On Taylor Swift’s newly released album, Folklore, one track in particular is gaining attention from some ballet dancers and enthusiasts who happen to recognize the eccentric and somewhat obscure woman to whom the song pays tribute. For the rest of us who don’t immediately recognize her name or story, The Last Great American Dynasty is a song about Rebekah Harkness, an influential figure in the development of the American ballet scene during the 1960’s and ‘70’s. The connection? Swift now owns the 17 million dollar Watch Hill, Rhode Island home once lived in by Harkness. The daughter of a wealthy St. Louis family and the wife of the late Standard Oil heir, William Hale Harkness, the socialite's wealth combined with her passion for ballet produced a short but lasting mark on the dance world.
Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Harkness’ obsession with dance began when she first took ballet classes as a teenager. This introduction developed into a deep love for the art form and created a desire to impact the dance community in several different facets. Her first major contributions were helping to fund the early stages of two acclaimed dance companies: Joffrey Ballet and Jerome Robbins’ Company, Ballets U.S.A. In 1964, she founded her own company, the Harkness Ballet. The company, which was housed (along with the Harkness Ballet School) in an opulently restored mansion in New York City called the Harkness House, toured internationally, with its debut performance featuring Marjorie Tallchief in Cannes, France. Although many people might not have even heard of this short-lived company, the list of choreographers and professional dancers who filtered through it is truly remarkable. From dancers such as Helgi Tomasson, Brunilda Ruiz, and Finis Jhung to choreographers like Alvin Ailey, Agnes de Mille, and Todd Bolender, the Harkness Ballet was a company of movers and shakers in the dance world, in every sense of the phrase.
Harkness dancing with her ballet company in 1966.
Photo: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images
Although the ballet company in and of itself was impressive, it was just the beginning of the legacy Ms. Harkness would leave. Her approach to inclusivity within the dance world was radical and evident in the opportunities and financial support she gave to racially, physically, and economically diverse dancers and choreographers. She was also responsible for the construction of The Harkness Theatre, built specifically for dance. The theater was a dancer’s dream; it featured a stage-sized warm up and rehearsal space (unheard of in most theaters even today), thoughtfully placed dressing rooms for easy stage access, and a state-of-the-art, sprung floor. Unfortunately, due to an economic slow down and a limited audience capacity, the space was only functional for one year before permanently shutting its doors.
Harkness Theatre on Broadway, 1st Season
Photo: The Harkness Foundation
Today, the Harkness Foundation for Dance focuses on fortifying the dance community primarily in New York City through numerous grants and awards. The foundation helps fund several major dance affiliated organizations including: The Joyce Theater, The 92nd Street Y/Harkness Dance Center, and the NYU Langone Medical Center/Hospital for Joint Diseases, Home of the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries. The 92nd Street Y in NYC is home of the 92Y Harkness Dance Center, a space in which the likes of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham spewed creativity and cultivated their crafts. It offers an inclusive environment for students to learn and explore all different styles of dance from leading professionals in the industry, ideals that Ms. Harkness championed in her time.
So the next time you’re singing along to T. Swift’s new album (which will probably happen frequently), say a little "thank you" to the woman who generously, albeit fleetingly, helped advance dance in The United States: Rebekah Harkness!
The New York Times
St. Louis Today
An American Ballet Story