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Martha Hill, Dance Educator, Is Dead at 94

By Jennifer Dunning

The New York Times

November 21, 1995

Martha Hill, a pioneer in American dance education who founded the American Dance Festival in addition to dance departments at Bennington College and the Juilliard School, died on Sunday at her home in Brooklyn. She was 94.

A tall, big-boned woman with an irreverent sense of humor and a no-nonsense approach to training modern dancers, Ms. Hill was of incalculable importance in the development of modern dance in America. She came of age in the field when the art was taught, if at all, as an adjunct to college physical education courses. By the 1980's, when she retired from teaching, universities throughout the nation offered undergraduate and graduate degrees in dance.

In her zeal to encourage and promote modern dance, Ms. Hill combined performances by leading creative figures with the dance divisions she established at college summer schools. She founded the Bennington School of the Dance and its summer festival at Bennington College in Vermont in 1934and the Connecticut College School of the Dance in New London in 1948. The American Dance Festival (which moved to Duke University in Durham, N.C., in 1978) was founded by her at Connecticut College as an outgrowth of the Bennington program.

The festivals provided exposure and creative opportunities to most of the major modern-dance choreographers at crucial times in their young careers. Festivals at Bennington were a proving ground for Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm. Performances and classes at the festival offered much-needed early support to choreographers including Jose Limon, Alwin Nikolais, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey.

"A queer lot, these dancers," Ms. Hill, who doubled as a square dance caller at parties at Bennington, wrote of the hectic summers in a 1950 article in The New York Times. "And yet, not queer. The first attribute of life is action. To dance is to be intensely alive."

At such festivals, she continued, students are exposed to the three fundamentals of dance education: technical training, watching great performers and participating in good talk. Her hope, she wrote, was that the young dancers could come out of the experience "with an informed attitude toward dance where they no longer secretly use the 19th-century classification of dance that is 'graceful, ungraceful or disgraceful,' nor yet again fall victim to the old fundamentalist quarrel between the traditional ballet and the experimental modern dance, which is now only a tale with which the elders sometimes divert the young."

Ms. Hill, who was born in East Palestine, Ohio, came to dance through studies in music and the Dalcroze technique of rhythmic analysis. She received a bachelor's degree from Teachers College of Columbia University and a master's degree from New York University.

She performed with Graham from 1929 to 1931, but committed herself to dance education early on, joining the fledgling dance faculty at New York University in 1930. education early on, joining the fledgling dance faculty at New York University in 1930. She became its director and established a graduate program there, leaving in 1951 to found the dance department at Juilliard, which she directed until 1985. She was associated with the Bennington summer school and festival from 1934 to 1942. In 1948, Ms. Hill re-created the school and festival in New London where they remained until 1978.

Ms. Hill never subscribed to the kind of specialization she helped to foster in dance. She was determined to train performers at Juilliard, where she drew in leading ballet and modern-dance choreographers as teachers. But many of the students at the avant-garde Bennington sessions were gym teachers rather than professional dancers. "I have always said that dance is an art," Ms. Hill told Anna Kisselgoff, chief dance critic of The New York Times, in a interview in 1982. "Dance in education and dance in the theater are not different things. The degree of proficiency may vary but the aim is to do dance as dancing, and to teach it as dance."

Ms. Hill also taught and choreographed at the University of Chicago and Kansas State Teachers College in the 1920's and 30's, at the University of Oregon and in colleges throughout the nation. In Australia, she was a co-director of the choreographic conferences of the University of New South Wales in Sydney and the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne.

Ms. Hill was a consultant for the United States Office of Education and wrote the dance section in a teachers' manual in 1943. She was also the chairman of the advisory committee for modern-dance series at City Center in 1949. She received honorary degrees from Adelphi University, Bennington College, Mount Holyoke College and Towson State University. Other awards include the City of New York Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture, in 1984.

Ms. Hill was married to Thurston Davies, who died in 1961. She is survived by a brother, Lewis, of Lake Alfred, Fla., and a step-daughter, Judith Dilts, of San Jose, Calif.

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