Date of Birth: December 6, 1924
Date of Death:
Place of Birth: Detroit, Michigan
Harriet Berg has spent her lifetime performing, teaching, choreographing, and inspiring an appreciation for dance in Detroit, throughout Michigan, and beyond. While a dance teacher at Wayne State University in Detroit in the 1950s, and for decades after, Berg made it her mission to put Detroit on the map for the modern dance, folk dance, and historical dance movements. She was the founder and artistic director of a number of dance groups: Renaissance Dance Company, Madame Cadillac Dance Theater, Belles and Bachelors of Fort Detroit, and the Isadora Duncan Dance Ensemble, as well as several dance groups based at the Jewish Community Center of Detroit (including the Festival Dancers, which performed for over 35 years).
It was Berg's sister who aspired to be a dancer, but a heart murmur kept her from her desired career. So Berg, at age eighteen, majoring in English and poetry at Wayne State University, got involved with her first dance production “because they needed a body.”
Harriet Jean (Jeanie) Waratt Berg was born on December 6, 1924, in Detroit. Her mother, Helen Link, was born in Austria in the l890s. Her father, Jacob J. Waratt (originally Baretnick), died at the age of 101 in 1991. He worked with bakery supplies and frozen foods in Detroit after emigrating from Ukraine.
Harriet and Irving Berg, son of Edith and Morris Berg, were married for 63 years. They shared a passion for the arts. He was a sculptor who taught for many years at Cass Tech High School in Detroit. They had two children: Martin, born in 1946, and Leslie, born in 1951. They lived in Northwest Detroit on Snowden Street before moving to Midtown in 1983. They have two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Irving died in 2009.
Harriet Berg is known as a “brash and bold” force of nature, dedicated to dance in all of its aspects from learning, teaching, choreographing, and performing her craft, to promoting the study of the history of dance, to using dance to teach American history and Jewish culture. She has inspired many others with her love of the arts, mentoring more than one generation of dancers in Detroit and throughout Michigan who have themselves become professionals, amateurs, and lovers of dance and the arts.
Berg believes anyone can dance and everyone should. She has taught dance to the youngest campers at Tamarack Camps in rural Michigan and to the oldest hoofers at the JCC’s programs for seniors.
During her career, Berg states she was inspired by the most renowned American dancers, who were her mentors and friends, including Isadora Duncan, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham, and Louis Falco. She has traveled across the United States, to Canada, and to Europe to participate in and teach workshops as well as to perform with her dance companies. Even in her early 90s, Berg continued to travel to the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College, where she had been present at its founding in 1948.
Berg has choreographed performances inspired by many topics, including folk tales and songs, Biblical stories, American and Jewish themes, Israeli folk themes, and French and Detroit history. She has incorporated dance styles from Renaissance and Baroque-European to Sephardic and Middle Eastern. Expressing history, religious inspiration, and cultural tradition through dance is one of Berg’s unique and lasting contributions to the arts. Some of her choreography was based on stories from the Bible and ancient religious rituals, and her dances have been performed in a variety of religious and secular venues.
Harriet and Irving Berg endowed the Michigan Dance Archives at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. Berg’s papers, covering more than 50 years of choreography and dance education, form the nucleus of the archive.
Berg stated in Hour Detroit Magazine to writer Monica Mercer in 2012, "Dancing is that fleeting moment when you feel alive." She has contributed a lifetime of accomplishment through performance, teaching, and choreography in the field of dance in Detroit and around the world. Harriet Jean Waratt Berg is a Detroit arts icon.
Written by Aimee Ergas and Jeannie Weiner. Photos courtesy of Michigan Dance Archives: Harriet Berg Papers, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit.