Sophie Maslow, who died last month at 95, opened my eyes to a number of important things when I was a young dancer, coming from a cloistered company to take classes at the New Dance Group. I knew almost nothing about her. She’d finished her 12 years with Martha Graham’s company long before then, and the Dudley-Maslow-Bales trio she’d formed in the 1940s with Jane Dudley and William Bales was defunct.
I didn’t know it was okay for modern dancers to be glamorous; Sophie taught wearing a fringed red jersey bolero over her black leotard and red lipstick to match. I didn’t know rabbis ever danced, or that a piece of choreography could create a vision of community as tender as her The Village I Knew. I didn’t recognize the taped voice singing at our rehearsals for a revival of her 1942 Folksay, but I immediately went out and bought a 10-inch LP of Pete Seeger.
Nor did I understand much about the craft of choreography until I danced in one of the suites she often composed for the annual Hanukkah Festivals at Madison Square Garden (among other things, we built a pipeline out of bamboo hoops while dancing). I also stood in for Sophie while she was making Anniversary for a BAM concert. She didn’t come to the studio with everything planned; often, we sat around while she wrung the choreography out of herself. But I remember running home and describing to my roommates how amazingly, how powerfully she had turned the fact of dancers simply bouncing in a lunge, without traveling an inch, into the exodus of Jews from the Warszaw ghetto.
Born before World War I in New York to Russian-Jewish parents, coming of age during the Depression, Maslow grew up with a social conscience and a respect for the workers of the world. She translated that into dances that expressed both the gritty and the idealistic aspects of the human condition.