Pola Nirenska Award

The Pola Nirenska Awards celebrates trailblazers and leaders of the dance community. Named in honor of the illustrious D.C. modern dance teacher and choreographer, and supported by her late husband, Dr. Jan Karski, the Pola Nirenska Awards annually honor individuals who have made an impact on the field of dance locally and oftentimes nationally. Each year, award recipients are chosen by a committee of arts professionals and granted by Washington Performing Arts. The awards reflect the Washington Performing Arts commitment to sustaining and nurturing performing artists and their art forms.

Award Recipients

The Pola Nirenska Award History for Outstanding Contributions to Dance

2022-2023 – Ralph Glenmore

2020-2021 – Ronya Lee Anderson

2019-2020 Anuradha Nehru

2018-2019 Robert Priore

2017-2018 Laura Schandelmeier

2016-2017 Vincent Thomas

2015-2016 Erica Rebollar

2014-2015 Sylvia Soumah

2013-2014 Baakari Wilder

2012-2013 Daniel Phoenix Singh

2011-2012 Lucy Bowen McCauley

2010-2011 Brian Williams

2009-2010 No award (support Centennial)

2008-2009 Gesel Mason

2007-2008 Helanius Wilkins

2006-2007 Fabian Barnes

2005-2006 Paul Emerson

2004-2005 Ed Tyler

2003-2004 Assane Konte

2002-2003 Dana Tai Soon Burgess

2001-2002 Deborah Riley

2000-2001 Maida Withers

1999-2000 Melvin Deal

1998-1999 Sharon Wyrrick

1997-1998 Eric Hampton

1996-1997 Jacek Luminski

1995-1996 Carla Perlo

1994-1995 Liz Lerman

1993-1994 Pola Nirenska Memorial Concert produced by Rima Faber

The Pola Nirenska Lifetime Achievement Awards

2022-2023 – George Jackson

2020-2021 – Melvin Deal

2019-2020 Carol Foster, Beatrice Davis Williams

2018-2019 Michelle Ava and Alexandra Tomalonis

2017-2018 Therrell Smith

2016-2017 Suzanne Farrell, Carla Perlo

2015-2016 Deborah Riley

2014-2015 Doug Yuell

2013-2014 Nilimma Devi

2012-2013 Sandra Fortune Green

2011-2012 Alan M. Kriegsman and Sali Ann Kriegsman

2010-2011 Alvin Mayes

2009-2010 Seda Gelenian

2008-2009 Virginia Johnson/Kathy Freshley

2007-2008 Mary Averett Seelye, Kim Chan

2006-2007 Yvonne Edwards

2005-2006 Hedi Pope

2004-2005 Jean Battey Lewis

2003-2004 Meriam “Mim” Rosen

2002-2003 Tensia Fonseca

2001-2002 Naima Prevots

2000-2001 Larry Warren

1999-2000 Mary Day

1998-1999 Doris Jones

1997-1998 Erika Thimey

About Pola Nirenska

Pola Nirenska was a matriarch of modern dance in Washington, D.C. She helped elevate the art form as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher at a time when it was scarcely known by the general public. Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1910, Pola Nirenska trained at the Mary Wigman School in Dresden and toured the United States in 1932 with the Mary Wigman Dance Company. Ms. Nirenska moved to Vienna for further study with Rosalia Chladek, and then taught and performed in Italy. With fascism dominating continental Europe, she fled to Britain, where she danced for the troops while enduring the Blitz in London. She lost siblings and dozens of other family members in the Holocaust.

Ms. Nirenska moved to the United States in 1949 and was “discovered” by the pioneering American modern dancer and choreographer Ted Shawn. On the advice of choreographer Doris Humphrey, she moved from New York to Washington, D.C. She met Patrick Hayes, founder of Washington Performing Arts before her retirement in 1969. When she resumed choreographing in 1980, Washington Performing Arts presented her at the Hartke Theater at Catholic University and on May 19, 1988, at the Terrace Theater as part of the City Dance Festival, under the leadership of Doug Wheeler, President Emeritus.

Following her death, the annual Pola Nirenska Awards were established in 1993 by her husband, Dr. Jan Karski. The annual awards are presented by the Pola Nirenska Awards Committee and Washington Performing Arts.