'An American Revolutionary. A centenary tribute' - Dorothy Madden (1912-2009)


Dance Research, Winter Edition 2013


Dorothy Madden was an inspirational dancer, teacher, writer and choreographer; she studied with many of the great figures of American modern dance including Holm, Nikolais, Graham, Humphrey and Limón, and in particular Louis Horst whose protégé she became.  In the early 1960s she was invited to the UK by the Ministry of Education to introduce her approach to American modern dance into the British education system. As is noted in Valerie Preston Dunlop and Luis Espana’s film ‘The American Invasion 1962-72’ her work was seminal to the development of contemporary dance in the UK.  Her students who include  choreographers Rosemary Butcher, Sue MacClennan and Janet Smith as well as educationalists June Layson, David Henshaw  and Stuart Hopps, helped shape British contemporary dance.  This essay is based on interviews made with Madden in the late 1990s, research into her archive held at Trinity Laban, and interviews with her colleagues and students. It provides a historical overview of her work and explores her lasting, though largely forgotten, influence on the development of contemporary dance in the UK.

I knew Dorothy Madden for the last 20 years of her life. We first met in 1989 at Walter Nick’s school in Poitiers, France, where I was Artist in Residence and she was a visiting choreography tutor, a role she played in many institutions across Europe.  When I returned to the UK in 1991 I kept in regular contact with her and we had many stimulating and lively conversations on the art of dancing and beyond, for Dorothy had a wildly inquiring mind about the human condition. Yet only in 2005 with the appearance of Valerie Preston -Dunlop’s film The American Invasion 1962-72 which documents the influence of American modern dance on dance in the UK did I come to realise just how important a figure Dorothy was in the development of contemporary dance in Britain. In over 15 years of conversation  she never once made anything of her pioneering activities, always if anything playing them down, a self-deprecating style which I have come to recognise as a trait of New Englanders of a certain vintage.  Yet it was through this pioneering work, teaching and performing at physical education colleges throughout the country and through the summer schools she led at Dartington College throughout the 60s that she singlehandedly introduced the American tradition of modern dance education to these islands. By that I do not mean a conservatoire style training, but the type of dance that grew in American universities often developing from Physical Education programmes and often based on the pioneering work of Margaret H ‘Doubler at the University of Wisconsin.  This was a form of education that developed the whole person and saw that technical ability was not an end in itself but was at the service of creativity.

Writing after the death of American educator Martha Hill the dance critic Anna Kisselgoff observed “When one looks at what is happening in dance now, the branches in the family tree more often than not lead back to Martha Hill…And if times have changed Martha had something to do with it.”  The same could be said of Dorothy Madden in Britain where, as this paper shows, her British students have influenced dance practice and dance education at every level, from community work, to work in schools, to degree level and to professional performance.  Yet she is a largely forgotten figure, her legacy like a palimpsest written over by the distance of time but more pertinently by the enormous success of the work of Robert Cohan and Robin Howard at The Place which developed a conservatoire style Graham- based training and professional outlet in the form of the London Contemporary Dance Theatre.  It seems fitting therefore, in her centenary year to attempt to document some of her legacy and to highlight some of the achievements of this catalyst of British dance.


This paper is based on conversations with Dorothy and information in her extensive archive held at Trinity-Laban.  This archive which she paid to have catalogued and donated to Laban before her death is an, as yet, almost unexplored resource covering as it does many aspects of dance education and training in the USA, Britain and Europe.  For the many colleagues, friends and students of Dorothy who spoke to me at length, sifting through over forty years of memories was not always easy and  I am very grateful for their thoughts and comments most of which have not been documented before.