From around 1936 through the 1960s, the Chicago Dance Council (CDC) served as a venue for performance, education, and patronage of Chicago dance through a variety of concerts, lecture-demonstrations, and workshops. The CDC complemented the proliferation of arts organizations throughout the city in the early twentieth century, many of which—like the CDC—were created and maintained by women. The CDC welcomed teachers, students, amateur and professional dancers, and dance patrons as members, hoping to educate and enlarge the dance community.
Beginning in 1937, the Chicago Dance Council published a regular newsletter of six-to-eight pages, which included a calendar of events, dance criticism, book reviews, and articles, as well as a yearly promotional brochure. Through these publications we see the beginnings of an inclusive Chicago dance community focused on audience-building and artist development.
The Chicago Dance Council particularly prided itself on offering opportunities for Chicago-based artists. As seen in the 1939 brochure, the second formal concert featured seven emerging artists, including Katherine Dunham. On the heels of her successful premiere of L’Ag’Ya as part of the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago, Dunham was given the space to further explore and codify her techinique through the CDC. As Joanna Dee Das notes in Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (2017), L’Ag’Ya marked the development of Dunham Technique and thus Dunham’s influence on the aesthetic of American modern dance. Collectively, the Chicago Dance Council’s concert curation embodied a model of inclusion by giving space to aspiring artists, in addition to university and high school dance groups.
Dance criticism figured prominently in each edition. In February 1938 author “DP” assessed a performance of the Humphrey-Weidman group, led in part by hometown dancer and choreographer Doris Humphrey. Born in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park in 1895, Humphrey was hailed in 1938 as one of the leaders of modern dance by New York Times dance critic John Martin. She had not lived in Chicago since 1917; however, Humphrey regularly performed in Chicago, typically to accolades, in addition to giving lecture-demonstrations and appearing at informal events organized by the CDC. In 1939, she contributed an extensive essay to the newsletter on the perils and potential of modern dance. In particular, Humphrey addressed the wariness of lay audiences towards this new form of dance. “The unhappy truth is that the public can find ample illustration for its disdain,” she wrote, including a focus on athleticism over content, “poorly-done ballet,” and those “who believe in being dour and grim.”
Though few textual traces of the Chicago Dance Council remain, the impact of their efforts may be seen today in the city’s thriving dance scene, which embraces over two hundred companies featuring modern dance and the signature style of Chicago — jazz.
- Jessica Ray Herzogenrath, Sam Houston State University