Choreographer, dancer, teacher, and activist Helen Tamiris recently received a posthumous award from Dance Magazine, honoring "the artistry, integrity, and resilience that dance artists" have exhibited. Born Helen Becker, she took the name Tamiris for the Massagetaen queen Tomyris, who defeated and killed Cyrus the Great and his invading army in 530 BCE.
Written out of the historical record because of her activism and advocacy, Tamiris is considered to be one of the founders of modern dance. Tamiris believed “that no artist can achieve full maturity unless he recognizes his role as a citizen, taking responsibility, not only to think, but to act.” She put her beliefs into practice. In 1936, President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) created a separate dance unit, the Federal Dance Project, because of Tamiris' leadership in lobbying by New York City dancers. The Federal Dance Project wanted to bring modern dance to the people. In 1937, she created “How Long, Brethren?” a dance that performed African American protest songs in order to use those traditions to issue “a call for direct action” in the present.
Thanks to the National Film Preservation Foundation, we can get a glimpse of Tamiris' teaching here.