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.,


Power Animal Dance

2/16/12 – Power Animal Dance at PSG

It was the late 80’s, at a Pagan gathering in Wisconsin in June.  Three hundred leftover hippies, Dead Heads, and rebellious or curious young adults, in a gently rolling campground normally occupied by other extreme radicals such as … Boy Scout troops.  Pagans learn from any tradition too slow to run away fast enough, and we were blessed with some genuine Native American souls at this particular gathering.  They organized a power animal dance for one evening.  The idea is to let your power animal (or kindred spirit) take over your body for a little while, to learn from each other and exchange perspectives.

That night was a little cold, with more than hints of rain possible.  I really wanted to participate in the dance, but the weather was icky and I didn’t want to be very active physically.  So I got a bright idea! I decided my power animal for the evening … was a tree.  Ok, I have to admit I had never heard of a plant being a power animal before, but everything’s part of nature, therefore is part of the divine, so why not?  I had a brown poncho, so that would double as rain protection and vaguely look like a tree trunk.  This could work!

So I put on the poncho and started walking to the ritual space.  But being a tree, I walked slower than I Ever. Have. Before.  Each step became a new investigation of my feet, slowly shifting my weight from one part of each foot to the next until it could take my full weight.  This took forever, so naturally I was one of the last people to get in line for the dance.  As I approached the ritual space, the ground shook gently, rhythmically from powerful drumming, and for quite a while I couldn’t tell what was up ahead.  When I got close enough, I saw that people were being squeezed one at a time between two of the drummers.  Birth.  A human birth canal had been created, between the driving heartbeat of the drums.  And so I was delivered into the sacred space.

I walked slowly to one side of the space, and planted myself (ahem) with a good view.  Around me people were jumping and growling and leaping and interacting with each other in their animal forms.  But as a tree, I couldn’t make a sound.  Or move.  Some approached me, sniffed about, then went on their way.  I was surprised to realize that, as a tree, I had become supremely vulnerable. No defenses, no running away.  Exposed to anything that could walk up to me and do anything they wished. And as interesting as my neighbors were, there were none of my kind present in the dance.  A twinge of loneliness pulsed through me.

I observed the dance for a while longer, and then heard a strange and unfamiliar sound from the middle of the space.  It repeated, or maybe continued, and only then I realized it was English.  I had drifted into the dance so far I couldn’t understand language for a while.  And as our common bond of language was reinstated, I realized and felt a connection to all the critters dancing around me.  We. Are. One.  The enormousness of that utterly simple statement came crashing in around me.  I slowly eased myself to the ground, waves of sobbing, my body convulsing with the relief of no longer being alone.

After a while, a couple of people came to check on me.  One asked, “Are you alright?”  I nodded slowly and thought ‘Oh yes, like never before.’


2/18/12 – Convocation

I’ve been taking dance classes for a little over six years now, and that’s produced some odd situations.  As faculty I’m expected to show up for Convocation in the Fall, which is a formal party to start the new school year.  We welcome new faculty, and a handful of students show up, and the other students are just glad some daytime classes cancelled.  Last year the problem I had was my ballet class was right after Convocation.  So I dressed in layers – tights and leotard, then slacks and a polo shirt, and finally my official academic robe over all that.  As cruel fate would have it, last October was very warm, and Convocation is held in the Main building, which isn’t air conditioned.  Uh oh.  I usually don’t even wear two layers, much less two topped by heavy velvet.

So as we processed into the auditorium, I could tell this was going to be a toasty event.  And Convocation dragged on for two plus hours.  A small river started flowing down my spine.  I struggled to keep from passing out, and pretend to be paying attention to the speakers.  It finally droned to an end, quite a few minutes late, and me quietly panicking over how late I was going to be for class and how I’d have to sit and watch class instead of participating.  I scurried across the street to the dance studio, tossed off my shoes, and padded into the studio still robed.  That got some delicious double takes!  I looked frantically to the instructor to see if I could still take class, and she invited me to join them.  My heart leaped for joy.

I went into the locker room, draped my robe over a cleaning bucket, shed my formalwear, and grabbed my ballet shoes.  I found a place at the barre, slipped on my shoes, and joined the class as though nothing unusual had happened.  As class progressed, I felt a chill ripple through me, and realized only then that my dancewear was completely soaked with sweat.  I was freezing from all the evaporation.  But it didn’t matter.  I was allowed to dance another day.