Sitting at the Feet of Gurus

by Deena Burton

Her life was a crisscrossing of many geographical and historical factors – and you’ll unveil it all as you accompany her Sitting at the Feet of Gurus.

Claire Holt was born at the turn of the century to an upper middle-class Jewish family in Latvia. WWI forced her to move to Moscow, and in 1920, she immigrated to New York as a young bride.

She studied sculpture, modern dance, journalism, and law. She started a career as a reporter and modern dance critic. As a dance critic, she was able to promote the development of modern dance, which at that time and place was in its infancy.

In 1930 she travelled again, this time to Asia. She landed in Bali, Indonesia and spent a decade in the Dutch East Indies studying Javanese dance, exploring ancient temple art, and living with the eminent Dutch archaeologist and scholar William Frederic Stutterheim. She was among the community of artists and anthropologists living in Bali at that time which included Walter Spies, Colin McPhee, Miguel Covarrubias, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson and many others who were both deeply influenced by the culture and obsessively documenting Indonesia's emergence into the 20th century.

WWII broke out and she returned to New York. There, she gave frequent lecture-demonstrations on Javanese culture and dance, working with Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History. In 1955, supported by a Rockefeller grant, she returned to Indonesia to complete research for her magnum opus, Art in Indonesia: Continuities and Change. She came back to the United States in 1957, wrote her book, and taught in Cornell University's Department of Southeast Asian Studies.

Even after her death in 1970, her brilliant work and contribution to our understanding of Javanese dance, culture, and art, is recognized and appreciated.

Follow her journey as author Deena Burton shares the life and dance ethnography of Claire Holt in  Sitting at the Feet of Gurus.   The book was edited by David Simons for Xlibris Press. The cover photo collage by David Simons depicts author Deena Burton on the right, approaching her subject Claire Holt, who is similarly costumed for a Javanese dance, in a duet separated in time by 60 years.

Deena retraced Holt's journey to Southeast Asia 50 years later to the same villages, to see the same dances, sometimes interviewing the same families. Through these expeditions, she has re-introduced to the next generations of dancers these remarkable art forms, while documenting traditions and rituals which could have been lost to future generations.