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Elizabeth Hanley

Dance: From competition to exhibition? Berlin 1936 to Athens 2004.

Hanley, Elizabeth: "Dance: From competition to exhibition? Berlin 1936 to Athens 2004", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.


Five Olympic rings: the symbol of the modern Olympic Games. At one time there were also five Olympic Art Competitions: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Music, and Literature. But what about the art of Dance? Where was Dance in this mix of art competitions? When the enthusiastic young Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, achieved his dream and revived the Ancient Olympic Games in the spring of 1896, with Athens as the first modern host city, he also desired to combine art with athletic feats, as in the ancient model. However, the first modern Games was not the time to introduce his artistic aspirations, and the succeeding two Olympic Games faced many obstacles. In Paris 1900 and St. Louis 1904, combining the Olympic Games with a World Fair in each instance did not bode well for adding art competitions, and the survival of the Olympic Games was nearly threatened.

When Athens clamored loudly soon afterwards to host the Olympic Games permanently, as Greece was the home of the Ancient Olympic Games, the Baron was not pleased; his vision was to share the Games with the world each quadrennium. In 1906, however, Coubertin finally agreed to an interim Games in the city of Athens. It was to be the 10th anniversary of the modern Games, but Coubertin would not be in Athens because he had other plans: a Paris Conference on Arts and Letters, which he hoped to include in future Olympic Games. In his invitation letter to artists and other dignitaries around the world, Coubertin wrote that the purpose was to study “…by what means and under what forms the Arts and the Letters could participate with the celebration of the modern Olympiades and, generally, associate with the practice of Sport for its benefit and ennoblement.” [1]

The program for the Paris conference included the following artistic components: architecture, dramatic art, choreography (“coordinated movements in groups” was noted as “Dances”), decoration, letters, music, painting, and sculpture. [2] The conference resulted in a “…unanimously approved resolution that the forthcoming Olympiad in 1908 should contain competitions for all the arts. The winners for the best works of architecture, painting, sculpture, music and poetry, inspired by sport, were to receive Olympic medals.” [3] The word Dance never appeared in the list of arts to be contested, and unfortunately, time constraints did not allow for the art competitions to come to fruition for the London Olympic Games in 1908. The groundwork, however, was laid for the rules for future Olympic Art Competitions, and in 1912, on the occasion of the Vth Olympiad in Stockholm, Sweden, the Olympic Art Competitions had their debut. With the cancellation of the 1916 Games due to WWI, the next Art Competitions did not take place until the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games, followed by Paris in 1924, Amsterdam in 1928, and Los Angeles in 1932. Dance was noticeably absent from any Olympic Art Competitions throughout these years.

Dance was one art form that the Germans wanted to add, along with Gold and Silver Smithing, and Works of the Screen (sport film), to the 1936 Berlin Art Competitions. Expanding the subcategories in each of the five art disciplines, which would have increased the number of medals as well as the number of potential participants, was the Germans’ goal for the Berlin Games. Approval by the International Olympic Committee, however, was required and none was forthcoming, not for the addition of Dance, nor for Gold and Silver Smithing, or Works of the Screen. [4]

Of interest is the fact that an Olympic Art Exhibition was held in 1936, from 15 July through 16 August, in addition to the Art Competitions [5]. The Olympic Games commenced on 1 August and concluded on 16 August. A formal opening of the Art Exhibition occurred on 31 July, the day before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, with Dr. Josef Goebbels, The Reich Minister of Propaganda and the President of the Reich Chamber of Culture, delivering the opening address. [6]

Apparently, both the Competitions and the Exhibition were considered successful, even though they were not immune to the heightened political tensions at this time. According to Stanton, “Over 70,000 visitors passed through this Olympic temple of art to view the competition and exhibition works during the four weeks of its existence.” [7]

But what of Dance? A program entitled “Internationale Tanzwettspiele anlaesslich der 11. Olympiade Berlin, 1936” (International Dance Competitions on the occasion of the 11th Olympiad Berlin, 1936) cites 14 countries, their artists, and their dances in attendance. Those countries participating were: Australia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Jugoslavia, Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Rumania, and Switzerland. [8] A later document, “Kroatische Volkswein und Volkstanze” (Croatian Folk Melodies and Folk Dances), was published in Zagreb in 1944 by Dr. Vinko Zganec. Coverage of the Croatian group’s participation notes the following:

We are pleased to recall and to describe here, albeit in broad strokes, the surprise elicited by Zagreb’s Association of Croatian Volunteer Theater Amateurs (“Matica”) with their presentation of Croatiannational dances on the occasion of the dance competitions at the 11th Olympiad in 1936 in Berlin. Thegroup is made up of amateur artists, among whose goals is to record, stylize, exhibit and propagate our folk dances. Their first notable performance in furtherance of this goal was at the 11th Olympiad in Berlin, where, on July 29, 1936, they performed a program of six stylized folk dances at the “Volksbuhne” Theater on Horst Wesselplatz… [9]

A 1997 article by Branko Franolic in the Croatian Times cites another Croatian dancer who made an impact in Berlin. This was Mia Slavenska (real name: Mia Corak), a prima ballerina at the time.In 1936 she won first prize at the Dance Olympiad in Berlin, which took place alongside the OlympicGames. She danced with Kreutzberg and Wigman, and her spectacular success there led to guestappearances... in Paris in 1936, and... in London. [10] This “Dance Olympiad” must have been the same “Internationale Tanzwettspiele” in which the Croatian folk dance group performed. Indeed, Mia Corak-Slavenska danced with the famed Germans of the time, Mary Wigman and Harald Kreutzberg. [11] But if there was a prize to be had, what was it and when was it awarded? This question remains to be answered.

One country that was noticeably missing from this international dance gathering in Berlin was the United States. An article in the New York Times of 13 March 1936 notes that “Martha Graham, one of this country’s leading dancers, revealed last night that she had declined an invitation from Germany to represent the United States at the International Dance Festival to be held in Berlin next Summer with the Olympic Games.” [12] The invitation was issued by the German Ministry of Culture (Goebbels) and signed by Rudolf von Laban, President of the “Deutsche Tanzbuehne.” According to a recent article in the Independent, Laban had been instrumental in influencing Martha Graham, the pioneer of American modern dance; he was also the organizer of the dance component for the Berlin Games. [13] The reason for Ms. Graham’s refusal was twofold: the regime’s persecution of its artists and the belief that members of her own group would not be welcome in Germany. [14] The United States was obviously not dancing in Berlin.

There are three important questions that must be answered: Was Dance an official or unofficial competition in conjunction with the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games? Was it part of an “International Dance Festival” instead? When did the “competition” and/or “Festival” take place? The search for these facts and more has merely begun; further research must be conducted to answer these lingering questions.

The demise of the art competitions

With the intervention of WWII shortly after the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, the planned celebrations of 1940 and 1944 were cancelled. A war-ravaged London was the host for the 1948 Olympic Games. A less-than-enthusiastic Lord Aberdare, IOC member in Britain, was encouraged to put out a call for the renewal of the Arts Competitions. He did so by writing an article entitled “Muscle and Spirit” for the IOC Official Bulletin [15]. Aberdare, in part, stated: The Olympic games are themselves a work of art: an ordained ceremony taking place in the desiredforms and delimitations, animated by a rhythm, they are the ideal expression of youth. As rhythms of music return to the winged dance, works of artists are called, them, to exalt all those that, coming fromall inhabited regions of the earth, meet in London under the symbol of the five rings: for difficultstruggles in sport, for the elevated artistic competitions, to promote mutual understanding while meeting in the pursuit of a common ideal. [16]

Dance was never mentioned and only the five traditional categories of art comprised the London Art Competitions. This was, however, the final time for Art Competitions in the Olympic Games. Although the next Competitions were scheduled for 1952 in Helsinki, Finland, there were deep concerns, the gist of which was formulated by a special sub-committee in London: “Since Art competition contests are practically all professionals, Olympic medals should not be awarded. This even should be in the nature of an exhibition.” [17] Not everyone was happy with the final decision to eliminate the Art Competitions, including the Finnish organizers, but there would be no Art Competitions at the 1952 Games. In fact, the Olympic Art Competitions of the 20th century had come to an abrupt halt. What about the future of Dance in the Olympic Games? The demise of the Art Competitions, in many respects, paved the way for what is currently enjoyed today: “The Cultural Programme.”

From Mexico City 1968 to Sydney 2000

In the most recent Olympic Charter of the International Olympic Committee, The Cultural Progamme is outlined in Rule 44, and states that each OCOG (Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games) is responsible for organizing cultural events throughout the duration of the Games, including events in the Olympic Village as well as within the host city. Of note is the fact that specifics of the Cultural Programme are not defined; these are left up to the OCOG. [18]

If one looks back on the role of Dance in the Olympic Games after the demise of the Art Competitions, Dance has been an integral part of all Olympic celebrations, one of the most notable occurring in Mexico City 1968.The Fiesta of the New Fire, an ancient and inspiring ritual, announced the arrival of the Olympic Games to Mexico City. The site was the ancient Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan, just outside the city. During their ancient ritual, the Aztecs celebrated the resurgence of life and the triumph of light over darkness by extinguishing fires in every hearth and then relighting them from the eternal flame at the sacred Pyramid of the Moon. [19] Fifteen hundred dancers performed, in a mixture of ancient ritual and modern choreography, on the night before the opening ceremony to celebrate the arrival of the Olympic Flame. A well-known Nahuatl poem provided the inspiration for the symbolic dance representing the birds, the jade, and the flowers:

I love the song of the ‘zenzontl’

Bird of a thousand voices;

I love the color of jade

And the heady perfume of flowers,

But more than all these loves

I love my brother: Man. [20]

This ceremony set the stage for Mexico City’s Fiesta of Culture which coincided with the Olympic Games, and lasted for an entire year. Visitors were able to sample cultural events from around the world: Ballet, modern dance, folklore dance groups, music, theatre companies, painting, folk art, poetry, and numerous other artistic works. [21]

The official inauguration of Mexico City’s cultural program was held in the Palace of Fine Arts, where the Greek Ballet, the African Ballet, and the Aztec Ballet were presented. These three groups were chosen to open the program for specific reasons: The Greek Ballet, because Greece was the birthplace of the Olympic Games; the African Ballet, because a group of African nations had just recently joined the International Olympic Committee; and the Aztec Ballet, because Mexico was the host for the Games of the XIX Olympiad. [22]

It should be noted that the Greek Ballet consisted of eight parts, for the purpose of portraying the continuation of Hellenic dance from Ancient Hellas to the present. It commenced with an extract from Pindar’s Fourth Ode, continued with performance of ancient dances, including the pyrrhic, and concluded with contemporary dances of Crete. [23] The breadth and scope of Mexico City’s year-long Fiesta of Culture laid the groundwork for future cultural programs, and the opportunity to showcase the city and its cultural heritage was of benefit to all in attendance.

When the 1972 Olympic Games opened in Munich, West Germany, it was another tribute to the universality of Dance. One official act was particularly memorable: When the Olympic Flag was transferred from Mexico City to Munich, it was accompanied by lively music and dancing. The Ballet Folklorico Mexicano performed to Mariachi music and a “Schuplattler” group from Bavaria danced in their traditional lederhosen. [24] Cultural activities throughout the Munich Games were varied and ranged from exhibitions of objects from the excavations at Olympia (Greece) to a program of events entitled “World Civilizations and Contemporary Art,” which included music concerts, a folklore festival with folk dances and songs, and theatre and opera productions. [25]

Montreal, Moscow, and Los Angeles were Olympic cities that also included Dance, and folklore dance in particular, within their cultural programs. One Olympic Winter Games city which showcased its affinity for Dance was the city of Sarajevo, republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the (former) country of Jugoslavia. When the 1984 Olympic Winter Games opened, 1200 dancers performed to Westernized renditions of Jugoslav folk music, moving in circle and line formations typical of Jugoslav dance tradition. In the Olympic Village, athletes had the opportunity to attend an evening of music, song, and dance performed by a local folklore ensemble. Young and old alike comprised the troupe, and colorful costumes depicting different regions of Jugoslavia enhanced the performance of talented musicians, singers, and dancers. Throughout the duration of the Olympic Games, the city of Sarajevo scheduled dance concerts by the leading folklore ensembles in Jugoslavia. [26] Once again, Dance was showcased within the cultural program.

Although Seoul (1988) Barcelona (1992) and Atlanta 1996) were Olympic cities that also chose to include Dance in their lengthy cultural programs, much discussion and debate concerning the role of cultural events in connection with the Olympic Games continued. At a Sport-Culture Forum convened in 1997, organized by the Cultural Commission of the International Olympic Committee and held in the city of Lausanne, salient points were raised during discussions. According to Mr. He, chairman of the IOC Cultural Commission, Atlanta’s outstanding cultural program had, unfortunately, been attended by few people, since most visitors were primarily interested in the sporting events. He also noted that the cultural events had not been well-publicized. Both Mr. Monreal, member of the Cultural Commission, and Mr. Herzog, IOC member in France, concurred that the sporting events were top priority with the public at Olympic Games. They stated that outcomes for sporting feats were unknown in advance and spontaneous, whereas cultural events were more permanent, capable of being repeated, and could be attended elsewhere. On the other hand, Mr. Steler, Vice-President of the International Luge Racing Federation, noted “…at Lillehammer, folklore groups had performed between the rounds of bobsleigh and luge competitions, and…made a positive impact on officials, athletes and spectators. Such performances were also a good means of making known the culture of the country which organized the Games.” [27] Conclusions from the 20-plus persons in attendance focused on achieving better publicity for cultural events at future Olympic Games and continuing to integrate art and sport within the framework of the Games.

The Cultural Programme remains an intact part of the Olympic Games as outlined in the Olympic Charter. The Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival showcased international and national artists, extending from 18 August to 30 September. Included were music concerts, theatre, drama, film, exhibitions, and of course, dance; this was the largest arts event across Sydney in the year 2000 and attracted over 4,000 artists from 25 nations [28]. Sydney 2000 demonstrated to the world its aboriginal heritage and even brought ballroom dancing (DanceSport) into its closing ceremonies. Sydney’s cultural program was comprehensive and extensive. What will Athens 2004 choose to show the world?

Athens: Cultural Olympiad 2001-2004

Athens has embarked upon a four-year long cultural program with the theme, “For a culture of civilizations.” The program will be international in nature and will continue until the end of the Olympic Year 2004. “It combines major symbolic events aiming at a global audience, with special programmes for young people and for the promotion of the Greek cultural heritage and contemporary Greek culture. Above all, however, it strives to emphasize the universality of civilization at the dawn of the new century. The Cultural Olympiad, with its fundamental adjunct, the Domain of Culture, is a clearly formulated proposal for an institution that Greece would like to see continue in the future, that will reflect the global mobility of the Olympic Games themselves.” [29]

Musical events for Athens’ Cultural Olympiad include “Bravo China,” a performance which was scheduled for the Herod Atticus Theatre in Athens on 3 October 200l to include “…the best cultural events of China (music from movies, excerpts from Chinese Opera, ballet, acrobatics, folk dancing, etc.) alongside corresponding Greek events, well-known to China (Nana Mouschouri, Marios Frangoulis, and others).” [30] It is promising to note that two genres of Dance were to be represented in the music performances: ballet and folk dancing.

With specific reference to Dance, “The main feature of the dance events of the Cultural Olympiad will be the performance of traditional, classical, modern and experimental dance in locations of exceptional historic, archaeological and natural interest or beauty, bringing the stillness of time and the motion of human body eloquently and creatively together.” [31] Dance performances listed for the Cultural Olympiad include Mikis Theodorakis’ ballet, “Zorba the Greek,” for a world tour progressing from Europe to the United States and then to Canada in 2002, followed by performances in South Africa and Australia in 2003. In 2004, “On the occasion of handing over the Olympic Games to Beijing, Mikis Theodorakis’ ballet will be performed by the Greek National Opera Company in China, Korea and Japan.” [32]

If one of the goals is to promote Greek cultural heritage and contemporary Greek culture, as noted earlier, why have not the other dance genres of traditional, modern, and experimental dance been scheduled? Will these be showcased in 2004? A splendid opportunity exists for those attending the Athens Games to enjoy, appreciate, and understand the role that traditional dance, in particular, has played throughout Greek history, from ancient times to the present day. If the opening ceremonies (and other venues) incorporate the rich variety of Greek dance, music and costume of its heritage, the world will come to know the people of this Mediterranean culture better than the typical tourist; Greece will be more than “Zorba the Greek,” more than sun-drenched islands, and more than Plaka vendors plying their wares. With a rich history and rich cultural traditions, Greece has the potential to become known as a country worthy of respect by the world.


This paper continues to be a “work in progress” and further research is necessary to answer the questions raised earlier. If there were dance competitions in conjunction with the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, more information must be obtained to document what occurred and the details surrounding this event.

At the present time, it is necessary to ask: Is there a place for Dance competitions in connection with the Olympic Games or should Dance remain, as it is today, exhibition only? There are pros and cons to this question, but one major point to consider is that when Dance becomes competitive (no matter the genre), artistic spontaneity can be lost. Art and Sport have been, and will continue to be, integral components of the Olympic Games - and Dance is one of the arts.


1. Richard Stanton, The Forgotten Olympic Art Competitions (Lausanne: International Olympic Committee, 2000), 6.

2. Ibid., 7.

3. Ibid., 14-15.

4. Ibid., 156-161.

5. Ibid., 163.

6. Ibid., 170.

7. Ibid., 175.

8. Internationale Tanzwettspiele (Berlin: Maurer & Dimmick GMBH., 1936), 3. (translated by Richard Crum, 2002)

9. Dr. Vinko Zganec, Kroatische Volksweisen und Volkstanze (Zagreb, 1944), 44-45. (translated by Richard Crum, 2002)

10. Branko Franolic, “Mia Slovenska on the London Stage” Croatian Times, Issue 20, October/November 1997, from (accessed June 23, 2003).

11. Internationale Tanzwettspiele, 3.

12. “German Invitation Refused by Dancer,” New York Times, March 13, 1936, 10:6.

13. Terry Kirby, “Eight years after the revolution started, modern dance arrives in its L22m home,” Independent, 02 February 2003, from (accessed June 23, 2003).

14. New York Times.

15. Stanton, 186.

16. Ibid., 188.

17. Ibid., 211.

18. “Olympic Charter,” 70, from (accessed 8 July 2003).

19. Rachmael ben Avram, “The Olympics in Mexico,” in Olympics ’68 (New York: ABC and Rutledge Books, Inc.,1968), 7.

20. “Mexico 68 News Bulletin,” Number 78 (Mexico City: Organizing Committee of the Games of the XIX Olympiad, 1968), 20.

21. ben Avram, 10-13.

22. “Mexico 68 News Bulletin,” Number 55,2.

23. “Ballet of the Five Continents Mexico 68 Programa Cultura de la XIX Olimpiada” (Mexico City: Comite Organizador de los Juegos de la XIX Olimpiada,1968), no pagination.

24. Jim McKay, My Wide World (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 28, 153.

25. Otto Szymiczek, “The Modern Olympic Games,” in The Olympic Games, ed. Iris Douskou (Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A., 1976), 465.

26. Personal experience: attendance at Sarajevo 1984 Olympic Winter Games opening ceremonies and Olympic Village performance.

27. “Report on the Sport-Culture Forum” (Lausanne: 1997), 107-109.

28. “Official Spectator Guide,” (Sydney 2000), 120.

29. “Cultural Olympiad 2001-2004:’For a culture of civilizations’”(Ministry of Culture, Helenic Cultural Heritage S.A.), 19.

30. Ibid., 47.

31. Ibid., 55.

32. Ibid., 56-59.                              

Prof. Ms. Elizabeth Hanley


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