An Interview with Author, Anne Dunkin, Ph.D. by Brenda Pugh McCutchen

February 20, 2016


Here is an interview with Anne Dunkin about her dance history book, How They Became Famous Dancers: A Dancing History (2015). It is a satisfying read for anyone who loves dance. The book, a dance history resource, tells how twelve dancers leave a lasting impact on dance. After reading it I asked her to share her process and tell how her research brought dance history to life for today’s readers. The book makes it obvious that Dunkin loves dance and dance history, loves teaching, and also relishes research as a discovery process.             

Although Dunkin does not mention this, please allow me this observation. Think about dance as the shortest-lived of all the arts, existing only at the moment of performance. Then think about dance history as the most elusive discipline within dance. Why? There is no movement footage of centuries of celebrated performers, choreographers, and their dance works. All we have are word descriptions and notations which leave clues, dots to join together. Because of no tangible arts works from gifted creators of centuries past, dance seems to lack a heritage or history. Because ground-breaking dances of the past cannot be reproduced or reconstructed, dance education can neither compare nor contrast the performances and choreographic work of ancient cultures with those of today, like other arts disciplines take for granted. Imagine if we could not hear any of the symphonies of famous 17th century composers but could only read about them? What if we only had outlines of Shakespeare’s plays instead of the scripts to practice and perform? What if there were not poetry or literature from distant times and cultures of the world? What if there were only 2-D sketches instead of famous architectural wonders to visit? What if there were no sculptures and paintings, only written descriptions? Such monumental loss would decimate our cultural arts heritage, would it not? That puts dance’s plight into perspective to show what a loss it is that dance is the art form that loses its significant works as soon as the last curtain closes.

Just because we can’t see them does not mean we should not know about them, learn from them, and know the dances and dancers that made an epic impact on the times—especially those renowned enough to perform for rulers around the world before the world was a global community. Anne Dunkin’s How They Became Famous Dancers takes us into that world and breathes life into some of the characters. It lets us follow the footsteps that lead to their greatness. Dance as a multifaceted art can thank Anne for that gift.      ~~Brenda Pugh McCutchen, Dance Curriculum Designs


The Interview with Dr. Anne Dunkin

BPMcC: Anne, what was your motivation to write this kind of dance history book?

Anne D: I remember, as a young girl, being interested in dance but frustrated because I could never find books about the lives of dancers. There were books with photographs of ballet dancers, but no biographies. Growing up, my teachers had danced with great dancers of the early 20th century, so I heard anecdotes about “Miss Ruth” or “Mr. B.”, about “Madame Pavlova” or “Martha.” Now, as a dance educator I see that not only are young dancers today further removed from these pioneers, but I also find dance history largely absent from K-12 dance education. I realize how much we learn from history, not just in dance but in life, and how dance practice and people are linked with other events throughout time. I wanted to tell the story of dance placed within the historical and cultural context of the lives of famous dancers so they would come alive for today’s readers. I wanted to write a dance text from an interdisciplinary perspective that would related to dancers and non-dancers alike, to place dancers within history, and to appeal to generalist teachers as well as dance educators.

BPMcC: Six famous dancers in the book are men and six are women. They represent cultures around the globe. What led you to feature these particular dancers?

Anne D: The equal number of men and women was essential to appeal to all genders. I started with lists of dancers known for their contributions to the field such as Marie Taglioni, Anna Pavlova, and Doris Humphrey and added dancers I personally wanted to know more about like William Henry ‘Juba’ Lane and Michio Ito. I contacted teachers—in dance and non-dance—and librarians regarding historical events and personalities to learn specific countries studied in the K-12 curriculum. I began with a long list of events, people, and dancers. I whittled them down to represent a variety of historical events, dance practices, and a range of childhood experiences so readers could find at least one subject to relate to. Coming from a western tradition, it was probably natural for me to begin with Louis XIV. Then it was a matter of looking chronologically at important historical landmarks and finding links from them to the characters. For example I wanted to include colonial America. That provided a link between French ballet dancers traveling to the colonies to perform and the first American-born professional dancer John Durang, whose father immigrated to the colonies after serving twelve years of military service in the army of Louis XV (Louis XIV’s heir to the throne). From there I followed links to the other dancers and tried to show how one made way for others to follow.

BPMcC: How were you able to tell their stories so compellingly?

Anne D: I focused on what adolescents would relate to, especially the concerns and feelings that these famous dancers most likely experienced. For example, at fifteen John Durang left home to work with a Boston showman to “see the world” and make “himself better,” yet he felt uneasy because it was the “first time he ever did anything without asking his father’s permission.” Doris Humphrey envied fellow students dancing en pointe because her feet were “buckling” and she believed she could never be a dancer with “feet like that.” Anna Pavlova was criticized for being “too small and delicate” to dance, and Michio Ito attended four different schools because of his mischievous behavior. I included the family and school life of my subjects for interest. We discover that Rudolf Laban comes from a military family which involved a lot of traveling with and without his parents, Marie Taglioni spent her days taking ballet lessons with her father and brother, and several subjects lost their fathers when they were quite young. I wanted to spark curiosity about different dance styles and practices by my choice of famous dancers.

How They Became Famous DancersBPMcC: Did you gear the book to a certain age group and was there a reason to do that?

Anne D: This resource book is geared to grades five through middle school yet adapts beyond that. This challenging time period finds tweens and teens searching for identity and ways to relate to the world. The stories depict the formative aspects of a dozen dance figures who discover themselves as dancers during these ages. In addition to creating a resource for K-12 teachers, dance educators, and arts educators, I wanted an interesting, informative read for young people, dance students, and their parents.

BPMcC: What do you hope the book offers to readers of this age?

Anne D: I want readers to see how valuable it is to take a genuine interest in something meaningful, to find a real passion about something they love, to discover dance as a form of creative self-expression that is meaningful. I want them to see the value of persevering, of working to do the best job possible to get something right. The characters in the book demonstrate those qualities. I suggest career options to readers beyond performing, teaching, and choreographing for readers who are passionate about dance. For example, entrepreneur John Durang created an entertainment park and other ventures. Doris Humphrey wrote one of the first books about modern dance composition, and her son became a publisher of dance books. Pearl Primus became a Ph.D., dance scholar, and researcher. Rudolf Laban’s work opened up careers in dance notation and movement analysis. Arthur Mitchell’s dance school and company give dance access to underserved youth. I hope the Create A Dance section at the end of each chapter takes readers into their own creative experimentations that personalize the experience of different styles. I hope the book inspires them.

BPMcC: How did you clarify for the reader where the characters lived and danced so that they could place the famous dancers on the matrix of time and place?

Anne D: At the outset readers see a world map with each dancer’s birth site across several countries and continents. Descriptions of the countries and their geography give more details. Inclusive dates of each person’s life puts them in a time continuum. So at the beginning of each chapter readers grasp the time and place of the featured dancer. To include images, reproductions of paintings, lithographs, and photographs from the person’s time period reveals much about the period (clothing styles, manners, and background action). By describing clothing of the time we could parallel the evolution of dance attire over time. Modes of transportation, food preparation, daily responsibilities, even expected chores shed light on the life at the time. It was important to include that John Durang took several days to travel from Philadelphia to Boston using three different modes of travel, and that Marie Taglioni traveling over unpaved roads in an unheated/un-air-conditioned stage coach throughout Europe and into Russia which was both hazardous and uncomfortable.

BPMcC: Can you give us an example of characters whose lives were strongly influenced by the political climate of their time and place?  

Anne D: Political climate affects how each art form develops. It determines support, which determines where, when, and by whom the arts are created. In the book, Arthur Mitchell voices his frustration with the amount of time he must spend fund-raising (chapter 12). Political climate greatly influences what is performed and choreographed. Both “La Sylphide” (1830s France) and the “message dances” of the 1930s and 40s United States mirror their political climate. All twelve dancers feel their surrounding political climate; several are impacted by war. Louis XIV even leads France into battle and also keeps his courtiers busy dancing to keep them from revolting. John Durang and Mrinalini Sarabhai live during civil unrest that leads to their countries’ to fight for independence. Marie Taglioni, Anna Pavlova, Michio Ito, and Rudolf Laban are not only displaced by war but forced to move to other countries. William Henry ‘Juba’ Lane, Pearl Primus, and Arthur Mitchell suffer racial tension in the United States. Marie Taglioni and Amalia Hernández are constricted by what is thought to be the proper roles for women in society at their times, while Doris Humphrey struggles to support a company during the Great Depression and World War II.

BPMcC: Can you give us an example of characters who were born very poor but who rose to fame on their own determination and skills?

Anne D: Perhaps the poorest was William Henry ‘Juba’ Lane. We know very little about him except that he lived in Five Points, New York in the early 19th century. He learned to dance on the streets, and “danced for his supper” at local eating establishments. He died at age twenty-seven, which may have been attributed to inadequate diet and lack of other life comforts. Anna Pavlova and Arthur Mitchell were born poor. Pavlova’s mother was a laundress and her father died when she was quite young. Mitchell, born during the Great Depression in the United States, as a young boy had to support his family with whatever jobs he could find after his father left.

BPMcC: As I read the book one of its unexpected surprises was how seamlessly you connected the influences and paths of some of the main characters even though they never actually met. How did you show their differences, commonalities, and overlaps?

Pearl Primus from How They Became Famous DancersAnne D: Thanks for noticing that. It is important to think of this as an evolutionary story of dance history over time, and that these twelve dancers are simply individuals who facilitated that history in some way. There are several subtexts throughout the book. One is classical dance which includes ballet, traditional Japanese Dance, and India’s Bharata Natyam. We get to see ballet weave in and out like when when it develops in France, goes into Russia, then spreads around the world making its way to the United States. Another is the history of African Americans dancing in the United States which finds itself revisited in different parts of the book and linked together. Modern dance is shown to evolve in the United States and Europe simultaneously and is connected through the characters. Ethnic dance is interlaced into several chapters as is vernacular dance which starts with Durang in one chapter and links to ‘Juba’ in another. Even though these are individual stories, each dancer evolved over time, were linked by events, and by virtue of the sheer impact these spectacular dancers had on dance and the times, they were able to influence others.

For example, those who pioneered the hybridization of dance styles show this impact: a) Michio Ito combined his eastern and western heritages in his work as a modern dancer; b) Pearl Primus described herself as a modern dancer but is associated with African dance; and c) Amalia Hernández combined ballet and modern training to excel in Mexican dance. Mrinalini Sarabhai, Pearl Primus, and Amalia Hernández—all born within two years of each other in different parts of the world—made a huge impact on different dance styles. By looking at the dance styles and the dancers through an historical lens organically brings out their differences, commonalities and overlaps. This is one of the fascinations of history. You can always find links if you dig a bit. Dancers are a small but a strongly dedicated population, so their paths will cross at some point in time, but if not their paths, their influence and impact will be felt.

BPMcC: What unexpected information did you uncover as you were researching the dancers? How did it add to the book as it was developing?

Anne D: One unexpected finding when interviewing Doris Humphrey’s son was that she was strongly influenced by the ballerina Anna Pavlova, even though Humphrey was a modern dancer. Pavlova’s worldwide travels and influence touched the lives of many, including Mrinalini Sarabhai’s teacher which I also unexpectedly discovered.

I was unfamiliar with the American dancer, Waldeen, until I read an interview with Amalia Hernández mentioning her influence. Waldeen first danced in Mexico with Michio Ito’s company, and I found photographs of her in an Ito archive. Google gave leads to sources about William Henry ‘Juba’ Lane, including a British website, “Juba Project.” There I discovered a puppet theatre honoring John Durang in York, Pennsylvania, that I went to visit. Contact with dance educators, historians, family members, and individuals who worked with the dancers proved helpful. The information kept unfolding. Additional surprises popped up while researching images for the book such as finding a page of Feuillet notation for Louis XIV, the 1827 painting of Five Points illustrating where ‘Juba’ lived, the image of ‘Juba’ performing for Charles Dickens, and early photographs of La Argentinita, Arthur Mitchell, and Waldeen.

BPMcC: You talk about Pearl Primus’ legacy being housed at the American Dance Festival archives in Durham, North Carolina. What is that and how does it operate?

Anne D: The American Dance Festival Archives is an outgrowth of the summer modern dance festival that began in 1934 at Bennington College which is included in the chapter on Doris Humphrey. Modern dance pioneers Martha Graham, Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm and their companies were in residence to teach and perform. Having to discontinue during the war years, the program resumed several years later at Connecticut College in New London Connecticut, and it is now called American Dance Festival (ADF) which is housed at Duke University in Durham, NC. Similar to dance collections at Jacob’s Pillow and NYC Public Library at Lincoln Center, ADF has developed an archive of documents about its history plus items bequeathed to the archive by individual dancers like Pearl Primus, who gave ADF boxes of her photographs, writing, videos, films, and other memorabilia. The archive, housed at Duke University Library, is available to all researchers by pre-arranged appointment.

BPMcC: To finish the interview, will you quote a passage from How They Became Famous Dancers to introduce us to one of its characters?

Anne D: I think this introduction captures what became a driving force throughout this dancer’s life: “As a little girl, Pearl Eileene Primus listened in awe to her father and uncles telling stories about their adventures in Africa. Deep down inside her own quiet space, Pearl vowed that she too would visit that great continent, that magic place, the home of her ancestors.”


BPMcC: Thank you, Anne, for this inviting new dance history resource.


Brenda Pugh McCutchen, author of Teaching Dance as Art in Education, is the founder of Dance Curriculum Designs in Columbia, SC, USA. She creates the dance literacy materials and also searches out quality educational resources to include on this website.

[Dr. Dunkin has graciously permitted DCD to add How They Became Famous Dancers to the resources on this website.]