DVD REVIEW: We Owe Her Everything, “Martha Hill: Making Dance Matter”

 “Modern dance is not a system, it is a point of view,”


There isn’t much more I need to add to the words of dance pioneer and legend, Martha Hill. This review is about the recent documentary that came out, Miss Hill – Making Dance Matter director by Greg Vander Veer, but, like many things in dance, there’s something more behind the images and videos. The concept of dance in higher education is extraordinarily important, and something more and more majors are taking for granted in America.

We learn about her in dance history 101 classes; she stands besides Holm, Weidman, Graham, and Humphrey, and right in the middle with Bennington School of Dance. But we gloss over the sheer determination and lasting impact of her work in favor for the histories of Balanchine or Morris (equally as important in their respective ways, but overblown in undergrad dance courses).

What this documentary aims to achieve is a clear understanding of the deeper devotion to dance which Miss Hill fought for during the early 20th century. Now remember, a dance degree wasn’t always as devalued as it is now, because it was simply not even a possibility. We’ve come from nothing and waned and waxed into less than nothing, for the time being; BFAs and MFAs, they both had their time in the spotlight but who put them there in the first place?

Miss Hill and a handful of similar educators, dancers, and choreographers came together to not only preserve the integrity of modern dance but to bring all dance into higher education. Many certainties about dance as an art form would have crumbled if dance had not entered higher education. Look at music; studied in elite, aristocratic conservatories for centuries and then placed in higher education, where any one could have a chance at Bach and Chopin along with Miles Davis and Bob Dylan.

We talk about diversity in audience demographics and keeping everyone involved in dance, but Miss Hill really realized this because higher education in America, although it has waves of financial stress which many students can not shoulder without aid, has always fostered the chance for opportunities for everyone.

Miss Hill – Making Dance Matter isn’t the perfect documentary, but it’s informative and filled with personal stories about Miss Hill herself. Some people believe it’s too short; I think the length suited the small section that they wanted to focus on. It could have gone into Bennington a bit more and maybe some of Miss Hill’s earlier life and interactions with the “Big Four.”

I think humanizing the big shots of dance, alone and with each other, helps when spreading them around to the general dance audience, a la Misty Copeland, but keeping their image focused on dance instead of limited personal categories is key, a la Misty Copeland.

But most definitely I will be showing this one in any college dance history or appreciation class I teach in the future. I also suggest the companion biography by Janet Soares, Martha Hill and the Making of American Dance.

I wouldn’t have been able to write a undergrad thesis specifically focused on dance (pictured above with my copy of the DVD) without the founder of dance in academia acknowledging that there are people who wish to research, write, and read about dance in a serious and developed manner.

Dance in higher education, I’m coming to realize more and more with each day as a post-grad, is a very special, wonderful, fascinating, and honest place to be involved in; dance majors are also some of the most caring and true friends I’ve ever had the pleasure of making while in community college and at TXST, because we become a family of collaborations and curiosity.

We don’t stress just how much we owe to Martha Hill; we, as American dance majors, owe her everything.

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