Bessie Schonberg

Bessie Remembered

Bessie Schönberg was born in 1906 in Hanover, Germany. Arriving in the United States when she was 17 years old, she began her undergraduate career at the University of Oregon in Eugene, but moved to New York in 1929 to study with Martha Graham. In 1931, she suffered a knee injury preventing her from pursuing her dance career and subsequently attended Bennington College where she received her B.A. in 1934. She immediately became a dance instructor at Bennington after graduating and taught there until 1938 when she began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College. She remained at SLC for 37 years until her retirement in 1975. Bessie, as she was known on campus, is credited with establishing the Dance Department at the College and received national attention for her dance composition classes. She became a part of every aspect of Sarah Lawrence not only dance instruction.

Bessie felt strongly that all of the performing arts should work together as much as possible since dance could not be separate from theatre which could not be separate from voice which could not be separate from music. To this end, she became involved in collaborative projects with the various performing arts departments. In each of these instances, she not only choreographed or directed the dance portion of the program, but designed the costumes, and directed the cast and musicians. She was remarkable in the way she became a part of everything around her.

Upon her retirement, she was appointed Professor Emerita and in 1993, the Bessie Schönberg Dance Theatre at the College was named in her honor. Throughout her post-retirement years, she was closely connected with the Dance Theater Workshop (which named its theatre in Chelsea for Bessie), The Yard, and Jacob’s Pillow. The distinguished New York Dance and Performance Awards were named the “Bessies” in her honor. After retiring, she continued to teach at the Juilliard School, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem until her death.

Bessie Schönberg died at her home in Bronxville on May 14, 1997.

Throughout her teaching career, Bessie served as a mentor to innumerable dancers. She maintained a strong philosophy about teaching dance which is reflected, and best represented, by her own words from her oral history. The Sarah Lawrence College Archives celebrates Bessie’s 100th birthday with this exhibit providing a glimpse into Bessie’s long and distinguished career at Sarah Lawrence College through her oral history, photographs, and documents.

enter exhibit

All audio clips are from the oral history interview conducted by Rose Anne Thom and used courtesy of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation.