At 87, Influential Detroit Dance Maven Harriet Berg Hasn’t Lost Her Step

Keeping In Step: She may be retired, but Harriet Berg is no mere footnote in Detroit’s modern-dance history
Surrounded by art, photographs, and mementos, Harriet Berg relaxes in her condo in the Park Shelton in Midtown Detroit, a place she’s called home since 1983. // Photographs by Joe Vaughn

He kissed her multiple times, right in front of her husband.

It was the late 1940s. Harriet Berg, a dance instructor and Detroit native, had just met artist Diego Rivera in his Mexico City studio. Her late husband, Irving Berg, a sculptor studying Mexican art there at the time, found the artist’s bold gesture inspiring.

“Irving liked to re-enact the scene and ask people, ‘Wanna see how Diego Rivera kissed my wife?’ ” Berg says. “[Rivera] had kissed my hand, then my wrist, then all the way up to my shoulder. He was absolutely, charismatically, magnetically charming.”

If you know Berg — as anyone who has studied dance in Detroit likely does — you know Rivera could have said the same of her. At 87, she’s brash and bold in her love of dance, art, history, and people. Consider the picture she displays of Hillary Clinton in her living room. “I’m not making fun of her,” Berg says, indicating a photo of the secretary of state that she keeps taped to a switch plate. The switch has replaced Clinton’s nose. “I admire her. She brings light into the world.”

Late last December, Berg chatted as she casually reclined in her home at Midtown’s Park Shelton, her legs crossed and elevated on an ottoman, exhibiting the limber ease of a much younger woman. She moved to the space in 1983 and can cite Detroit trivia using the view from her windows as a high-rise Power Point, of sorts. She talks about how muralist Rivera spent his time at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which is across the street from her residence, how construction of the MotorCity Casino Hotel obliterated their view of the Ambassador Bridge, how Judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward, a key figure in Detroit in the early 19th century, had the “balls,” as Berg puts it, to name a famous avenue after himself while he was still living.

LEFT: Harriet Berg in her Midtown home.  LEFT: A portrait of Harriet’s late husband, Irving, who taught art to generations of students at Cass Technical High School.

Judge Woodward was also apparently a great dancer, an obscure tidbit Berg gleaned from her years steeped in local dance history. One of the many dance companies she directed during her career, the Madame Cadillac Dance Company, performs period pieces to highlight Detroit’s French Colonial roots and just celebrated its 35th anniversary. Berg also taught dance to pupils from children to the elderly for 50 years at the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit until her official retirement in 2009. But her more wide-reaching legacy, perhaps, began with her mission in the 1950s to make Detroit a center of the modern-dance movement. She went on to study and become friends with major figures of the era, persuading them to perform here and keep coming back. That effort resulted in a rich, singular view of how some of the country’s most innovative thinkers and the Detroit residents who were dedicated to dance helped to shape the city by embracing a different way to live and move.

“Harriet has been a huge influence,” says Carol Halsted, director of dance for Michigan Opera Theatre. Halsted danced with Berg’s company, The Festival Dancers, in the 1960s for 10 years before starting the first dance program at Oakland University. “She had a drive to introduce Detroiters to dance, and she could, because she knew all the major choreographers of the time. We managed to attract the biggest names. I still don’t know how she did it.”

The 20-foot hallway leading into Berg’s condo is an eclectic museum of her interests, displaying dozens of original paintings, collages, and photographs of the human body. Most are by local artists, including many wood and metal sculptures by her husband, who taught art to generations of students at Cass Technical High School. She and Irving, who died in 2009, wanted to collect the works of friends. One exception is an original black-and-white photograph of American modern-dance pioneer Martha Graham performing onstage in New York City. It’s signed by noted American dance photographer Barbara Morgan. “It’s probably worth more than this apartment,” Berg says.

Graham, José Limón, Merce Cunningham, and Twyla Tharp were among Berg’s friends and mentors in modern dance. It’s an elite bunch, but Berg didn’t care about star power. The real attraction was modern dance’s quest for a kind of democracy in the arts, the breaking down of barriers and of illusions of class and youth. Dance isn’t just for the young and fit, Berg likes to say, nor is classical ballet particularly interesting. “Who wants to see little elves and fairies on stage?” she says.

Ruth Murray, a dance educator at Wayne State University in the early 20th century, introduced Berg to modern dance when she was an undergraduate there. Murray had already invited Graham to dance in Detroit in the 1930s and was almost fired for it.
“Here were these women dancing in bare feet about the Depression and the war, and I guess it was too real for some people,” Berg says. “I like real things, and I always just thought that if painters can paint them, dancers can dance them.”

Why did Berg stay in Detroit? It’s a question she still ponders, considering that her career might have progressed much differently in New York. Berg had a nurturing husband, and opportunities to leave — she studied and taught at the original laboratory of modern dance, the American Dance Festival, during summers in Connecticut — but ultimately found great satisfaction in continuing to lure the major companies here.

To this day, Berg will fly anywhere for a great show. She jetted to New York to see the final performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company this past New Year’s Eve.

ABOVE:  The sculptures were made by Irvingfrom wood salvaged from a pattern-making shop on the eighth floor of the old Cass Tech building. They are original wooden molds of auto parts; the metal art was welded together by Irving.

The late Cunningham, considered among the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, also performed in Detroit with Berg’s help. After that historic performance, she danced at an after-party celebration until 2:30 in the morning.

Berg adds: “[Cunningham] always said, and I believe it: Dancing is ‘that fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

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