Noted Modern Dance Teacher, Choreographer Martha Nishitani Dies at 94

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SEATTLE — Martha Nishitani, a modern dance teacher and choreographer in Seattle for the majority of her lifetime, passed away peacefully on June 5 at the age of 94.

The ninth of 10 children, she was born Feb. 27, 1920, in Seattle to Denjiro and Jin Nishitani. She is survived by her sister, Connie Sekijima of Mercer Island, and numerous nieces and nephews.

Her passion for dance arose at the age of six when she was taken to her first performance. However, she did not begin formal instruction until her high school years, 1935-1939. She was taught at Lincoln High School by Katharine A. Wolfe, who became like a second mother to her.

Martha Nishitani

Martha Nishitani

Nishitani and her family were sent to the Minidoka camp in Idaho during World War II. After she returned to Seattle, she was approached by dance critic Maxine Cushing Gray, who introduced her to modern dance choreographer Eleanor King. Nishitani studied with King and performed in her company for six years.

In 1951, after King left Seattle, Nishitani formed her own dance school (taking over King’s former space on First Hill) and started a company, the Martha Nishitani Modern Dance Group. In 1954, she moved her studio to a location in Seattle’s University District, where it remained as the Martha Nishitani Modern Dance School until her retirement in 2002.

Nishitani’s additional dance training included the Cornish College of the Arts and Connecticut College, where she performed in the American Dance Festival in a piece choreographed by Doris Humphrey. She also attended summer programs at Perry Mansfield and Long Beach State College, and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington in 1958.

She also studied ballet, Spanish dance and Japanese classical dance.

In 1954, Nishitani became the choreographer for the University of Washington School of Music’s Opera Theater, a position she held for ten years. She taught and choreographed as an artist-in-residence for the University of Washington, and also worked with other schools and organizations, including Seattle Public Schools, Helen Bush School, and Seattle Parks and Recreation.

Nishitani received many awards. The Seattle chapter of Theata Sigma Phi named her a Woman of Achievement in 1968 and the Northwest Asian American Theatre honored her as an Asian American Living Treasure in (1984). Nishitani also was a member of the American Dance Guild and the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD).

A memorial was held on July 5 at Blaine United Methodist Church in Seattle. Remembrances may be sent to Progressive Animal Welfare Society, PO Box 1037, Lynnwood, WA 98046, or go to www.paws.org for online donations.

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