Mary Anthony

The Influence of Mary Anthony

DANC 151  Glenn Booker


 Miss Mary Anthony (b. November 11, 1916 in Newport, KY) began her dance career with a scholarship under Hanya Holm (1893-1992) in the early 1940’s[1].  Holm was one of four key founders of American modern dance[2] alongside Martha Graham (1894-1991), Charles Weidman (1901-1975), and Doris Humphrey (1895-1958).  She soon joined the Holm Company and appeared in concert with Joseph Gifford and performed in Broadway shows.  Unlike many dance legends, she focused on choreography in musical theater during the 1950’s and expanded from that into modern dance.

The Mary Anthony Dance Studio was founded in 1954 and the company, Mary Anthony Dance Theatre began in 1956[3], and both are now struggling to find focus now that Miss Anthony is unable to teach and continue to be the driving force behind them.

One of Miss Anthony’s first works was WOMEN OF TROY (1954)[4] which was recreated in 2006 in Philadelphia.  Her signature work was THRENODY (1956), which the NY Tribune described as “Her dance springs from the pulse of the heart and courses outward into the drama of life.”  THRENODY  was reconstructed in 2011 for the Philly Fringe Festival.  SONGS premiered in 1957, which the NY Times described as “hauntingly lyrical (with) the emphasis on simplicity and an ageless craft.”  Modern dance even appeared briefly on television during the 1950’s[5].  More recent works include GLORIA (1967) and the nativity piece CEREMONY OF CAROLS from 1971[6].

Her work appeals to me because she is a master storyteller, and I love dance that tells a story.  Whether it’s focusing on the horrors of war or the nativity or some other story, dance gives us a chance to tell stories in ways that mere words cannot express.  The physicality and warmth of people on the stage give us a vibrant and intimate set of tools for telling stories that can be abstracted to mean many things to many people.  That, combined with the tactile sensation of sound tickling our ears and moving our hearts, make dance uniquely powerful.

Her influence has reached untold hundreds of dancers, including one of her first company members Donald McKayle, and local notables such as Gwendolyn Bye (a member of Anthony’s company for fourteen years[7]) and Kun-Yang Lin.  The dance LADY FROM THE SEA (date unknown) was choreographed for Miss Bye by Mary Anthony.  Kun-Yang is still listed with Mary’s company as the “Associate Artistic Director, Choreographer, and Dancer”[8] though the company website might be outdated since he looks about 25 years old in the accompanying picture.

Her philosophy focuses on dance as a means of deep expression.  Dance gives us a chance to embody emotion instead of keeping it inside our heads.  She describes dancers as “going through every emotion more deeply;” “they are more sad than the ordinary person, they are more angry than the ordinary person” because “they live through feeling, not thinking.”  Through our bodies and dancing we experience purely honest emotion.  “Words can still lie.  Movement can’t.[9]”  The pure honesty of dance appeals to her and to me.

Her philosophy goes beyond dance, imploring her students to live fully.  “Don’t let them write on your tombstone ‘she existed,’ let them write instead ‘she lived.’”  When students walk into the studio looking drab and sagging-shouldered, she tells them “this is your shining hour; make the most of it.”  “Life is a gift, and you have to realize that gift.”  “You take class.  You give a performance.  And there is a world of difference between the two.”  On her advancing age, she said “I will keep going until … they’re about to lower the lid.  And I’ll say ‘one more plié.’ [10]

I find her approach to life and dance challenging, since I’ve always had a long term perspective that sometimes sacrifices the pleasure of the moment for longer term dreams and visions.  In contrast she seems almost equally obsessed with living and feeling in the moment, with little regard for the future.  I think both perspectives are valuable, and can learn from each other.

In spite of her long and enormous influence on modern dance in the United States, there is surprisingly little material available on her life.  She doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.  Most articles discussing her quote the same few paragraphs in her company’s web site.  A video documentary of her life, Mary Anthony: A Life in Modern Dance, was completed in 2004[11].  A biography entitled “A Dancer’s Journey – It All Began with a Lie” was just published in April 2013 by Mary Price Boday[12].  For someone who has had a dance studio for 59 years, and a company for 57, that isn’t much!  She remains resolutely focused on the moment, not the past, not the future, until that lid is closed.

[6] Celebrate The Season with Mary Anthony’s “Ceremony of Carols”,

[11] Mary Anthony: A Life in Modern Dance (2004),

[12] Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.,