October 2015 | Dance History Quiz

dance-hqFun facts for teachers and students.

1 Which famous ballerina danced at Joseph Stalin’s 70th birthday celebration, for an audience that also included Mao Zedong?

a. Maya Plisetskaya
b. Anna Pavlova
c. Misty Copeland
d. Galina Ulanova

a. One of history’s most beloved ballerinas, Maya Plisetskaya was born in 1925 in Soviet Russia. Her father was executed in a Stalinist purge in 1938. Her mother was arrested and sent to a labor camp, then into exile in Kazakstan, along with Plisetskaya’s younger brother. Plisetskaya was taken in by her aunt and uncle, both dancers with the Bolshoi Ballet. Plisetskaya began training at the school at around age 8, graduated with top marks, joined the company, quickly rose in the ranks to dance leading roles, and was named prima ballerina in 1962. Her stunning technique, vivid stage personality, and dramatic gifts won her adulation among Soviet audiences. In 1949 she danced at Stalin’s 70th birthday celebration, before the man whose policies had been behind Plisetskaya’s father’s death. In her autobiography, I, Maya Plisetskaya, she wrote that she was “afraid of meeting Stalin’s gaze,” and avoided looking his way while taking her bows following her performance.

For many reasons, perhaps because her parents were Jewish, because she had relatives in the U.S., and because her personality was markedly independent, she was viewed by some Soviet authorities with suspicion, and was not allowed to travel to the West with the company until 1959. Soviet ideology and aesthetics also restricted the range of works she was able to perform, although in 1962 she danced in Leonid Yakobson’s distinctly unclassical Spartacus. And in 1967 Alberto Alonso created Carmen Suite for Plisetskaya, a ballet that became a well-known showcase for her virtuosity and dramatic talents. In the 1970s she was finally afforded the opportunity to work with choreographers like Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit.

The Soviet government eventually loosened restrictions on her travel and she toured extensively; in 1987, at 61, she performed with Nureyev and Baryshnikov in a gala performance with Martha Graham Dance Company. Despite her often turbulent relationship with Bolshoi administration, notably with director Yuri Grigorovich, Plisetskaya continued to dance with the company until her retirement at 65. She went on to hold directorship positions at Rome Opera Ballet and National Ballet of Spain. Plisetskaya died of a heart attack on May 2 of this year. She was 89 and was living in Munich, where she and her husband, composer Rodion Shchedrin had lived since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

For more information:
Maya Plisetskaya, Jewish Women’s Archive

Maya Plisetskaya obituary, The Guardian

Maya Plisetskaya as Kitri in Don Quixote, YouTube video clip

Maya Plisetskaya in Walpurgis Night, You Tube video clip

2 When did dancers first begin dancing on pointe?

a. During the reign of Louis XIV. Known as the Sun King, Louis wanted to be as close to the heavens as possible.
b. The early 19th century, with a notable performance on pointe occurring on March 12, 1832
c. When Marius Petipa invented pointe shoes, in 1894
d. 1920, after Serge Diaghilev saw a tap dance performance and wanted to reproduce the sound of shoes pounding the stage

b. Marie Camargo (1710–1770) was the first dancer to dance in shoes without heels, and some believe she may even have danced on her toes. However, the practice became more widespread in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some dancers achieved this illusion of floating on the tips of their toes with the use of Charles Didelot’s “flying machine,” which he invented around 1795 and which utilized wires to help dancers hover above the floor. The effect created a sensation, and more and more dancers were seen going on pointe without the use of machinery; instead they used pure strength to dance on their toes.

But it was Marie Taglioni (1804–1884) who developed the technique and helped make dancing on pointe almost synonymous with ballet. In 1832 she performed the full-length La Sylphide entirely on pointe, drawing accolades with the ethereal lightness with which she seemed to float across the stage. She did not wear shoes with a hard box and stiff soles; hers were simply darned more heavily on the sides and soles.

In the late 19th century, shoes began to be made with a flat platform at the toe. Gradually, soles became harder and stiff boxes enclosed the toes, enabling dancers to do much more on pointe: balance, hop, and execute multiple pirouettes and fouetté turns.

For more information:
Pointe Shoes: The magic slippers of ballet, The Kennedy Center ArtsEdge

Pointe Shoes, a short film by Galen Summer, for New York City Ballet

3 Who founded and directed the first black modern dance company in America?

a. Arthur Mitchell
b. Alvin Ailey
c. Rennie Harris
d. Katherine Dunham

d. Katherine Dunham (1912–2006) not only founded the first black modern dance company in the country, but was also the first to present African diaspora dance forms on an American stage. While studying anthropology at the University of Chicago, in 1931 she opened a dance school and ran a student dance company called Ballet Nègre.

Dunham was renowned as a performer, choreographer, and teacher as well as for her anthropological and humanitarian work. Her anthropological graduate work led her to the West Indies, where she investigated Caribbean dance and its African roots. When she returned to the U.S. Dunham founded the Negro Dance Group, which was later renamed Katherine Dunham Dance Company. Her choreography incorporated the African and Caribbean dance forms she had studied, and was largely responsible for introducing American audiences to these forms.

She and her company were spectacularly successful in New York City; her show, Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem, had an extended 10-week run, and she and the company appeared in Cabin in the Sky, the Broadway musical directed by George Balanchine. They continued to appear on Broadway and in movies and toured extensively in the States and abroad.

In 1945 she opened the Dunham School of Dance and Theater in Manhattan. José Limón was a teacher there; the list of students included Arthur Mitchell, James Dean, and Peter Gennaro; and on occasion, the legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus with a group of musicians played for classes. Perhaps the most important part of Dunham’s legacy was her integration of Caribbean and African forms with ballet and modern dance, and the development of a dance vocabulary that would become the Dunham technique.

For more information:
Katherine Dunham interview video playlist, National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP) YouTube channel

4 When did tap shoes as we know them—with metal plates attached to the sole and positioned at the toe and heel—begin to be used?

a. Around 1700, by accident, when a Scottish farrier taught his apprentice how to affix a horseshoe by using his clogging shoes as substitutes for a horse’s hooves. Forgetting that he’d put the metal on his shoes, he began clogging and discovered that the sound was vastly improved.
b. 1935, when Fred Astaire invented them for the movie Top Hat
c. Around 1910
d. The late 19th century, as steel production in the U.S. increased

c. In the mid-1600s, Irish and Scottish indentured laborers were sent to the New World. They brought with them traditional social dances like the Irish jig and the Lancaster clog. At the same time, the African slave trade was gaining momentum, and African slaves in turn brought with them their West African dance traditions, including the “ring shout” and the juba. Slaves in the south began to incorporate some of the Irish and Scottish footwork. As a consequence, percussive and American tap dance in its nascent form was born.

The form, however, wasn’t called “tap” until the beginning of the 20th century. It was known instead as “buck-and-wing,” “flat-footed,” or “buck” dancing throughout the 1800s. Most shoes were leather with wooden soles; occasionally nails or pennies were attached to enhance sound. Actual taps—thin metal plates attached to shoe soles—were not used until 1910.

For more information:

5 Which choreographer created pieces that involved a stage covered with soil, one covered in carnations, and another covered in water?

a. Pina Bausch
b. Maurice Béjart
c. Vaslav Nijinsky
d. Viola Farber

a. With a choreographic career that began in 1973, dance theater choreographer and director Pina Bausch (1940–2009) created more than 40 pieces in her lifetime. Many of the works she made for her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, were large-scale, highly theatrical works with spectacular visual effects. Employing dreamlike elements and evoking memory, nightmare, and our common human experience, Bausch’s work profoundly influenced the way language, music, design, dance, and emotion are used onstage in dance, theater, and opera productions around the world.

In Carnations, a man stands on a stage planted with 8,000 silk carnations, lip-syncing and signing the song, The Man I Love. The piece also features an accordion player wandering amongst the flowers, dancers emulating children’s games, guards lurking menacingly accompanied by live guard dogs. Arien is danced on a stage filled with water, and features a life-sized, though not real, hippopotamus. The Rite of Spring is performed on a bed of soil.

Winner of many awards, including two Bessies, two Laurence Olivier Awards, the Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et de Lettre, and the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award, Bausch died in 2009, just before she was to begin work with film director Wim Wenders on a movie. He went on to make the full-length, 3-D film Pina, transforming the movie that was originally planned into a record of and tribute to Bausch and her groundbreaking work.

6 What was the Hoofers Club?

a. A riding school and stable in Greenwich, Connecticut
b. An elite global organization of tap teachers and dancers
c. A Southern U.S. restaurant chain specializing in pig’s feet
d. A famous Harlem gathering place for tappers in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s

d. The Hoofers Club was a small room in the back of a Harlem gambling club and pool hall. From the 1920s into the 40s, it was widely known as the headquarters of tap dance in America. Here, in a 15-foot-square room equipped with an old piano, young dancers came to practice, and to watch and learn from the masters. Many of the finest tap dancers of the era gathered there to jam, engaging in informal though notoriously tough competitions. Dancers like “King” Rastus Brown, John W. Bubbles, Baby Laurence, Honi Coles, Harold Mablin, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson—and many others—spent countless hours at the Hoofers Club. A cardinal rule went something like, “Thou shalt not copy another’s steps—exactly.” While learning other’s steps inside the club was a common practice, if a dancer then performed them in his professional act, the dancer whose steps had been “stolen” would not be frowned upon if he stood up in the theater and announced the theft.

The proprietor, Lonnie Hicks, made no money from the Hoofers Club, keeping its doors open 24 hours a day, and replacing the floors every six to eight months.

7 Who was Barbara Morgan?

a. A ballroom dance choreographer famous in the 1950s for her specialized contortionist moves
b. The owner of a British dancewear line
c. A dance photographer whose subjects were American modern dances and dancers
d. The 13-year-old winner of So You Think You Can Dance season 5

c. Barbara Morgan (1900–1992) was a photographer who took iconic photographs of dances by American modern dance choreographers like Martha Graham, José Limón, Merce Cunningham, and Doris Humphrey.

Morgan did not shoot performances, preferring to work in her studio where she could control composition, timing, and lighting. She worked with dancers and choreographers to create images that depicted the spirit and movement of the pieces.

Morgan’s photograph of Martha Graham in an elongated attitude pose in Letter to the World is one of the best-known images of the choreographer. Morgan and Graham worked together on a book, Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs, and maintained a lifelong friendship.

8 Which choreographic work was the first to be copyrighted?

a. The dancing broom sequence in the 1940 Disney movie Fantasia
b. Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, which premiered in 1960
c. Busby Berkley’s highly intricate, often kaleidoscopic choreography for movies, including the 1933 hit 42nd Street
d. Hanya Holm’s choreography for Kiss Me, Kate

d. Hanya Holm’s choreography for the 1948 Broadway show Kiss Me, Kate was the first choreography ever to be accepted for copyright registration. In 1950 Anna Hutchinson (later Hutchinson Guest), a leading authority in dance notation, received a letter from Richard S. MacCarteney, the Chief of the Reference Division in the U.S. Copyright Office suggesting that dance should be protected against unauthorized reproduction and performance. Holm, through her association with German dance legend Mary Wigman had become an advocate and of Labanotation, Rudolf Laban’s method of notation. Holm, as a supporter of the Dance Notation Bureau, taught Labanotation and had many of her works, including Kiss Me, Kate, notated. The dances Holm created for the show were copyrighted in 1952.

At first choreography could be registered only under the category “dramatic or dramatico-musical compositions,” in other words, part of a theatrical work. However, the Copyright Act of 1976 explicitly named choreography as a protected category.