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Doris Humphrey was born in Oak Park, Illinois, and grew up in Chicago, the daughter of Horace Buckingham Humphrey, a journalist, and his wife Julia Ellen Wells, a trained concert pianist. The maternal side of the family descended from William Brewster, a colonist who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620. Doris began to study dance as a small child and while still at high school, toured the western states with her mother as accompanist. In 1913, at age 18, she opened her own dance school in Oak Park.

A few years later, she moved to Los Angeles, California and enrolled in the Denishawn School, where she studied, performed as a soloist, taught classes, and learned choreography. In 1932, she married Charles Francis Woodford, a merchant, with whom she had a son. Doris Humphrey formed her own dance company with Charles Weidman, which was successful even during the Great Depression, touring the USA and developing pioneering new styles and works. She participated in the Federal Dance Project created as part of President Roosevelt's New Deal. In 1933, she choreographed the Broadway show School for Husbands and returned the following year with Life Begins at 8:40.

After she retired from performing in 1944, she became artistic director for the José Limón Dance Company and created a number of works for that company.
Her book The Art of Making Dances, in which she set forth her innovative choreographic principles based on the principle of fall and recovery fro gravity, was published posthumously in 1959.
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