Doris Humphreys: The Early Years 1895 – 1920
by Ann Barzel
Doris Humphrey was born in Oak Park on October 17, 1895. Her father, Horace Buckingham Humphrey, was a journalist and one-time hotel manager. Her mother, Julia Ellen Wells, was a trained concert pianist. Through both her parents, Doris was a tenth generation American. Her mother’s ancestors had come from England to Boston in 1636. Her father was a descendent of the famous William Brewster who had arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. Humphrey Avenue in Oak Park is named for her paternal grandfather, the Reverend Simon James Humphrey, who settled in the village in 1867. Another village street, Elizabeth Court is named for his second wife Elizabeth Emerson Humphrey.
A slim, graceful child, Doris Humphrey showed inclination for dance at an early age. Her mother encouraged her and arranged for lessons with eminent ballet masters. However, her real inspiration came from Mary Wood Hinman, who taught dance at the school she attended from kindergarten through high school, the Francis Parker School in Chicago.
In addition to teaching, Miss Hinman staged pageants and programs of folk and “interpretive” dances in the school. Doris shone in these and they whetted her ambition to be a dancer. An early opportunity was as a dancer for a concert group sponsored by the Santa Fe Railroad for its Workman’s Clubs. With her mother as mentor and accompanist, Doris took a leave of absence from high school to tour the West.
After graduation, since her father was not doing well financially, there was a need for livelihood not only for herself, but also to support her parents. At the age of eighteen, Doris Humphrey opened a dance school in Oak Park. Her mother was the business manager and accompanist. The school was an immediate success, offering classic, gymnastic and ballroom dancing for children and a Saturday evening ballroom class for young adults.
Mary Wood Hinman had retained interest in her talented pupil. She encouraged her to go to Los Angeles for a summer course offered by the renowned Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in 1917. At their Denishawn School, Doris’ talents were recognized. She was given solo roles in presentations and, to assist her to financial independence, she was assigned classes to teach. For the next decade, Doris’ ife and career were tied to Denishawn.
At Denishawn, Miss Ruth encouraged Doris to choreograph. Her first composition was “Valse Caprice” (also known as “Scarf Dance”), followed by “Soaring”, and “Scherzo Waltz” (“Hoop Dance”), all of which continue to be performed by various companies today.
After a two-year tour of the Orient and several seasons of dancing throughout the United States in top vaudeville theaters, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman (with like rebellious ideas) broke away from Denishawn in 1928. They settled in New York where they became leaders of the radical new dance form known as “modern dance”.
Doris Humphrey realized the inadequacy of the colorful but superficial Denishawn dances. Seeking a deeper understanding of the movement possibilities of the human body and its universal expressiveness, she created a new vocabulary based on the principle of fall and recovery fro gravity. With it, she built a repertory of works among them “Water Study,” “Life of the Bee,” “Two Ecstatic Themes,” and “The Shakers.”
The Humphrey-Weidman Company toured the country in the 1930s, establishing the esthetic and audience base for their innovative dance. They created works addressed to contemporary concerns. In this period, Doris Humphrey choreographed the dramatic trilogy “Theatre Piece,” an exposition of innate human competitiveness and rivalry, “With My Red Fires,” a portrayal of emotional life, the consuming passion of love, and “New Dance,” a depiction of the possibility of reaching a state of human harmony which recognizes individualism.
As a choreographer, Doris Humphrey excelled in her designs for groups, mass movements and sculptural shapes. This was seen throughout her career from early works such as “Soaring,” to one of her last, “Dawn in New York.”
In 1945, suffering from arthritis, Doris Humphrey gave up performing and devoted herself to serving as Artistic Director for the Jose Limon Company and creating works for it. Among these were “Day on Earth,” “Night Spell,” “Ruins and Visions.” In 1958, she made her last and very lasting contribution, a book, The Art of Making Dances, in which she set forth her choreographic principles. Doris Humphrey died December 29, 1958.