The National Youth Administration (NYA) Dance Group is the least-documented and least-remembered art program of the New Deal. It is not mentioned in the NYA’s final report or Hallie Flangan’s book, Arena, nor does it appear to have received any scholarly examination . However, it lasted for several years; operated in at least three large cities (San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and New York); sometimes worked in conjunction with the Federal Theatre Project and the Federal Music Project; and helped produce one of America’s most fascinating dancers, Pearl Primus.
In San Francisco, the NYA Dance Group was directed by Ann Whittington, with Rosalie Wagner serving as assistant director. A 1938 newspaper spotlight on Wagner included valuable information on the program: “Miss Wagner has many complimentary things to say about the National Youth Administration and her opinions are based on personal experience… She joined the NYA dance group in 1936, remaining for two years as a soloist and assistant director. This group reached a high point in achievement with a concert in Oakland in 1937 with the Federal Symphony, the first performance of a local dance group with a symphony seen in the Bay area in many years” .
Jack Mason, long-time writer for the Oakland Tribune, described the performance: “The Federal Symphony Orchestra took a step aside last night at the Auditorium Theater to make way for a guest Muse – the Dance, exemplified by the Modern Dance Group of the National Youth Administration. The dancers took over the second half of the program and enhanced it by ten original and stimulating numbers… The dances concentrated on rhythmic line, geometric pattern, and comedy… all [dancers] exhibited a fine talent for pantomime… it was an evening of singular enjoyment. Choreography for the dances was by Ann Whittington and Rosalie Wagner” .
The NYA Dance Group performed elsewhere in the Bay Area, including the San Francisco Museum of Art, schools and community centers in San Francisco, and a federal recreation center .
The NYA Dance Group in Pittsburgh was directed by James Bruff, and performed for high school students, disabled children, juvenile detention center inmates, government employees, and audiences at the Woods Run Settlement Home .
There was a dance group in New York as well, although its exact relationship to the other two groups is unclear. Regardless, the New York program produced the NYA’s most famous dancer: Pearl Primus. Primus had been a biology and pre-med student at Hunter College and New York University but had difficulty finding work to support her schooling, so she applied to an NYA dance troupe in 1941 . With only a minor amount of dance experience, Primus started in wardrobe but was soon put on the stage when another dancer dropped out. Primus recalled: “They put me in the back row because they said I looked clumsy” .
In just a few short years Primus became a top American dancer, known for her athletic jumps, “which makes one wonder whether she is merely leaping through the air or whether some unknown force is actually carrying her from one end of the stage to the other” . The New York Age explained that Primus “pirouetted to choreographic fame via the National Youth Administration and the New Dance Group of New York” . Primus danced for many decades, earned a doctorate in anthropology at NYU, taught ethnic studies at the University of Massachusetts, and received the National Medal of Arts in 1991 .
Though the NYA Dance Group was a small operation, and now forgotten, its performers had a strong sense of mission. Young Rosalie Wagner spoke of the no-nonsense style of her Modern Dance technique: “The audience looks for grace in dancing, and many are disappointed not to find it in all modern dances… [but] 1938 is not a graceful era. Speed, directness, a point of view, are essential” . And Pearl Primus once explained, “I didn’t choose to dance about a flower or a running brook or something. I chose to answer the ills of society with the language of dance” .
(1) Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944; Hallie Flanagan, Arena, New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940. (2) “Feminine World,” The Honolulu Advertiser, August 16, 1938, p. 6. (3) “Dance Group Shares Honors At Federal Symphony Concert,” Oakland Tribune, October 23, 1937, p. 2. (4) “Dance Programs,” The San Francisco Examiner, March 20, 1937, p. 20; “They Dance For Their Supper,” Oakland Tribune, July 25, 1937, p. 20; “Today At Fair,” Oakland Tribune, August 23, 1939, p. 8. (5) “NYA Dancers to Perform,” The Pittsburgh Press, August 11, 1937, p. 8; “3 Performances Slated,” The Pittsburgh Press, October 17, 1937, p. 16; “Entertain Children,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 30, 1937, p. 6. (6) “Pioneers of African American Dance,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), December 30, 1994, p. 4. (7) “Dare Started Pearl Primus on Unexpected Dance Career,” The Boston Globe, January 15, 1947, p. 9. (8) “Bulletin ‘About Town’ Reviews Dance Recital, Italian Film,” Barnard Bulletin (New York, New York), April 15, 1948, p. 2. (9) “Pearl Primus Listed in April Issue of Current Biography,” The New York Age, April 15, 1944, p. 10. (10) “Pearl Primus: American anthropologist, dancer, and choreographer,” Encyclopedia Brittanica (accessed July 17, 2021). (11) “Rosalie Wagner in Concert At Art Academy October 13,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, October 8, 1938, p. 27. (12) “Pearl Primus,” Los Angeles Times, April 24, 1994, pp. 5 and 56 (“Dance” section).