Doris Humphrey Biography

Doris Humphrey, an early twentieth century dancer and choreographer, played a crucial role in shaping modern dance in the United States. As one of the first modern dance choreographers, she stood out for her exploration of the human body’s response to gravity through the principle of “fall and recovery.” From a young age, Humphrey displayed poise and grace, receiving training in various dance forms including ballet. Despite financial obstacles, she pursued her dream of becoming a professional dancer and eventually became a world-renowned choreographer, revolutionizing the modern dance movement.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 63
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Charles Francis Woodford
    • Father: Horace Buckingham Humphrey
    • Mother: Julia Ellen Wells
    • Children: Charles Humphrey Woodford
  • Choreographers
  • Contemporary Dancers
  • Died on: December 29, 1958
  • Place of death: New York City

Childhood & Early Life

Doris Humphrey was born on October 17, 1895, in Illinois, to Horace Buckingham Humphrey and Julia Ellen Wells. Her father was a journalist and photographer, while her mother was a trained concert pianist. From a young age, Doris displayed a keen interest in dance and received lessons from famous ballet masters. She attended the Francis Parker School in Chicago, where she learned dance from Mary Wood Hinman, who became a great source of inspiration for her. While still in high school, Doris went on a concert tour of the western states as a dancer in a group sponsored by the Santa Fe Railroad.


Doris opened her own dance school in 1913 at the age of 18, with her mother serving as the manager and pianist. Despite her desire to further her training in dance, financial circumstances forced her to start earning a living. She successfully ran the school, offering training in classic, gymnastic, and ballroom dance for children and young adults. Doris stayed in touch with her high school mentor, Mary Wood Hinman, who advised her to join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts. In 1917, Doris moved to California and joined the renowned dance school, where she studied, performed, and learned choreography. She quickly rose to become the company’s leading soloist and began doing choreography work with one of the school’s founders, Ruth St. Denis.

In 1928, Doris and another Denishawn dancer, Charles Weidman, left the school to form their own company, Humphrey-Weidman. The company thrived even during the Great Depression and received funding from the Federal Theatre Project. Doris developed new styles and created works based on current events, which were well-received by audiences. She and Weidman pioneered the concept of “modern dance,” a radical dance form that embraced innovation and addressed contemporary concerns. Doris retired from performing in 1945 due to arthritis and became the artistic director for the Jose Limon Dance Company. She continued her successful career as a choreographer, creating works such as “Day on Earth,” “Night Spell,” and “Ruins and Visions.”

Awards & Achievements

In 1987, Doris Humphrey was inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame.

Personal Life & Legacy

Doris married Charles Francis Woodford, a merchant seaman, in June 1932. They had one son together, Charles Humphrey Woodford. In her later years, Doris suffered from severe arthritis in her hip and arthritic seizures. She passed away from cancer on December 29, 1958.

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