One of the foremost dance educators and teachers of choreography in the United States, Bessie Schönberg (1906-1997) was born in Hanover, Germany. She studied eurhythmics in Germany, but it was only after she came to the United States in 1926 that she began serious dance studies. Settling in New York, she worked with Martha Graham and performed with her company from 1929 to 1931, when an injury ended her performing career and diverted her into teaching. After a short stint as Martha Hill's assistant at Bennington College, she began to teach at Sarah Lawrence College. In 1941 she took over the chairmanship of the dance department, a position she held until her retirement in 1975. Schönberg brought luminaries of modern dance to the college and developed an approach to teaching composition that guided student choreographers toward what she deduced they were trying to create rather than impose her own style or taste. After retiring from Sarah Lawrence, she taught composition at many institutions including the Juilliard School and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and served as artistic advisor to The Yard.
Pictured right: Bessie Schönberg as a dancer, before an injury in 1931 caused her to move from performing to teaching choreography. (Photograph from the Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)
Jerome Robbins, one of Bessie Schönberg's students, speaks about her influence on his first attempts at choreography, in a tribute recorded in Bessie: A Portrait of Bessie Schönberg, 1998, by D.A. Pennebaker.