Biographical/historical: On January 12, 1908, José Arcadia Limón was born in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico. His father, Florencio Limón, was a musician, conductor, and the director of the State Academy of Music. Limón's mother, Francisca Traslaviña, bore eleven children (four of whom died in infancy) of whom José was the eldest. The toil of so many pregnancies resulted in her death at the age of 34.
After wandering from one northern city to another, Limón's father finally moved the family to the United States to escape the terror and violence of the revolution in Mexico. José was seven when he and his family left Mexico for Tucson, Arizona. Eventually, the Limóns settled in Los Angeles. Graduating in 1926, Limón was an excellent student in high school and intended to pursue a career as a painter/artist. He enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles and took art classes at a private studio. He soon abandoned his studies, however, to journey to New York. Three friends, Don Forbes, Perkins Harnly, and Fernando Felix, who had introduced Limón to contemporary and avant-garde art in Los Angeles, had moved to New York and prompted Limón to do the same.
While in New York, Limón's passion for a career in art dissipated, and a chance visit to a dance concert by Harald Kreutzberg and Yvonne Georgi inspired Limón to undertake a career in dance. Don Forbes and Perkins Harnly recommended that José study with Charles Weidman (whom they knew from their youth in Lincoln, Nebraska) at the Humphrey-Weidman Studio. From 1928 to 1940 Limón was a pupil and dancer with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. In addition, he performed in Broadway shows, such as Norman Bel-Geddes' production of Lysistrata by Aristophanes, J. P. Envoy's musical revue Americana, and Irving Berlin's As Thousands Cheer.
In 1940 Limón left the Humphrey-Weidman Company to embark on a solo career as dancer and choreographer. During the 1930s Limón had choreographed a half dozen pieces and had taught dance at Bennington College, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh, Colorado State College of Education, the University of California at Berkeley, and Mills College. On the west coast in 1940-41, he continued his teaching and performed many concert engagements with May O'Donnell as his partner.
On October 4, 1941, José Limón and Pauline Lawrence were married in San Francisco. Limón had met Pauline thirteen years before, when he first attended classes at the Humphrey-Weidman Studio. Pauline was the receptionist there, as well as accompanist, business manager, and costume designer. After his marriage Limón returned to New York as guest artist of the season at the Studio Theatre, where he performed leading roles in many works directed by Doris Humphrey. He also appeared on Broadway in the leading dance role of Rosalinda.
In March 1943 Limón was inducted into the army, although he did not become a U.S. citizen until 1947. At first, Limón served as a truck driver in the quartermaster corps but then received a transfer to the Special Services Division. He directed and performed in dances, pageants, and shows. During his off-hours, he rehearsed for concerts that he performed with Dorothy Bird and Beatrice Seckler on his furlough. When he was finally discharged, Limón organized a new company with Doris Humphrey as choreographer and artistic director.
José Limón and Company made annual tours of the United States during its first years. Limón's first major choreographic triumph was “The Moor's Pavane” in 1949, for which he won the Dance Magazine Award in 1950. That same year Limón and his company performed in Paris and in Mexico, at the invitation of Miguel Covarrubias, then Director of the Academia Nacional de Bellas Artes. Limón returned to Mexico City twice in 1951.
In 1954 José Limón and Company became the first dance company sent abroad on a cultural mission by the United States State Department. Under the auspices of the American National Theatre and Academy and the State Department, Limón first made a tour of South America, then a tour of Europe in 1957, a tour of South and Central America in 1960, and a tour of the Far East and Australia in 1963. The José Limón Dance Company also toured the Soviet Union in 1973, just after Limón's death.
Since 1948 the Limóns spent every summer in residence at the Connecticut College School of Dance, and each year Limón appeared at the American Dance Festival held there. From 1954 until his death, Limón was a member of the dance faculty at the Juilliard School of Music. José Limón and Company opened the first dance performance at the New York Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Central Park on September 4, 1962. While artistic director of the American Dance Theatre, Limón gave the first dance performance ever at Lincoln Center in 1963. Honors that Limón received include a second Dance Magazine Award in 1957, the Capezio Dance Award in 1964, and four honorary doctorates from Wesleyan University, Colby College, the University of North Carolina, and Oberlin College.
José Limón was a consistently productive choreographer and an active dancer until 1969. His first choreographic efforts began in 1931 with Eleanor King, and from 1949 to 1972 he choreographed at least one new piece each year. He received commissions for choreographic works from the American Dance Festival, the Empire State Festival, the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes of Mexico, and the Federal Arts Council in the United States. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the formation of a modern dance company able to survive the death or retirement of its founder. His company was the first to remain as a performing unit after his death on December 2, 1972.