Stepping Left

Dance and Politics in New York City, 1928–1942

Stepping Left

Book Pages: 264 Illustrations: 58 b&w photographs Published: July 1997

Author: Ellen Graff

American Studies, History > U.S. History, Theater and Performance > Dance

Stepping Left simultaneously unveils the radical roots of modern dance and recalls the excitement and energy of New York City in the 1930s. Ellen Graff explores the relationship between the modern dance movement and leftist political activism in this period, describing the moment in American dance history when the revolutionary fervor of "dancing modern" was joined with the revolutionary vision promised by the Soviet Union. This account reveals the major contribution of Communist and left-wing politics to modern dance during its formative years in New York City.
From Communist Party pageants to union hall performances to benefits for the Spanish Civil War, Graff documents the passionate involvement of American dancers in the political and social controversies that raged throughout the Depression era. Dancers formed collectives and experimented with collaborative methods of composition at the same time that they were marching in May Day parades, demonstrating for workers’ rights, and protesting the rise of fascism in Europe. Graff records the explosion of choreographic activity that accompanied this lively period—when modern dance was trying to establish legitimacy and its own audience. Stepping Left restores a missing legacy to the history of American dance, a vibrant moment that was supressed in the McCarthy era and almost lost to memory. Revisiting debates among writers and dancers about the place of political content and ethnicity in new dance forms, Stepping Left is a landmark work of dance history.


Stepping Left . . . reverberates with alternative visions. . . . Graff explores the relationship between modern dance and left-wing political activism. . . . Fortunately Cultural History has enabled Labour History to be enriched by demonstrating that art is intertwined with politics.”

— , Labour History Review

Stepping Left offers new insights into the roots of modern dance and the exciting political ferment of the New York cultural scene in the 1930s. . . . [A] rich addition to dance history. . .” — Wendy Kozel, Labour/Le Travail

“[A]n informative study of a neglected cultural movement, which should appeal to a variety of interested persons.” — Kenneth J. Bindas, American Historical Review

“Copiously illustrated with fantastic images, this book is worthy of a careful perusal.” — Thomas DeFrantz, DCA News

“Graff has crafted a lively and engaging dance history, one that not only analyzes choreography but also choreographs the personal networks and institutional relations through which radical dance was created. . . . Graff communicates to the reader the passion with which she approaches her subject, arguing persuasively that American modern dance cannot be understood without attention to the social vision that imbued many of its earliest—if not its best-known—practitioners.” — Andrea Friedman, Journal of American History

“Passion, an integral component of the intersection between dance and politics, permeates the pages of Ellen Graff’s Stepping Left, as she vividly recounts the rise and decline of New York City’s left-wing dance movement, an aspect of American modern dance recently placed under fresh scrutiny by dance scholars. . . . Stepping Left is the most comprehensive chronicle of the political dance in New York City and the first book by a single author to be devoted to telling the story of the revolutionary dance movement . . . . [A] model of inquiry and research, posing many intriguing questions for future scholars.” — Stacey Prickett, Dance Chronicle

“The book—which is packed with archival materials and anecdotes—is an engaging read.” — , Socialist Worker

"Stepping Left should be grimly diverting reading for readers frustrated by the political restrictions involved with the National Endowment for the Arts. Graff, in gracious, blessedly un-academic prose, reminds us that the federal government’s first attempt to fund creators and performers, the dance wing of the Federal Theater Project (set up by the Roosevelt Administration under the WPA in 1936) was also a storm-tossed affair." — Harris Green, Dance Magazine

"Graff has written a balanced account of revolutionary dance in America. She clearly describes the rise and fall of this understudied movement, and she offers a coherent and plausible explanation for its collapse. . . . Graff’s account of the intersection of dance and politics in New York City from 1928 to 1942 is a welcome addition to both labor history and American cultural history." — R. Todd Shuman, International Labor and Working-Class History

Stepping Left is the first extended study of the origins, development, influence, and legacy of the radical dance movement that emerged in the United States during the 1930s. Quite simply, this book will change how the history of American dance in that decade is written.” — Lynn Garafola, author of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes

Stepping Left offers a lively synthesis of archival evidence and oral history that vividly recreates an era when dance became ‘a weapon in the revolutionary class struggle,’ to quote the slogan of the Workers Dance League. Graff gracefully integrates biographical information on the dancers involved with accounts of the organizations they founded and descriptions of specific works they created. Her study fills an important gap in the literature on American dance.” — Susan Manning, author of Ecstacy and the Demon: Feminism and Nationalism in the Dances of Mary Wigman


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Price: $26.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ellen Graff, a former Martha Graham dancer, is Assistant Professor of Dance at Barnard College, Columbia University.

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Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Winner, de la Torre Bueno Award, Dance Perspectives Foundation

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1948-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1953-5
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