Modern Dance Musician, 1911-1960
Soon after women won their right to vote, they began the audacious exploration of dance as their own art form. Women were often their musical collaborators, as well. Here I’ll introduce you to a significant one: Freda Miller.
The staples of suburban dance studios seem to reference a polarity of eras: the 19th-century for “culture” and (ballet) technique; and the 21st-century’s commercial and popular social trends for fun. With one foot in Sparkly Princess Fairy Tinkerbell Ballet and the other in booty-shaking hyper-sexualized pre pole-dancing, they skip over a time with important lessons, on many levels. Modern music is but one.
In the 20th Century, women pioneered Modern Dance by staking their own ground, each step of the way. They vibrated with awareness of their own time as artists – the pace, angles and energy of industry in busy cities, and the new trends in visual art, theatre and music.
Modern dancers collaborated with modern musicians. In my quest to uncover 20th-century modern dance music, I’ve became curious about some of the musicians themselves. Of particular interest are the women who composed, recorded and marketed their work independently.
Perhaps the most prolific of these was Freda D. Miller. She produced a series of five double albums, each with music for technique exercises, thematic studies, and programmatic compositions. With this body of work, and glowing testimonials from Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Martha Hill and Hanya Holm, surely Freda Miller’s biographical information would be easy to find, right? Not quite.
The search for Freda
Through InterLibrary Loan (a big adjunct benefit), I was able to access some of her music manuscripts, but no information about her life. Searches turned up a brief obituary and showed that Freda Miller was quite a common name.
In addition to World Catalog, I scoured genealogy forums, looked through censuses and birth/death notices, subscribed to newspapers.com, and posted notices on a Jewish genealogy board. I knew she had lived in New York, and I had an approximate year of death. But it appeared she never married or had children, making it more difficult to trace her.
I received an email suggesting that a man living in New Hampshire might be her brother, as he was connected to a gravestone bearing the name of her sister. Provided with his home address, I wrote him a letter. He called me and we had a delightful conversation, but alas, he was no relation to Freda. In fact, the notion of musical talent in his family amused him greatly.
Some of the print ads for Freda’s records gave a P.O. box in Long Island for placing orders. These were published after her death, so perhaps they might lead to a next of kin who’d inherited rights to her music. I researched the P.O. box and found it belongs to Dinghy Records. Sounds promising, right? I found contact information for them, but they replied that they are not connected to Freda Miller, and don’t know who had the box before they did.
Having ruled out several of the Freda Millers found in census records, I started looking for the names of siblings, starting with brothers who would have kept the family name. Finally I found a brother, a son’s name, and on a hunch contacted a friendly face from a Google search – sure enough, Freda’s nephew.
Freda Dove Miller was born in Boston on February 12, 1911. She was the first of five children born to Russian immigrants Morris and Sara Miller, in a family of four girls and one boy. Morris owned a luggage store near South Station where members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra bought suitcases and probably instrument cases, as well.
It seems the Millers were an innately musical family. Sara was a piano teacher, Morris played the violin, and both had a deep appreciation for music. Morris arranged a family string quartet. Naturally he was first violinist, then by birth order Freda was cellist, Debbie was second violinist and Harry was violist. (No doubt Morris recruited Rhoda and Pauline, the youngest ones, when they were old enough.) On Saturdays, the family hosted musical soirees in their home. The guests once included a young Leonard Bernstein!
I was curious about what led Freda to play for dance in the first place, and wondered whether she’d had any experience with eurhythmics or modern dance, herself.
One explanation was that she ventured to New York when she found work as a rehearsal pianist for the Broadway musical My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison, and from there, she made her way into playing for modern dance classes. Indeed, she was ‘dance pianist’ for the show although it didn’t premiere until 1956, at which point she was well into her career. However, as early as the 1930s, collaborators had tried to persuade George Bernard Shaw to allow them the rights to make a musical version of Pygmalion. While Shaw stubbornly refused, it is remotely possible that composers (whether Lerner and Loewe or others) began the process optimistically.
From what her nephew has surmised and shared with me, Freda probably began her ambitious journey as a young woman eager for life and excited by its challenges, the big city, and how far she might go. In 1938, at age 27, she attended a class in dance accompaniment and composition offered at the Bennington School of Dance in Vermont. This was the seminal incubator for modern dance at the time, precursor to the American Dance Festival. Her teachers included Norman Lloyd and Louis Horst, and she was surely exposed to many modern dancers, musicians and new compositions.
The very next year, she published the score of her Technique Studies. In the fall of that year, she taught ‘Music in Relation to Dance’ at Wellesley College. By 1940, Freda Miller was Hanya Holm’s musician of choice (and/or Hanya Holm was Freda Miller’s dancer of choice!).1
When the School of Dance returned to Bennington in the summer of 1940, Freda accompanied Hanya’s classes, co-taught a workshop and played for performances. She was well on her way in only two years, without a formal music degree, and before she was 30 years old. This is what talent looks like.
A Body of Work
The Charles Weidman Studio hired her as Music Director and later even Company Manager. She accompanied Agnes de Mille, Pauline Koner, and May O’Donnell among many others, and her compositions were used by dancers including Helen Tamiris, Daniel Nagrin, and Carmen de Lavallade.
Freda’s teaching career continued as well, including Music Fundamentals for Dancers at NYU. She also organized European tours for students and teachers, and scheduled classes with Mary Wigman, Harold Kreutzberg and Rudolph von Laban. (Such wise choices, for so many reasons.)
The record releases began with Accompaniment for Technique in 1949; Albums #2 and #3 for Dance soon followed. A fourth album, Music and Rhythms for Dance, was intended for children, and “may also be used for more advanced classes.” These were originally 78 RPM records, but they later saw re-release as 33 RPM LPs along with a posthumous fifth album of archived recordings.
A Lasting Legacy
Freda Miller died of breast cancer in 1960, at age 49. One of her sisters continued her record company through the Long Island P.O. Box, for which the dance world expressed gratitude. A memorial fund was established in her name to benefit young dance composers. Those who knew her wrote of their certainty that her work would live on in modern dance.
And it has.
Even if few know of her name or her music now, the influence of Freda Miller’s music is with us. Whether specifically commissioned or adopted, her music was the inspiration for countless dancers, classes and staged choreographies. Her recordings and printed scores survived decades beyond her lifespan to influence generations of modern dancers, their students, and their students’ students.
In my view, Freda Miller is among many unsung heroines of modern dance. We’ve all heard of Louis Horst, but women like Freda Miller (and perhaps especially Freda Miller) provided the musical environment in which 20th century modern dance students were steeped daily. Freda’s music probably left dance studios about the same time record players did, but her praises sing themselves in the work of modern dancers today.
Play it Forward!
Although many of her manuscripts may be lost or inaccessible, the ones we have are well worth rediscovering both for their own merit and for what they can tell us about her dance contemporaries’ preferences for meter, phrasing, and tonality, e.g. She was nothing if not versatile. In the sampler of clips below, you’ll hear her playing with atonality, Gershwinesque styles, open parallel intervals, and vibrant ideas all her own.
Her own sense of movement is audible in her compositions. Musicians should listen to the technique compositions with an understanding that music for dance class is a sort of ground bass to a rhythmic counterpoint in dance. Like John Colman, Freda provides just enough balance between sustained support and variation.
To highlight this difference with another illustration, Freda’s nephew shared that she once asked Aaron Copland his opinion of her compositions. As I understand it, Copland thought she did not fully develop her themes. I attribute this to the form in which she worked. Generally, composed dance music may have room for clearly-delineated variation and contrast, but not for thematic development – especially not for classwork.
(In fact, complex forms in music compositions may have necessitated “counting” in dance. The ensuing difficulties of “counting” in dance may have necessitated the ubiquitous “soundscapes.” Just a thought.)
- The Four Beat
- The Off-Beat
- Alien Corn – Hebraic Melody Based on the Story of Ruth
- Third Dream: Middle-Aged Bookkeeper
I had the pleasure of hiring Katie Ostrosky as an accompanist for ballet and modern dance classes at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and showing her the peculiarities of the task. Since she has also studied MusiKinesis® with me, I guess I’m part teacher, part boss, but mostly cheerleader.
When I introduced Freda Miller to the class, Katie was drawn to her story and her music. She chose the first three pieces from Freda’s The Daily Paper: A Ballet in Six Scenes. to include in her DMA audition repertoire. The full work includes a detailed outline for staging and themes (and I am dying for a chance to recreate it).
- Scene 1: Headlines (the fugitive)
- Scene 2: Foreign Affairs
- Scene 3: Bargain Sale
- Scene 4: Advice to the Lovelorn
- Scene 5: Comic Strip
- Scene 6: Theatre Page
In sending me her video, Katie wrote: I gave a concert at my grandmother’s retirement community over Thanksgiving and played these, and they were a hit! No one cared about Brahms or Beethoven, they were so excited about the “train song.”
1Hanya Holm bequeathed her ornate grand piano to Freda Miller.
Imel, Carmen. Four Dance Pioneers: Freda Miller. Journal of Health, Physical Education and Recreation 41(2)1970.
McPherson, Elizabeth, Ed. The Bennington School of the Dance: A History in Writings and Interviews. McFarland & Co., 2013.
Wellesley College Catalogue, 1939-40
Interviews with Jonathan Miller, 2018.