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Anna Sokolow: Dancer, Immigrant, Labor Activist #SouthOfUnionSquare

The inspirational and unforgettable Anna Sokolow (February 9, 1910 – March 29, 2000) danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company at 64-66 Fifth Avenue between 1930 and 1939 before going on to reshape and spread the gospel of modern dance across the world. As a performer, choreographer, and teacher, Sokolow had an extraordinary influence on the world of dance, drawing inspiration from her own life and the challenges she saw in the world throughout the 20th century. Her style, work ethic, and uncompromising look at social issues earned her the nickname “the rebellious spirit” of modern dance.

Anna Sokolow in Kaddish, 1945. Courtesy of the Sokolow Dance Foundation.

Anna Sokolow, in all of her wonder, is but one of the incredibly talented and notable people who have lived and worked in the area south of Union Square. To share our research on historically significant figures in the area like Anna Sokolow, we created the South of Union Square map. The map has over 40 tours that highlight different historical themes that are prominent in this area, including a Leftists and Labor Tour, a Dance Tour, and a Jewish History Tour, all of which now feature Anna Sokolow. 

64-66 Fifth Avenue, 1940 (l.) and 2021.

The Dance Tour highlights great dancers and choreographers, as well as dance studios in the area south of Union Square. Anna Sokolow was placed on this tour due to her many years of studying and practicing the art form and her tremendous sphere of influence in the practice. Her time spent at the Martha Graham studio (also on the tour) was extensive and occurred during her first dance concert debut. Alongside Sokolow on the Dance tour is the home of Tony Award-winning dancer Agnes De Mille, who was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1973. Also on the tour is the Valerie Bettis Dance Studio located at 34 East 10th Street. Bettis was a choreographer and performer of modern dance, ballet, television, film, and Broadway.

34 East 10th Street

The Leftists and Labor Tour highlight the tremendous labor history that occurred here, including some of the most prominent figures and organizations in the labor movement. Anna Sokolow is on this tour due to her involvement in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and her unique approach to dance by incorporating references to the struggles of the labor movement into her choreography, drawing labor unions as her first audience. Sokolow was creative in her approach to combine culture and progressive movements, but she wasn’t alone. On this tour, you can also see the Workers Laboratory Theater, at 42 East 12th Street, which sought to differentiate itself from Broadway and engage the working class, and Grove Press, which published some of the era’s most controversial works. 

42 East 12th Street

The Jewish History Tour was created to highlight the many significant sites and people pertinent to New York’s Jewish history. Anna Sokolow was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, but it is not solely her heritage that has placed her on this tour. Her work drew upon and referenced the Holocaust, Orthodox Jewish Wedding Ceremonies, and the Old Testament, among other themes, and she premiered multiple works at the 92nd Street Y as well as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association. On this tour Sokolow sits amongst such other important sites of Jewish History as the Jewish Workers Circle, which fought for civil liberties and was the origin of the International Workers Orders at 80 Fifth Avenue, and the home of Igal Roodenko, a noted printer, socialist, and activist whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. Roodenko had a business at 36 East 10th Street. 

80 Fifth Avenue, headquarters of the Internation Workers Orders (1930-1954)

This is only the tip of the iceberg of the area south of Union Square’s fascinating and important history. The people who worked and lived there used their skills, be they artists, dancers, writers, musicians, or publishers, to speak for and to marginalized and vulnerable communities during times of great instability in the world. Anna Sokolow may be a giant in the world of dance, labor, and Jewish history. But in the South of Union Square, she is just one piece of the rich tapestry of art, activism, and all kinds of activities that unfolded in these miraculously preserved historic streetscapes. 

To help landmark the buildings listed above and the other buildings in this area, click here. To read more history of the buildings and area south of Union Square, and our preservation efforts in the area, click here.

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