Story by Aaron and Jordan Kandell
Photos by Dana Edmunds
The video—grainy black-and-white and recorded in 1942—is showing its age, but the movements of the dancer it depicts retain a grace undiminished by time. Lithe and strikingly beautiful, 26-year-old Jean Erdman raises a perfectly extended leg, toes pointed like a sharpened dagger. Her arms extend at precise geometric angles, evoking the two-dimensional paintings on a Grecian urn. Her fingers writhe: ten coiled, hissing snakes. As she dances through The Transformations of Medusa, her entire body contorts until, with a perfect, snarling pirouette, she transforms into something at once dynamic and explosive: the untamed Queen of the Gorgons, ready to devour any mortal man.
Seventy years later, sitting in her modest apartment nestled at the base of Diamond Head on O‘ahu’s Gold Coast, Jean Erdman looks far less fearsome. Her nails are painted coral red, and she wears a faint touch of lipstick—a detail one notices because of the frequency of her smile. Now 96 years old, Jean remains astonishingly spry. Despite the occasional memory lapses that have descended in recent years, her brown eyes glisten with a youthful joie de vivre that reflects a casual, almost childlike spirit. “The good thing is I don’t remember any of the bad things,” she laughs. “But the bad thing is I don’t always remember some of the good things, either.” What’s never left her, though, is her love of dance. “From the moment I could stand, I was dancing,” says Jean. “Growing up in Hawai‘i, it came to me as naturally as swimming. I don’t know why I do it; it’s just something that’s always been inside me.”
In a career that spanned five decades, Erdman earned herself a prominent place in the pantheon of American dance, performing in close collaboration with an impressive cross section of America’s most celebrated artists, including Merce Cunningham, Donald McKayle and Martha Graham. Scattered throughout her apartment hang framed accolades that reveal both the depth and effect of her legacy: Obie and Vernon Rice awards, a lifetime achievement award from the National Dance Association, even a Tony nomination. “She’s inarguably one of the pioneers of early modern dance,” says Bob Walter, president of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, which Jean created to honor her late husband, the world-famous mythologist. “Most of the lions of contemporary dance today cut their teeth with Jean.”