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Hanya Holm (1893–1992)

By Tresa Randall


In the canonical 1965 film The Four Pioneers, German American dancer, choreographer, educator, and philosopher Hanya Holm describes her creative process:  “Each time there is a new battle . . . a new agony . . . a new birth.  Always there is pain.”  For Holm, generating new work held all the pain and profound joy of birth – an imperative she inherited from her mentor Mary Wigman, who insisted that each composition should determine its own form and its own movement vocabulary.  Over many decades, Holm’s award-winning choreography spanned genres – modern dance, musical theater, film, and opera – and was marked by her brilliant ability to adapt to different styles and forms.  

In a similar process, Holm encouraged her students to discover dance for themselves through improvisation, and she endeavored “to make a person” out of each one – to facilitate their self-realization. A masterful teacher with a playful demeanor, she had exceedingly high standards and demanded loyalty to the work itself. The exploratory nature of her classes, in which she could spend an entire class on a single element such as turning or arms, developed sensitive, creative, alert dancers.  As her protégé Murray Louis remembered, she did not permit “dead eyes or lazy minds” (Louis, 19).

Holm considered her work as an educator her most important contribution to dance. Yet how do we document this work, which was by nature interpersonal and situational?  In part, it can be traced through institutional legacies.  Holm played a pivotal role in the formation of American modern dance, as one of the teachers known as the Big Four at the influential Bennington College Summer School of the Dance, as the director of her own school in New York, and as director of her summer program in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Her teaching legacy can also be traced in the work of her protégés such as Nancy Hauser, Alwin Nikolais, and Murray Louis.  But her creative imperative and improvisational approach meant that she never codified a technique; in fact, she expected each teacher to approach the material – based on movement concepts – creatively.  Despite the lack of a codified technique, Holm exerted a profound influence on modern dance practice for many decades, especially on dance in higher education.

German Roots

Holm’s early career in her native Germany, especially her training in Dalcroze rhythmic gymnastics and her life-altering association with Mary Wigman, laid the foundation for her subsequent creative work and philosophies.  Dalcroze training gave her excellent command of rhythmic complexity and initiated her into a progressive community that sought to reform education and social life.  In 1921, she joined Wigman’s first, close-knit group of students, who met each day in her Dresden home to collectively develop the sensory approach to movement that would become the Wigman method.  Bolstered by the bourgeois life reform, youth, and body culture movements, which valued dance as a vitalist activity1, the Wigman School enjoyed exponential growth during the 1920s.  Holm rose to the level of Chief Instructor in 1924 and Co-Director of the Wigman School in 1929.  As a performer in Wigman’s group, Holm toured Europe to great acclaim from 1923 to 1928.  She gained experience as a choreographer, staging the dances in Euripides’ Bacchae (Ommen, Holland, 1928), choreographing and performing the role of the princess in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (Dresden, 1929), and serving as Wigman’s choreographic assistant for her choric dance spectacle Totenmal (Dresden, 1930).

After Wigman’s first, highly successful American solo tour (1930-1931), impresario Sol Hurok convinced her to open a New York branch of the Wigman School.  He was impressed by the fanatical enthusiasm of the young modern dancers and knew that teachers trained in the “modern German methods” were in high demand in the United States.  When Holm arrived in New York in September, 1931, to direct the school, excited students and reporters greeted her on the pier.  She quickly became a central figure in the nascent modern dance movement in New York.

American Forms

The New York Wigman School, under Holm’s direction, offered a complete professional curriculum of technique, theory, composition, and pedagogy, as well as amateur classes for adults and children.  Enrollment was initially high, but waned as the novelty wore off, and Holm struggled to adapt the mystical Wigman approach to American sensibilities.  Yet John Martin, critical arbiter of modern dance and resident dance critic for the New York Times, encouraged Holm and explained the value of the Wigman approach to the younger American modern dance movement.

In 1934, with the formation of the Bennington College Summer School of the Dance, which would become the crucial site for the institutionalization of modern dance, Holm was invited to join the faculty along with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman – collectively known as the Big Four.  Holm’s masterwork, Trend (1937), premiered at Bennington. Innovative in its staging, using massive ramps, stairs, platforms, and a cast of thirty-three dancers, Trend was also the first modern dance to use recorded sound – the avant garde composition Ionization by Edgar Varese.  Martin called it a major work that would lead the way to a new form of dance theater.

Throughout the 1930s, Holm endeavored to fulfill her original mission, to spread the influence of the Wigman method, but she encountered resistance to her improvisational approach. Continually faced with demands for a codified technique, Holm established repeatable warm-up exercises that integrated some of the principles of physical conditioning that fellow German émigré Joseph Pilates was developing at the time, but still retained her improvisational approach. In the mid-1930s, she also felt besieged by rising American nationalism and anti-German sentiment.  A fierce debate about Mary Wigman’s accommodation of the Nazi regime in Germany played out in the New York dance community, and a boycott of the New York Wigman School eventually forced Holm to formally sever her ties to Wigman.  In 1936 she renamed the school the Hanya Holm School of Dance.  One month later, she debuted her independent company, the Hanya Holm Group, in Denver, Colorado.  The company achieved success with national tours in the late 1930s and early 1940s; Holm’s Demonstration Program – an engaging and kinesthetically thrilling introduction to her approach to movement – was popular with a wide range of audiences. Publicity materials praised Holm’s ability to capture the “American spirit” in her choreographies, and she spread the gospel of modern dance through performances at diverse venues, from college gymnasiums to opera houses.

As the United States entered another war with her homeland, Holm struggled to sustain her performing company, finally disbanding it in 1944.  Her choreographic career entered a new phase in 1948 when she was unexpectedly offered the opportunity to choreograph a section of Ballet Ballads on Broadway. Her success led quickly to commissions for Kiss Me, Kate (1948), My Fair Lady (1956), Camelot (1960) and other musicals, as well as theater works like Blood Wedding (1949) and the film The Vagabond King (1956).  She was celebrated for her ability to seamlessly integrate dance into the staging of the production and became one of the most sought-after choreographers on the international stage. 

As an octogenarian, Holm enjoyed a renewal of interest in her modern dance choreographies when she created Rota (1975), Jocose (1981), and other works for protégé Don Redlich’s company.  The White Oak Dance Project, directed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris, toured Jocose in the 1990s.

Loyalty and Service

For more than seven decades, Hanya Holm was a tireless advocate for dance as a creative and holistic practice.  She had a deep sense of loyalty to her teacher Wigman and to their shared cause of modern dance.  Her sense of loyalty to “the dance itself” translated into service to the dance community on innumerable advisory boards.  She provided early support for innovations derived from the work of Rudolf Laban, including Labanotation and Irmgard Bartenieff’s therapeutic applications of Laban movement analysis.  Through Labanotation, Holm made history in 1952 as the first choreographer to be granted copyright for the notated score of the dances in Kiss Me, Kate

From Wigman, Holm had gained an improvisational working method that mandated a responsive sensibility and valued communal production.  This sensitivity served her well throughout her career, enabling her to adapt to changing circumstances.  This was true not only in the difficult years after her emigration to the United States, but also later when she suddenly found herself choreographing for Broadway, then television and film.  She thrived in collaborative working situations such as her tight-knit company (1936 – 1944) and Broadway productions, where she worked repeatedly with associates like John Latouche, Jerome Moross, Cole Porter, Alan Jay Lerner, and Frederick Loewe.  Holm placed a high value on community, loyalty, and sacrifice to the cause of dance. “We are all but a small part of what remains to be discovered, to be found out,” she admonished her students. “You will find out that one life is not enough.  You will want to have several lives in which to discover what there is to be discovered” (Holm 1998, 75).


1. The concept of “vitalism,” which pervaded the body culture and modern dance discourses of early- 20th -century Germany, is the idea that certain activities and practices can enhance vitality.

Tresa Randall, PhD, is a scholar of German and American historical modern dance.  She has published in Dance Research Journal, Theatre Journal, Jahrbuch Tanzforschung (Annals of Dance Research) and the forthcoming book New German Dance Studies.  Dr. Randall served on the Editorial Board of the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD) as Proceedings Editor and has presented her research internationally at the Society of Dance History Scholars, CORD, and the American Studies Association.  She is an Assistant Professor in the Ohio University School of Dance, where she teaches dance history, gender studies, and studio courses.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Cristofori, Marilyn, ed.  “Hanya Holm: A Pioneer in American Dance.”  Choreography and Dance: An International Journal.  2:2 (1992).  Harwood Academic Publishers.

Gitelman, Claudia.  Dancing with Principle: Hanya Holm in Colorado, 1941 – 1983. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2001.

Gitelman, Claudia, ed.  Liebe Hanya: Mary Wigman’s Letters to Hanya Holm.  Studies in Dance History.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

“Hanya Holm: the Life and Legacy.”  The Journal for Stage Directors and Choreographers 7:1 (1993).

Holm, Hanya.  “The Dance, the Artist-Teacher, and the Child.”  Progressive Education (Oct. 1935): 388 – 390.

-----.  “Hanya Speaks.”  The Vision of Modern Dance: In the Words of Its Creators.  2nd ed.  Ed. Jean Morrison Brown, Naomi Mindlin, and Charles H. Woodford.

 Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company, 1998.  71-82.

-----.  “The Mary Wigman I Know.”  (1951)  The Dance Has Many Faces.  Ed. Walter Sorell.  Pennington, NJ: a capella books, 1992: 18-27.

Louis, Murray.  “No Dead Eyes or Lazy Minds:  Some Thoughts on Hanya Holm.” Ballett International 16:3 (March 1993): 18-19.

Manning, Susan.  “Ausdruckstanz across the Atlantic.”  Dance Discourses: Keywords in Dance Research.  Ed. Susanne Franco and Marina Nordera.  London and New York: Routledge, 2007: 46 – 60.

Randall, Tresa.  “Hanya Holm and an American Tanzgemeinschaft.”  In New German Dance Studies.  Ed. Susan Manning and Lucia Ruprecht.  University of Illinois Press, 2012.

Sorell, Walter.  Hanya Holm: The Biography of an Artist.  Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1969.

Young, Tricia Henry.  Costumes of Hanya Holm.  Tallahassee: Florida State University, 2000.

Moving Image

Hanya: Portrait of a Pioneer.  Prod. Marilyn Cristofori and Nancy Mason Hauser. Dance Horizons Video.  VHS.  Princeton Book Company, 1988.

USA Dance: The Four Pioneers.  Film.  Prod. Jac Venza, Dir. Charles S. Dubin.  National Education Television, 1965.

German Lineage in Modern Dance: Solos by Wigman, Hoyer, Holm, Nikolais, Louis. Conceived and performed by Dr. Betsy Fisher. DVD. Produced by Dancetime Productions, 2012.

Hanya Holm: A Retrospective. Produced, directed, and written by Kathryn Sullivan. DVD. Insight Media, 2011.


Hanya Holm Papers, 1803 – 1984 (bulk dates 1931 – 1980). Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Finding aid: (link)