Dance Legends – Twyla Tharp

As you go forward in your dance careers, it may be important to learn about the “dance professionals” in the world and understand how they impacted dance. It gives us perspective and allows you to fully embrace your craft with not only precision but knowledge too.

I would like to introduce a new series, designed to acquaint you with the giants of dance. I hope that it inspires you to enjoy dance even more and at the same time give you the opportunity to learn about the fantastic men and women who have given their personal best to the art of dance. Through the weeks, you will find out, what makes these talented people so special in our dance world!

This week, I’m writing about the wonderful Twyla Tharp, who is a dancer and choreographer, presently living in New York City. Twyla* was born in 1941 in Portland, Indiana. As a young girl, Twyla spent a few months living with her Quaker grandparents on their farm in Indiana. Her mother wanted her to take lessons in ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance. She also took piano, drum, viola and violin lessons. She learned German, French and shorthand too. In 1950, Twyla’s family moved to Rialto, California. Her parents opened a drive-in theater and Twyla worked there at the tender age of 8 years old. She attended Pacific High School in San Bernardino and studied dance at the Vera Lynn School of Dance. Twyla loved to read and never cared if she had a social life or not, she was too busy with her studies. Twyla attended Pomona College in California but later transferred to Barnard College in New York City, where she graduated with a degree in Art History in 1963.

In New York, Twyla studied with Richard Thomas, Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. In 1963 Twyla joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company. In 1965, Twyla choreographed her first dance, Tank Dive. In 1966, she formed her own company, Twyla Tharp Dance. What makes Twyla such a stand out choreographer is that she utilizes classical music, jazz and contemporary pop music to go with her original works so masterfully. From 1971 to 1988, Twyla Tharp Dance toured around the world.

In 1973, Twyla choreographed Deuce Coupe to the music of The Beach Boys for the Joffrey Ballet. Deuce Coupe is considered to be the first crossover ballet. Later she choreographed Push Comes to Shove in 1976, which featured Mikhail Baryshnikov and is now thought to be the best example of the crossover ballet. In 1988, Twyla Tharp Dance merged with American Ballet Theatre, since which time American Ballet Theatre has held the world premieres of 16 of Twyla’s works. In 2010, they had a total of 20 of her works in their repertory. Twyla has since choreographed dances for: Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet, Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miami City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Hubbard Street Dance and Martha Graham Dance Company. Tharp also created the dance roadshow Cutting Up in 1991 with Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In the summer of 2000, Twyla Tharp Dance regrouped with entirely new dancers. This Tharp dance company also performed around the world. It was with this company that Tharp developed the material that would go on to become Movin’ Out, an award winning Broadway musical featuring the songs by Billy Joel and starring many of the dancers that were in the dance company. Twyla was the first Artist in Residency at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. During this time she created and premiered Waiting At The Station, a new work with music by R& B artist Allen Toussaint with sets and costumes by her long-time collaborator Santo Loquasto.

Twyla has written three books: an early autobiography, Push Comes To Shove in 1992 and The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life in 2003. Twyla collaborated with film directors Milos Forman on Hair in 1978, Ragtime in 1980 and Amadeus in 1984, Taylor Hackford on White Nights in 1985 and James Brooks on I’ll Do Anything in 1994. Twyla co-directed the award-winning television special “Baryshnikov by Tharp” in 1984.

If I were to list the numerous productions for stage, screen, television, and the awards Twyla Tharp has won, this blog would go on forever. Here are some her most prestigious awards, just to give you an idea how meaningful Twyla Tharp’s work has become in the dance world. Twyla has won 2 Emmy Awards, 19 Honorary Doctorates, The Vietnam Veterans of America President’s Award in 2004, and the National Medal of Arts. Twyla is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and she is an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1982, Twyla received the Barnard College highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. She also received the Tony Award for Best Choreographer and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Choreography for the 2002 musical Movin’ Out. She was named a Kennedy Center Honoree for 2000 and inducted into the Academy of Achievement in 1993. And as I said before, this list could go on forever.

I’m sure some of the people I will write about will cross your paths in some “dance” way. You will know of their work, their choreography, their dancing and surely their creativity. Twyla Tharp is high on the list of incredible talent that brings fame and recognition to America.

Happy dancing,

* Reference: Wikipedia

Thought Of The Week:

“Art is the only way to runaway without leaving home.” – Twyla Tharp


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Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website