Sr., Benjamin, William, Love, William of the Mayflower.
  3. ^ Ann Barzel, The Doris Humphrey Society
  4. ^ Susan. Ballet an Modern Dance. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.
  5. ^ Susan. Ballet an Modern Dance. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.
  6. ^ Susan. Ballet an Modern Dance. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.
  7. ^ Au, Susan. Ballet an Modern Dance. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.
  8. ^ Susan. Ballet an Modern Dance. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.
  9. ^
  10. ^ "On-line Notated Theatrical Dances Catalog". Dance Notation Bureau. Dance Notation Bureau. 2015. Retrieved 12 December 2015. 
  11. ^ Siegel, Marcia B. (1993). Days on Earth: The Dance of Doris Humphrey. Duke University Pres. ISBN 9780822313465. 
  12. ^ Ann Barzel, The Doris Humphrey Society


External links[edit]