Martha Nishitani Modern Dance Studio opens on University Way NE in Seattle in late October 1954.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 10/21/2013
  • Essay 10637

In late October 1954, Seattle dancer, teacher, and choreographer Martha Nishitani (1920-2014) opens a modern-dance studio at 4203-4205 University Way NE in Seattle's University District. The Nishitani Studio occupies a previously existing dance studio on the second floor of the Nichols Block building. For the next 48 years, the studio will be Nishitani's base of operations as she teaches modern dance and creative movement to generations of Seattleites and leads her performing modern-dance company. 

Founding a School and Company

From 1946 to 1951, Martha Nishitani danced with modern dancer Eleanor King (1906-1991) in King's company and taught at her studio, located at Broadway Avenue E and E Madison Street. King, an original member of the seminal Humphrey-Weidman Company in New York, came to Seattle in 1943 to teach at Cornish Institute, and opened her own studio soon after. When King left Seattle in 1951, Nishitani took over King's studio, founding her own school and modern-dance company. 

An opportunity to study and perform with formative modern dancer Doris Humphrey (1895-1958) at Connecticut College in the summer of 1954 took Nishitani away from Seattle for several months. When she returned, she discovered that the landlord had rented the studio to someone else. Fortuitously, a space in Seattle's University District that had previously been converted into a dance studio was available. Nishitani leased the space and moved her school and company to the new space in late October 1954. Thereafter, she celebrated the last weekend of October as the anniversary of her arrival in the University District. 

The Nichols Block

The façade of the building that housed Martha Nishitani's studio is inscribed "A. F. Nichols Blk." Real estate developer Alfred Fenton Nichols (1848-1921) was a member of the fraternal order of Masons and of the Knights of Pythias, and chairman of a group of North End boosters who successfully advocated for the University of Washington campus as the site of Seattle's first world's fair, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P). Once the university grounds had been chosen to house the A-Y-P, Nichols and the rest of the North End business community rallied to exploit the fair's potential to spur economic development in the University District. 

In June 1906, Nichols purchased the property at the northwest corner of 14th Avenue NE and 42nd Street (now NE 42nd Street) from N. E. Berridge. The property included an existing building constructed in 1890 and designated 4201 14th Avenue NE, and the property adjoining it to the north. Nichols constructed a two-story building with a ground floor devoted to retail space and an upper floor designed as a meeting hall. Completed in 1907, it was the first concrete building in the University District. The upper floor was designated 4203 14th Avenue NE, and the ground floor was 4205. The upper floor was accessed by entering a narrow alley between 4201 and 4205 14th Avenue NE and ascending an exterior stairway.

At the time, University Way NE was called 14th Avenue NE. In the original 1890 plat map of the area, the street was called Columbia Avenue. When this area was annexed into the city of Seattle in 1891, the name was changed to 14th Avenue NE. In 1920, Seattle City Ordinance 41602 changed the street's name to University Way NE, but University of Washington students had long dubbed the road "The Ave," a name that persists nearly a century after it officially ceased to be an avenue. 

From Fraternal Hall to Theater to Dance Studio

The upper floor of the Nichols Block building originally functioned as a community meeting place. By the early 1930s, it was serving as a regular venue for the Pythian Sisters, the women's branch of the Knights of Pythias fraternal organization. 

In 1935, the space was converted into a 140-seat arena theater, the first permanent home of the University of Washington's Penthouse Theatre. The Penthouse Theatre was intended to provide the drama department with an intimate performance space. The first Penthouse Theatre performances were staged in 1932, in an unused drawing room in the penthouse of the Edmond Meany Hotel. In 1933 and 1934, performances were staged in the hotel's ballroom. 

Leasing 4203 University Way NE in 1935 gave the drama department a convenient space two blocks from campus. The theater was in constant use for the next three years. In April 1938, following picketing by union activists protesting use of non-union student labor and then by students protesting the termination of director Florence Bean James's (1892-1988) contract as part-time drama instructor, the Penthouse Theatre closed. In May 1940, its operations resumed in an on-campus theater newly built for that purpose. 

In October 1938, national dance school chain Meglin-Fanchon-Marco began offering ballroom dancing classes in the space Penthouse Theatre had vacated. It is possible that the space had hardwood flooring from the time of construction, but if not, hardwood flooring had almost certainly been installed during the conversion into Penthouse Theatre. When the theater vacated the property, the drama department presumably took custody of the theater seats. Newspaper articles describing the Meglin-Fanchon-Marco operation refer to the space as a ballroom. 

One year later, the University School of Dance began teaching tap and ballroom dancing classes in the space. By April 1943, the Seattle Fencers Club was leasing the space, which then became vacant during World War II and apparently remained so until leased by Martha Nishitani. 

A Modern Mission

Nishitani knew from the beginning that she had a calling, and that her path would be difficult: "I want to operate a studio of modern dance to give that form of expression a respected place in Seattle's culture," she told The Seattle Times shortly before opening her University District studio. "It's not going to be easy. There's not a very big dance audience here right now ... . Modern dance has received an undeserved bad reputation from some other forms of dance because the public thinks that if you don't dance on your toes, you're doing a modern dance. Then there are those who think you're being vulgar or 'arty' if you try to give them anything besides straight entertainment. But modern dance is the most complete form of expression, utilizing the mind and nearly every part of the body. And it's good conditioning, too" ("Nisei Girl Champions..."). 

Martha Nishitani's school specialized in modern-dance classes and in creative dance classes for children, and eventually also offered ballet and jazz dance classes. Although some of her students went on to become professional dancers, Nishitani was sensitive to the need to provide classes for adults who had enjoyed dance classes as children, but then gone on to other pursuits. These individuals, Nishitani found, reveled in reconnecting with the experience of creative movement. 

Martha Nishitani also offered her studio as a venue for Master Classes taught by visiting dancer/choreographers. Over the years, many leaders in the dance world offered these master classes, including Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), Charles Weidman (1901-1975), Eleanor King (1906-1991), Jean Erdman (b. 1916), Bill Evans, and Paul Taylor (b. 1930). 

When Nishitani opened her studio, the given address was 4203 University Way NE. In 1970, the 1890-era building at 4201 was demolished, and with it the alleyway and exterior entrance to the Nichols Block building. New construction on the site (originally a Radio Shack store and more recently a coffee house) directly adjoins the Nichols Block building. After 1970, the Nishitani Studio used the 4205 University Way NE address that also served the downstairs tenants. At some point after 1938 but prior to 1970, an interior stairway accessing the studio was constructed. 

Still Dancing

In 1990, shortly after celebrating the 35th anniversary of her studio, Nishitani told Northwest Nikkei: 

"Modern dance is a type of dancing that is more or less for the dancer, the artist, and it's the collaboration of mind, body and soul, and her heritage ... put into formal expressive movement. You (the artist/dancer) have to have command of your body in order to express what you want to say. And you have to have technique of your medium, your rhythm and energy, and also be able to project that over the footlights. It's a different type of approach, you're not just there to entertain your audience, you have to communicate with them and send them home with a thought, something to think about" ("Martha Nishitani"). 

In 2002, after 48 years of teaching, choreographing, and living her art in the University District studio, Martha Nishitani retired, closing her business. Seattle's dance community rallied to save the space as a place for dance and dancers. In 2003, the former Nishitani studio reopened as Open Flight Studio, an affordable rental space for performance-based artists. The dancers who spearheaded the Open Flight project made needed repairs and some updates, but the studio space remains (as of 2013) much as it was during Nishitani's tenure: imbued with an inspirational impulse, redolent with the echo of thousands of hours when, under Martha Nishitani's direction, hundreds of bodies leapt, spun, fell, recovered, contracted, released -- danced. 

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Curtain rises on Seattle's new Penthouse Theatre on May 16, 1940" (by Cassandra Tate), (accessed September 23, 2013); Martha Nishitani modern dance history/compiled by Martha Nishitani, Accession No. 4421-001, University of Washington Special Collections; Leah Weathersby, "Local Dance Teacher Part Of Seattle History," Jet City Maven, June 6, 2001; John Marshall, "These firms have seen waves of change on the Ave," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 21, 1988; "Nishi Girl Champions Modern Dance," The Seattle Times, August 17, 1952, p. 5; "Offering Sites For The Fair," Ibid., June 5, 1906, p. 4; "University Station," Ibid., June 17, 1906, p. 20; "Card Party Planned," Ibid., August 17, 1930, p. 7; "The Dover Road," Ibid., April 19, 1935, p. 25; "Dance Studio Is Offering Classes In Several Arts," Ibid., October 24, 1938, p. 9; no heading, Ibid., October 22, 1939, p. 16; "Seattle Fencers To Hold Open House," Ibid., April 23, 1942, p. 28; Steve Uyeno, "Martha Nishitani," Northwest Nikkei, March 1990, p. 9; Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle Washington, Vol. 3 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), p. 816; Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 41602, “An ordinance changing the name of 14th Avenue Northeast between Northlake Avenue and Ravenna Boulevard to University Way," approved November 22, 1920; Open Flight Studio website accessed September 28, 2013 (; Tax photos and record cards for Block 11, Lots 11 and 12, Brooklyn Addition, King County Property Record Cards, Puget Sound Regional Archives; "The Working Artist: Paige Barnes - In The Studio," The Seattle Stat website accessed September 16, 2013 (
Note: This essay was updated on June 22, 2014.

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