Federal Dance Project (1936)

The Federal Dance Project (FDP) was a “semiautonomous unit” within the Federal Theatre Project [1].  It began in January 1936, after months of advocacy by those interested in a WPA program specifically for unemployed dancers.  Choreographer and modern dance pioneer Helen Tamiris is frequently credited with being the major force behind the FDP: “As soon as the Federal Theatre Project was formed in August 1935, under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, Tamiris took the lead and accomplished the feat of getting dancers as a group recognized for themselves rather than just as elements within the theatre part of the project” [2].  The first director of the FDP was Don Oscar Becque, and dance units were set up in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Tampa, and Portland, Oregon.

The FDP was a godsend for many struggling dancers, and unemployed dancers “were hired under four categories: ballet, modern dance, vaudeville, and teaching” [3].  Unfortunately, it did not take long for the project to become mired in tension and controversy.  Becque left after only one year, blaming “excessive political activity, the virtual impossibility of getting scenery, costumes and theatres for dance productions and the open and avowed efforts to prevent any sort of professional standards being set up” [4].  Hallie Flanagan would later write that the dancers in the FDP were a “volcanic group” [5].

Some months after Becque’s departure, the Dancing Teachers Business Association (DTBA) wrote: “… the Federal dance project of the WPA in New York City has been the center of unparalleled unprofessionalism and shameful political agitation… The association deplores the obvious lack of respect for taxpayers’ money… [and the] masking of political and propagandistic drivel under the guise of ‘unite against war and fascism’… [I]t is high time that dancing was removed from the hands of the long-haired boys and girls who represent the ‘modern’ movement…” [6].  This was a clash of artistic tastes as well as one of political differences, but the project’s top choreographer, Helen Tamiris, was not shy about her intent to highlight unemployment, racial inequality, war, and other social ills in her work: “The validity of modern dance is rooted in its ability to express modern problems and, further, to make modern audiences want to do something about them” [7].

Despite the tension, the FDP was successful.  It produced two dozen original dance dramas, many of them quite popular.  Myra Kinch’s An American Exodus played in Los Angeles from July 1937 to January 1939 [8].  Tamiris’s How Long Brethren? ran for six months in New York City and won her Dance Magazine’s annual award of excellence for 1937 [9].  The FDP provided hundreds of jobs to people who needed them and brought dance to many thousands of Americans who might not otherwise have experienced it.  Finally, as the “first national program dedicated to the financial support of dance and dancers,” it helped set the stage for later programs, such as the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts [10].  Both the Federal Theatre Project and the FDP were terminated in 1939 when Congress blocked funding over fears of wasteful spending, racial integration, and communist agitation [11].

Sources: (1) Susan Manning, Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion, University of Minnesota Press, 2004, p. 83.  (2) Christena L. Schlundt, Tamiris: A Chronicle of Her Dance Career, 1927-1955, New York: New York Public Library, 1972, p. 40.  (3) Ann Dils, “The Federal Dance Project (FDP, 1936-1939),” Dance Heritage Coalition, 2012, accessed February 24, 2017.  (4) “Quits WPA Dance Group,” New York Times, February 7, 1937.  (5) Hallie Flanagan, Arena, New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940, p. 76.  (6) “Decry Radicalism In Dance Project,” New York Times, July 21, 1937.  (7) “Helen Tamiris, Dancer, Is Dead,” New York Times, August 5, 1966.  (8) See note 5, pp. 386-387, 421.  (9) Ibid., and “Tamiris Wins Award,” New York Times, June 20, 1937.  (10) See note 3.  (11) Ibid., and also see note 5, pp. 334-367, and Susan Quinn, Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, New York: Walker & Company, 2008, pp. 239-280.