By Barbara Malinsky, Curatorial Advisor

Serena Plasikowsky

Dance is ephemeral.  It exists for a moment in time and then evanesces. The remains of the dance are personal impressions and memories, professional critiques, memoirs, biographies, historical essays, photographs, systems of notation, and most recently film and video.

In an unprecedented crowd-sourced Dance History Project, the Connecticut Dance Alliance has documented the many facets of the history of dance in Connecticut by utilizing an on-line gallery of over two thousand photographs submitted by members of the dance community to curate a photographic exhibition, Connecticut Dances – A Visual History. This exhibit will travel throughout the state and is accompanied by a compendium of articles, scholarly essays, memoirs, and associated photographs.

Unlike the visual arts, which are tangible and can be seen in any given museum, capturing the fleeting nature of dance can be a challenge. In reaching out to the statewide dance community of individuals, companies, scholars, schools, presenters and other sources, the Dance History Project has provided an innovative model for developing and sharing a communal dance history.

Connecticut can reach as far back to its Native American tribes for whom dance was an integral part of their culture. The Pequot/Mashantucket, Narragansett, and others, in spite of early government efforts to eradicate their culture, have retained their dances and celebrate their music, dance, and culture every year at a powwow at the Pequot Museum in Mashantucket, Connecticut.  As recently as the 1960s, the United States government forbade Native Americans from performing ceremonial dances on their own reservations.  It was feared that the dances might unleash a host of emotions leading to insurgency.  Religious dances, which are an integral part of native culture, were almost lost forever.  Fortunately, some were secretly preserved by a younger generation of tribal members.

When Europeans came to the continent, they differed on their views of dance.  Early settlers like Quakers and Puritans forbade dancing and, in fact, many religious groups in the United States still censor it.  The Puritan influences of Boston and the Quaker powers of Philadelphia were both successful in banning dance in their respective cities’ earlier histories.  However, in Connecticut the Shakers who had a settlement in Enfield embraced it as part of their worship service.

In spite of these restrictions, even in austere New England, people danced.  When time permitted solemn Puritans danced following the ‘plaine and easy rules’ of John Playford’s English Dancing Master, which were approved by the elders who allowed country dances that were not “mixt”.  Eventually, the laws of Connecticut became relaxed and permitted citizens to dance without partners prior to the Revolution.  Eventually, when Europeans arrived to embrace this new country they brought their dancing talents with them.  There were Balls, Assembly Dances, and Ordination Balls in South Windsor, Norwich, New London, New Haven, and Hartford private events.

Mary & Carmel Angleo

After the war, dancing continued to play an integral role in the lives of colonial New Englanders who began to develop their own styles of dance.  What might be America’s first dancing expert, John Griffith published his Collection of the Newest and Most Fashionable Country Dances and Cotillions (1788), expressing an independence from European dance masters.

By the 1840s, theatrical dance was gaining popularity with the citizens of Connecticut.  In 1868, the White Fawn Ballet appeared in Hartford at Allyn Hall.  The Hartford Courant commented that it was “terpsichorean displays interlaced with singing.” By the late 19th century, there was a rise of culture clubs introducing America’s upper-middle class to different forms of artistic expression such as literature, poetry, pottery, and dance through lectures and demonstrations.  Connecticut mothers, convinced that dance was valuable to their children’s well being, began enrolling them in dance or ballet classes.  By the turn of the century, there were new ballet schools growing by leaps and bounds as Europeans arrived on our shores.  However, it would take some time for Connecticut to develop a grass roots cache of professional dancers and dance companies, become a center of dance, and make its own contributions to the field.

By the early 20th century, citizens had the opportunity to see Anna Pavlova perform at the Parsons Theater in 1911 and 1913.  In 1916, during the years of the Russian Revolution, the Ballets Russes toured extensively in the United States and also performed at the Parsons Theater.  This exposure to ballet prompted the opening of many ballet schools.

A prestigious collection of Ballets Russes materials was acquired in 1933 for the Wadsworth Atheneum through the foresight of the Atheneum’s young museum director Everett “Chick” Austin who purchased over 150 works from the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City.  The collection comprised set and costume designs and costumes from the Ballets Russes inherited by Serge Lifar from his mentor Serge Diaghiev, the great creative force behind the world-renowned company.  Austin’s passion for art in all its manifestations – visual, music, theater, and ballet – prompted the acquisition.  In that one inspired coup, he would secure a prominent place in the history of dance for Connecticut.  He also revealed his passion for dance by supporting Truda Kaschmann and her protégé Alwin Nikolai in their avant-garde dance pursuits.

Angelo ballet school

About fifteen years later, Connecticut again secured a unique place in the history of dance.  Connecticut College was the home of the American Dance Festival (ADF) from 1948 to 1977.  During that period, the college provided a nurturing atmosphere for many well-known American artists to create their work, giving birth to the development of “modern” dance in America.

Throughout that time, the ADF premiered some of the greatest 20th century American artists’ works including those by Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Eric Hawkins, Sophie Maslow, Jose Limòn, Alwin Nikolais, Merce Cunningham, Helen Tamaris, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Yvonee Rainer, Bella Lewitsky, Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean, Trisha Brown, Pilobolus, and others.  It presented a total of one hundred-seventy three dances.  This was the impetus for Martha Myers’ founding the dance department in 1971. She led it until 1992 and continued as dean of the (ADF) in North Carolina.  That time was considered to be “magic” by dancers from all over the world who would sit on the lawn to watch the avant-garde taking place. This inspired the establishment of more dance companies throughout the state.

To date, dance can boast a presence in university programs such as Wesleyan University, Trinity College, Connecticut College, Yale University, the Hartford Conservatory, Hartford College for Women, the Hartt School of the University of Hartford, and others.  Connecticut offers ballet companies like Connecticut Ballet Theater, Connecticut Ballet, Eastern Connecticut Ballet, New Haven Ballet, and the Albano Ballet. There are also contemporary dance companies such as Full Force Dance Theatre and Judy Dworin Performance Project and is home to modern dance companies Pilobolus and Momix.

There are ballet and dance schools throughout the state that are too numerous to mention.  Connecticut dancers and companies also participate in venues beyond the studio such as Judy Dworin’s work at Niantic Prison, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, and the Ted Hershey Dance and Music Marathon.

In reaching back to Connecticut’s social and cultural dance history, the exhibition comprises a series of portraits of the art of dance that represents the state’s significant dance heritage, including the pioneering work of individual dancers, choreographers, companies, and the impact of schools and teachers.  The exhibition brings to life the valuable contributions that dance has brought to the cultural vitality of Connecticut.

The CT Humanities, The Edward C. and Ann T. Roberts Foundation, the NewAlliance Foundation and the Greater Hartford Arts Council funded the project.  Exhibition dates are January 19 through March 4, 2017 at the Connecticut Historical Society, One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, CT 06105, 860.236.5621.  Thereafter it will tour the state.

To view the complete project collections of images visit:

5 replies
  1. Barbara Malinsky
    Barbara Malinsky says:

    Only those who responded to the CDA outreach were included in the exhibition. The Ink article is just an overview highlighting the most significant moments in Ct Dance History.

  2. Richard
    Richard says:

    What a wonderful exhibition. I have no connections to the Dance World but love dance. We can be very proud of this states dance history.

  3. Jane Treubig
    Jane Treubig says:

    I was expecting to see Russell Fratto and his company mentioned. His legacy is still being carried on by one of his company members, Beth Fritz Logrea and her company The Westchester Ballet Company.

  4. Debbie
    Debbie says:

    I was hoping to read about Russel Fratto and his work in Fairfield County with his company, Ballet Etudes.

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