The Arty Semite

Rare Glimpse Into American Dance

By Renee Ghert-Zand

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of Michael Rice

Michael Rice grew up hearing stories about his mother’s early life as a dancer in New York City, but they never meant all that much to him. “I paid attention, but it was just my mom…my brother and I had a different life,” the now adult Rice reflected.

But when he and his wife Jane unpacked a long-forgotten box his mother, Paula Yasgour, had left behind following her death from cancer in 1993, he realized how significant those stories were. In the box he found the unbound pages of a scrapbook chronicling Yasgour’s career during the nascent years of modern American dance, from 1928 to 1933.

Programs, clippings, photographs and other memorabilia relating to Yasgour’s dance career are now on display at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library in San Francisco until February 23. “A Dancer’s Scrapbook” is a glimpse into the life of the young Yasgour at a time when Jewish women fought on various fronts to take part in this new American art form.

“Jewish women immigrants wanted to find something to connect them to American life, a way to break away from tradition,” explained Joanna Harris, a dance teacher, historian and critic, who studied with many of the early modern dancers. “But women in bare feet and ankles, wiggling their tushes was not very accepted. Jews associated dance with burlesque,” she noted. “Modern dance always seemed strange. There was no fame, no money associated with it. And it was performed in union halls, which really made it not kosher.”

However, according to Rice, it seemed that Yasgour’s mother was supportive of her dancing. Her parents had separated and her itinerant rabbi father was out of the picture for the family of five children living in the Bronx. Yasgour began dancing professionally at 19 in 1928, originally using her birth name, Rose. “My mother earned a living as a dancer. She wasn’t just using her being an artist as a way to rebel” Rice noted.

While Yasgour may not have had to contend with disapproval from family and community, she did face latent anti-Semitism among those running the dance companies of the era. By 1926, Rose was studying at the Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn “School of Dancing and the Related Arts.” St Denis and Shawn, known collectively as “Denishawn” were pioneers of modern dance.

In 1928, the company’s lead dancers and choreographers, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman left to form the Humphrey-Weidman company, in large part as a protest against Denishawn’s 10% quota for dancers who were “not All-American.” The Jewish dancers, including Yasgour, went with Humphrey-Weidman, and the company ended up being 50% Jewish, according to Rice. “Doris Humphrey was quoted as saying, ‘The Jewish girls dance like angels,’” Harris said.

Economic pressures led to the company’s dancers performing in Broadway musicals in the early 1930s. The San Francisco exhibition includes programs and photographs of Yasgour’s appearance in the 1934 Irving Berlin-Moss Hart hit “As Thousands Cheer.”

Yasgour also worked as a model for female sculptors. A small piece by Harriet Frishmuth, for which Yasgour modeled, is among the items on display.

However, by the end of 1934, Yasgour had left the world of modern dance behind. Instead, she opted for the life of a housewife and mother. After World War II, she, her husband, and their two sons lived for nine years in Europe, where her husband worked as a social worker for the Joint Distribution Committee, assisting Holocaust survivors. Later, the family moved back to the U.S., where her husband worked as a professional in the Jewish community.

“She would make a point of going with my father to dance performances, like those of the Jose Limon who was also a student of Doris Humphrey,” Rice recalled. It seems that despite Yasgour’s short-lived career, Limon — who led his own dance company — remembered her, too. In his “An Unfinished Memoir,” he wrote:

Doris had trained a group of girls who were a wonder to behold. Some, of course were more gifted than others. But you had to be very good to meet her standards. I remember Eleanor King, Cleo Atheneos, Sylvia Manning, Celia Rauch, Katherine Manning, Virginia Landreth, Dorothy Lathrop, Rose Crystal, Rose Yasgour…”

Now others have a chance to remember a forgotten moment in American dance.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Rose Yasgour, Renee Ghert-Zand, Paula Yasgour, Michael Rice, Joanna Harris, Exhibits, Dance

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.