August 2015 | Dance History Quiz

dance-hqFun facts for teachers and students.

1 The music often used in ballet class to accompany sequential pirouettes or fouetté turns is the Black Swan coda from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, to which the ballerina does 32 fouetté turns. Who was the first ballerina to perform 32 consecutive fouetté turns?

a. Sylvie Guillem
b. Anna Pavlova
c. Hyacinth Hippo
d. Pierina Legnani


d. In 1893, Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani performed 32 fouetté turns in a performance of Cinderella. When she originated the role of Odette/Odile in the Ivanov/Petipa version of Swan Lake in 1895, Petipa included the fouetté turns especially for her. They have remained a part of the Black Swan pas de deux ever since. In the context of this ballet, the 32 fast, whipping turns represent Odile’s power over Prince Siegfried.

For more information:

2 During an onstage rehearsal, which well-known choreographer walked backward and fell into the orchestra pit while the dancers she/he was directing watched and said nothing?

a. Twyla Tharp
b. Jerome Robbins
c. Mary Wigman
d. Travis Wall


b. Jerome Robbins (1918–1998) started out dancing on Broadway and in 1940 joined Ballet Theatre (which became American Ballet Theatre in 1956). His first ballet, Fancy Free, with music by Leonard Bernstein, premiered in 1944. The two later expanded on the idea to create the Broadway show, On the Town, Robbins’ first of many Broadway hits. In 1949 he joined New York City Ballet; soon thereafter Balanchine named him associate artistic director, a position that allowed him to both choreograph and dance.

His choreographic accomplishments were prodigious. His well-known and much-beloved ballets include The Cage, Afternoon of a Faun, and Dances at a Gathering, among many others. He choreographed and/or conceived and directed many shows, including Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story, the film version of which garnered him an Academy Award.

In 1945, when working onstage with the cast of of Billion Dollar Baby, the ensemble watched him back into the orchestra pit, none of them saying a word. His notoriously difficult temperament, however, did not prevent him from winning five Tony awards, two Oscars (one an “Honorary Award for Brilliant Achievements in the Art of Choreography on Film”), an Emmy, a Kennedy Center Honors Award, a Drama Desk award, and a place in history as one of the most esteemed choreographers in the ballet and musical theater world.

3 Which dance was not created as a choreographer’s response to war?

a. Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table
b. Frederick Ashton’s Dante Sonata
c. Antony Tudor’s Echoing of Trumpets
d. The jitterbug


d. Though hitting its height of popularity in the 1940s during World War II, the jitterbug originated in the 1920s.

Kurt Jooss choreographed The Green Table in 1932 as the Nazis came to power in his native Germany. A year later Jooss had to leave Germany after he refused to fire Jewish company members, including F.A. Cohen, who composed music for the dance. Over time, the ballet has come to represent antiwar sentiments across continents. After a performance of the work by The Joffrey Ballet in the late 1960s, the dancers put on black armbands and marched in a NYC Vietnam peace rally.

In 1963, Antony Tudor created Echoing of Trumpets for the Royal Swedish Ballet, using the German massacre in the Czechoslovak village of Lidice as a theme for his dark ballet. The title comes from Tudor’s association of the sound of trumpets with victory; he said that he’d asked himself, “What happens after the echoing of trumpets, after the conquering hordes have conquered?”

Ashton’s Dante Sonata was choreographed in 1940, just as World War II had broken out with the German invasion of Poland. (Great Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939.) This work, performed barefoot, is highly dramatic, and was probably influenced by German expressionist modern dance. In 2000, David Bintley revived it for Birmingham Royal Ballet and included it in the company’s 2001 season at Sadler’s Wells. The ballet was performed on September 13, 14, and 15, 2001, immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.

4 Which modern dance choreographer, when called by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify about communist activities in the art world replied, “I’m a dancer, not a singer”?

a. Bella Lewitzky
b. David Parsons
c. Ruth St. Denis
d. Stephen Petronio


a. Bella Lewitzky (1916–2004) studied ballet as a child growing up in California. After taking a modern dance class with Lester Horton in 1934, she joined his company, becoming instrumental in helping develop the Horton technique, co-choreographing with him, and helping to found Dance Theater of Los Angeles. After leaving the Horton company and school in 1950, Lewitsky went on to open her own school, chair the dance department at Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts, become founding dean of dance at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and form her own company in 1966. Her choreography veered away from the strongly dramatic approach embraced by Horton, and toward more abstract work with an emphasis on space, time, and form.

Lewitsky was called before the HUAC in 1951, accused of belonging to the Communist Party, but unlike other witnesses such as film director Elia Kazan, she refused to answer questions that were meant primarily to entrap friends and colleagues.

She never abandoned her commitment to living by principle. In 1990, Lewitzky had her company manager cross out the anti-obscenity clause included in the acceptance form for the $72,000 National Endowment for the Arts funding the company had been allotted. The grant was withheld. Lewitzky then sued the NEA on the grounds that the requirement was unconstitutionally vague and that it violated the First Amendment protection of free speech.

For more information:
Bella Lewitzky, Dance Heritage Coalition website

Bella Lewitzky, Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia

The House Un-American Activities Committee,

5 What was Judson Memorial Church?

a. The church where George Balanchine married Maria Tallchief
b. The New York City church where performances in the 1960s led to the emergence of what many call postmodern dance in America
c. The setting for the video in which Sergei Polunin dances to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”
d. The name of a boy band


b. After Robert Dunn organized the first dance concert at NYC’s Judson Memorial Church in 1962, a group of artists, including but not limited to dancers and choreographers, formed Judson Dance Theater. They held choreographic workshops, mixed-media and performance art events. This group rejected the requirements and trappings of conventional ballet and modern dance performance: elaborate sets and costumes, the need to perform on a proscenium stage, virtuosic technique, storytelling or self-expression as a choreographic imperative. Prominent dance-making members of Judson Dance Theater included Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Robert Dunn, Judith Dunn, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown, and Simone Forti. While JDT formally existed only between 1962 and 1964, its members went on to develop their own personal approaches to post-modern dance, including Lucinda Childs’ stark minimalism and Steve Paxton’s contact improvisation.

While the style of dancing may seem to modern audiences somewhat lacking in choreographic splash or flashy production values, these dance artists paved the way for choreographers to broaden their palettes and incorporate into their work all kinds of steps, backdrops, themes, and approaches to music. For example, Paul Taylor might never have choreographed Esplanade without the Judson Church group making pedestrian movement acceptable as a movement lexicon. Choreographers like Twyla Tharp also found freedom and inspiration in the Judson Church’s testing of artistic boundaries.

6 What is a flash act?

a. An NFL halftime performance characterized by an elaborate light show
b. A dance company that garners a lot of attention, then suddenly disbands
c. A dance act popular in the early part of the 20th century that included acrobatics, tumbling, and other spectacular physical feats
d. Hip-hop style done by performers wearing ostentatious clothing


c. The phenomenon that would become known as flash acts emerged at the turn of the 20th century, when circuses and carnivals hired dancers to perform in their shows. Because they worked in close contact with acrobats and other circus performers, these dancers picked up acrobatic skills such as flips and splits. Soon these “flashy” steps were incorporated into vaudeville tap dance acts. One of the first “flash acts” was a group called the Crackerjacks, who performed what one founding member Archie Ware, says was an “acrobatic variety act—we tumbled . . . we tapped, we sang, we danced, we featured lots of comedy.”

Two of the most famous flash acts were the Nicholas Brothers and the Berry Brothers. The Nicholas Brothers started performing in Philadelphia theaters, and by 1932, when Fayard was 18 and Harold 11, they were a featured act at Harlem’s Cotton Club. They went on to appear in musicals, including Babes in Arms, choreographed by George Balanchine. They were also featured in many movies, including Stormy Weather, in which they performed a number to Cab Calloway’s “Jumpin’ Jive,” in which they leapfrogged down a staircase, landing every leap in the splits, perfectly on the beat. Far from just being capable of executing mind-boggling tricks, the Nicholas Brothers were artists whose technical skills, subtle dynamics, charismatic stage presence, and astonishing musicality earned them numerous awards and honors, including the Kennedy Center Honors in 1991.

Nyas (Ananias) and James Berry began performing as children, and put together an act they called “The Miniature Williams and Walker” based on the popular vaudeville team of Bert Williams and George Walker. Toward the end of the 1920s they began performing as the “Berry Brothers” at venues such as the Cotton Club and the Copacabana. When the eldest Berry brother, Nyas, left the duo, younger brother Warren joined it. After Nyas’ marriage dissolved he rejoined the group, and the three brothers went on to appear in movies such as Lady Be Good and You’re My Everything, and at venues like the Apollo Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Moulin Rouge. Their act was splashy and included splits, flips, slides, and multiple turns.

In 1938 the the Berry Brothers went head to head with the Nicholas Brothers in a Cotton Club competition. Nyas and James Berry famously leapt from a balcony over the heads of the Cab Calloway orchestra while Warren performed a flip. By most accounts there was no clear winner, with some believing the Berry Brothers were more athletic and the Nicholas Brothers more artistically compelling.

For more information:
Nicholas Brothers, Dance Heritage Coalition website

Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather, YouTube. Fred Astaire is said to have believed that this was the greatest dance sequence ever.

Berry Brothers, American National Biography Online

Berry Brothers Dance Act, YouTube. At the end of the video they do the leaping-over-the-orchestra trick.

7 When and where was the first butoh piece performed?

a. In 17th-century Bhutan, for Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan prince, also a Buddhist lama, who unified the regions now known as Bhutan
b. Prehistoric France, based on drawings of what is thought to be a butoh performance found in the Lascaux Caves
c. June 2, 2015 on an episode of The View
d. In post–World War II Japan


d. “Kinjiki” (Forbidden Colors) was performed in 1959 in Tokyo by Tatsumi Hijikata (1928–1986) and is commonly regarded as the first example of butoh, although Hijikata did not coin the term ankoku butoh until 1961. With themes of violence, sex, and hunger; and performed in silence by Hijikata, a young boy, and a chicken, the piece shocked the audience at a “New Face Performance” sponsored by the Japanese Dance Association.

Butoh is a form of dance that came out of post-war Japan, and was very much a product of that era and the recent upheaval of world power and influence. Although he had been trained in Western forms like German Expressionist–influenced modern dance, and though butoh has roots in traditional Japanese theater, Hijikata wanted to find a dance form that could radically break free from both Western and Japanese dance aesthetics. Hijikata and other early practitioners also rebelled against the Japanese post-war movement toward greater “worker productivity” and the cultural ethos of productivity itself at the cost of human objectification.

Kazuo Ohno (1906–2010) is also considered one of the founders of butoh. Probably the best known butoh artist, Ohno performed into his 100th year. Ohno had studied modern dance with disciples of Mary Wigman, whose work influenced him, although perhaps not as much as had the experience of living through the bombing of Hiroshima. When he performed his first dance recital in 1949, Hijikata saw it and invited Ohno to join his dance collective.

While some may find butoh slow, subversive, and/or grotesque, the form was popularized in the U.S. in the 1980s by Sankai Juku, who took the American dance world by storm with its powerful images of men covered entirely in white body paint, or hanging upside down off the sides of buildings. Butoh has also exerted profound influence on modern dance in America and abroad, with its treatment of time, nature, and the concept of beauty.

For more information:
A Short Introduction to Butoh, Sadler’s Wells website

Trailer for Tobari by Sankai Juku, Sankai Juku YouTube channel

8 Who founded Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where dancers from across the country and around the world train, and which over the years has presented performances by Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin, Lester Horton Dance Theater, Twyla Tharp Company, Savion Glover, and hundreds of others?

a. A consortium of religious leaders who wanted to promote “praise dance” and named the festival after the biblical Jacob
b. The Jacobin Club, a political group that argued for radical reform during the French Revolution
c. Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis
d. Jake Gyllenhaal, because who doesn’t want to start a dance festival, dude?


c. In 1930, Ted Shawn bought Jacob’s Pillow, the Massachusetts farm that would later house the eponymous dance festival. He and his then-wife Ruth St. Denis rehearsed their troupe, Denishawn Company, there for about a year before both the marriage and the company split up. In 1933 Shawn and his Men Dancers—a company Shawn had formed with the intention of legitimizing men’s role in dance—gave an informal presentation on the deck. These lecture-demonstrations became popular, and the roots of what would become “the Pillow” were established.

In 1940, Shawn and his Men Dancers disbanded, and, deeply in debt, Shawn leased the property to Mary Washington Ball, who produced the unsuccessful Berkshire Hills Dance Festival. The next year Shawn leased the farm to Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. Their International Dance Festival proved so successful that supporters formed the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Committee, raised money, bought the property, built a theater, and thus officially launched the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Shawn was appointed director, a position he held until his death in 1972.

In the years since, the Pillow has been run by several illustrious directors, including Charles Reinhardt, Liz Thompson, and current executive and artistic director Ella Baff.

Now almost 100 ballet, contemporary, musical theater, and social dances (jazz to hip-hop) students take part in separate two-week sessions, living on the 220-acre campus, taking classes, rehearsing, performing, meeting artists, seeing performances, and participating in other events. This year, more than 20 artists or groups will perform at perhaps the best known, most well-respected, and popular dance festivals in the world.

For more information:
Jacob’s Pillow website

Jacob’s Pillow Interactive, “An ever-growing collection of dance videos filmed at Jacob’s Pillow from the 1930s to today.”