Tamiris, Helen (1902–1966) By Graff, Ellen
Helen Tamiris was a key figure in the development of American modern dance; along with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Hanya Holm, she helped to forge the art form. Born Helen Becker to an immigrant Russian Jewish family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she was introduced to dance at the Henry Street Settlement House. After a brief stint in the ballet world and on the commercial stage, she gained recognition as a concert dancer with a suite of dances set to Negro Spirituals. These signature works established her reputation as a choreographic voice for the oppressed; themes of social protest inspired her throughout her career. As a political activist she promoted collective bargaining for dancers, organized collaborative ventures with other early modern dancers, and led the campaign to create a Federal Dance Project for unemployed dancers during the Depression years. She was unusual among early moderns in her desire to reach a broad popular audience, and in the 1940s and 1950s choreographed a succession of Broadway musicals, receiving critical acclaim for choreography in shows such as Annie Get Your Gun and Plain and Fancy. Her political engagement and her success in bridging the divide between high art and popular culture distinguish her among American modern dancers.