TBT: Martha Graham, Arthur Murray, and More Share Their Pet Peeves, 1939

May 16, 2024

In the May 1939 issue of The American Dancer, a predecessor to Dance Magazine, a handful of well-known dance artists shared “their pet likes and dislikes” for a story titled “Thumbs Up! Thumbs Down!”

Likes included musings on the profession, such as “the girl who learns to lead as well as follow” (ballroom dancer and teacher Arthur Murray) and “dancers who make it their business to know the history and background of the dance” (ballet dancer and teacher Leon Fokine, nephew of Michel), and tongue-in-cheek commentary, like “a place to spot while doing a set of pirouettes in performance” (American ballerina Karen Conrad) and “audiences of any kind anywhere—they’re the customers so they must be right!” (musical theater duo Grace and Paul Hartman).

As to dislikes: “people who apologize for their dancing and do nothing to correct it” (Murray), “posing for pictures” (Conrad), “American choreography!—except Catherine Littlefield’s” (Fokine), and “people who don’t like dogs” and “gowns that tear and the guy who invented hoop skirts” (the Hartmans).

But perhaps most striking were modern dance matriarch Martha Graham’s responses. She gave thumbs-up to “a dance form which has its roots in the lives, customs, traditions and interests of one’s own people,” “good theatre,” “expert dancing of any type,” “cleanness of line and economy of movement,” and “dancers who have an awareness of today.” On the thumbs-down side: “pretentiousness and artiness,” “any attempt to justify poor dancing by an idea, no matter how good the idea might be,” “those who do not recognize the need of a good technical base for the dancer,” “the dancing of slogans which might be displayed to better effect on banners!” and “self-expressionism.”