Ethel Winter, born June 18, 1924, in Wrentham, MA, was the daughter of Murray and Mary Elizabeth "May" Kirkton. After completing high school in 1941, she attended Bennington College where she studied dance. Ethel danced with the celebrated Martha Graham Dance Company for many years and later taught dance at Julliard.
Ethel Winter was my teacher at Juilliard, and I have strong memories of her positive energy, openness, and concern for students. She taught many other students during her tenure at the School from 1953-2003, and I recently asked several of them what they remember about her as a teacher. Each one emphasized the joy and enthusiasm that she brought to her teaching, her dancing, and her life. Winter radiates passion. So it’s only natural that, on December 1, that passion will be celebrated as Ethel Winter receives the Martha Hill Dance Fund Lifetime Achievement Award for her multifaceted dedication to the dance field.
Picture: Ethel Winter teaching at Juilliard in the 1980s. (From the Juilliard School Archives)
Born June 18, 1924, in Wrentham, Mass., Winter loved dance from an early age, taking classes at a local studio as a child and moving on as a teen to classes in ballet, tap, Spanish dance, classical Indian dance, and acrobatics in Boston. She knew that she wanted to pursue dance as a career, but opportunities were limited in the United States in the 1940s, and her parents insisted that she go to college. She chose Bennington College in Vermont, an innovative, progressive school where the arts were considered equal among other academic subjects. Martha Hill (director of the Juilliard Dance Division from 1951 to 1985) was the director of dance at Bennington College at that time, and she and Winter developed a lifelong close friendship. William “Bill” Bales was Winter’s primary modern dance teacher.
In the summer of 1943, Martha Graham was in residency at Bennington College and premiered her work Deaths and Entrances, which impressed Winter deeply. Graham technique was difficult for her at first, but she quickly grew to love the expressive and deep physical nature of it. She joined Graham's company in 1944 and continued until 1969, originating such roles as Helen of Troy in Clytemnestra and Aphrodite in Phaedre. Her lyrical quality, intensity, and diverse range defined her dancing, and those who saw her perform remember her as unforgettable. Of special distinction is the fact that Winter was the first dancer Graham chose to take over her roles.
Winter’s career led her to Broadway, television, summer stock, dancing with Sophie Maslow’s company, and directing and choreographing for her own company. In addition, she taught both nationally and internationally at numerous locations, including Juilliard and the Martha Graham School, for 50 years. She was one of the founders of the London School of Contemporary Dance in Britain and the Batsheva School in Israel.
Winter is that rare kind of gifted teacher that students remember years later for having led them to essential knowledge about themselves, dance, and life too. Perhaps it is the influence of her progressive education at Bennington College (from which she holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees) that leads her to respect her students as people above all. Some dance teachers teach with the result being their primary objective; with Winter, process is equally, if not more, important. In this way, the road to becoming a dancer is filled with discovery and inner growth, as well as the more easily quantifiable outer growth. Winter described her own teaching to me: “I like to use positive encouragement instead of negative criticism. A teacher can be firm without killing the spirit, an essential ingredient for the performer.” She continued by describing how, as she grew more experienced as a teacher, she learned to value each student for whom they were without trying to mold everyone into one image.
Her students absorbed and valued this in her. Tony Powell (B.F.A. ’95) remembers, “There was something very magical about Ethel’s classes. She cared about each of us and knew our strengths and weaknesses firsthand. If you were struggling with something, she would put you in the front row, so you couldn’t fade away into the background.” Ani Udovicki (B.F.A. ’85) remembers, “One felt that she saw you on your own terms and not against some ideal abstraction. Indeed, she could see even the tiniest attempt at moving in the right direction, and she celebrated it as if it were some great achievement. She would get closer, her voice and hands full of excitement, to congratulate one’s efforts.”
Dance is embedded in the very fabric of her life, yet Winter never loses sight of what it is to be human and to value that in herself and others. Tina Curran (B.F.A. ’90) summarized the feelings of many of Winter’s students: “I gained in Ethel’s classes an understanding that dance comes from life, and that technique is a means to focus and heighten the ability of the body to be expressive, to share life. I will never forget Ethel’s demonstration of a Graham contraction as an expression of joy. This image still resonates in my memory and in my body. The experience was an epiphany to recognize that dance is not only doing, but also an expression of being.” Winter is an inspiration for the inner light and dignity she embodies and shares..
Elizabeth McPherson (B.F.A. '90, dance) is an assistant professor of dance education at Montclair State University.