History of Black Dance: 20th-Century Black American Dance
Black culture had a real influence on dance and other art forms in the 20th century. After the American civil war a surge of people from the Caribbean and Deep South migrated into North American cities. In New York the district of Harlem became home to black people from different cultural traditions with their own dances and music.
Harlem became the ‘in place’ to be amongst both black and white New Yorkers – its clubs brought together dance and music that was alive and exciting. Dances such as the Charleston, Lindyhop and Jitterbug sprang from these clubs as did Jazz music. The influence of this Harlem Renaissance on music and dance in New York in the early 1920s spread into Europe.
The first all black musical on Broadway called Shuffle Along opened in 1921. This was a smash hit, creating an interest in black dance in the theatre. The show also developed opportunities for individual black performers and dancers. In 1923 the Broadway hit Running Wild came to England and the Charleston became the dance of the decade.
The Revue Nègre in Paris introduced the dancer Josephine Baker. She became a huge star in Europe but was never as popular in America (where racial tension continued to marginalise black dance and dancers). All black musicals disappeared from Broadway in the 1920s when white musicals started to employ more black performers and black dance was incorporated into their programme.
In Britain, black dancers appeared in musicals and revues from the early 20th century. In the 1920s Florence Mills starred in the Broadway musical Shuffle Along (which inspired the growing popularity for tap dancing) and later Plantation Review which toured to London in 1924.
Her next musical Blackbirds opened in London in 1926 and her song ‘I’m a little Blackbird looking for a Bluebird’ became Mills’s theme song. Her singing was beautiful and her dancing had a comedy streak that audiences loved. Florence Mills became a star in both New York and London. In the UK reviewers proclaimed her talent and she was the talk of London.
Tragically Florence died at the age of 32, after an operation to remove her appendix. Thousands of people attended her funeral in Harlem.
In 1933 C. B. Cochran invited Buddy Bradley to London to work on the Rodgers and Hart musical Evergreen. It was the first time a black dancer had worked on an all white show.
Buddy Bradley was a major force in musicals and revue in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1908, he was mostly self-taught and made his debut as a dancer in 1926 in the Florence Mills Revue in New York. He staged dances in the great 1920s revues for Ziegfeld, George White, Earl Carroll and Lew Leslie’s legendary black revue Blackbirds. He also staged routines for such stars as Eleanor Powell, Ruby Keeler and Adèle Astaire.
In the 1930s he left New York and danced in London in C. B. Cochran’s 1931 Revue. There was a rumour that he was forced to leave New York because the Mafia owner of Harlem’s Cotton Club did not appreciate Bradley teaching his girlfriend to dance.
Bradley went on to work with Jessie Matthews and Jack Buchanan on their major musical shows and films throughout the 1930s. In 1932 he collaborated with Frederick Ashton on a ballet High Yellow. Bradley had to teach the ballerina Alicia Markova how to dance with snake hips. He said that the most difficult thing to teach classical dancers was how to bend their knees.
Until 1967 Bradley ran a dance studio in London. He also continued choreographing in England, France, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. His choreography mixed classical and modern dance and he also took movements from ice shows and jazz. When tap fell out of favour in the 1950s, he concentrated on jazz dance. He became the first African-American to run a British white company when he formed his own group to appear in variety shows and television in the 1950s.
Josephine Baker wearing a top hat
Josephine Baker (1906-1975) wearing a top hat, black and white photograph. Museum no. 89/1716
Josephine Baker at the Prince Edward Theatre, 1933
This programme is for the first appearance of the great singer and dancer Josephine Baker in London in 1933. She had been a legend in Paris since her first appearance, wearing little more than a feather, in La Revue Nègre in 1925. The London programme's photographs show her wearing considerably more than her famous banana skirt. Here she wears male evening dress. There was always a certain androgynous (both male and female) quality to Baker. At her first performance, despite her nakedness, more than one reviewer found both male and female qualities in her. So it was not surprising that Baker dressed as a man as part of her act. It is the advertisement on the back cover that hints at her glamour image. Part of Baker's charm was that, behind the sophistication, the nudity, the cross-dressing, the feathers and glitter, she still seemed a naughty child projecting not so much sexuality, as a good time.
Photograph of Florence Mills
London first saw Florence Mills in C.B.Cochran’s revue Dover Street to Dixie in 1923. There were rumours that an anti-coloured demonstration was planned, but after one song, London was at her feet. Cochran later presented her in the smash hit revue Black Birds. Mills never overtly wooed her audience, yet always aroused them to wild enthusiasm. Cochran remembered her voice, ‘bird-like, with a throb in it such as I have never heard in any other. In her quietest moment her eyes would suddenly flash, her beautiful little vibrant face would light up, and her frail, lithe limbs would become animated with a sort of dancing delirium’.
He considered Mills one of the greatest stars he ever presented. She was born in 1895 to ex-slaves in a Washington, D.C. slum. By the age of four she was performing on stage. By the 1920s she was the toast of Broadway and London and the first black woman featured in Vogue. She became a role model and her success helped audiences accept black performers. Her trademark song, ‘I'm a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird’ was a protest against racial inequality. Mills died in 1927, aged only 31. At her funeral the mourners sang her hit song ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’
Advertising flyer for the musical Ever Green, 1930
In 1930 Evergreen was the most spectacular musical yet mounted by the celebrated showman C.B.Cochran. Written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and starring Jessie Matthews, it had a cast of 200, a revolving stage and elaborate scenic effects. The dances were by Billy Pierce and Buddy Bradley, the first black dancers to work on an all-white show. The revolving stage was a nightmare for them, as the dancers had never performed on a revolve before. As the floor moved one way, they had to dance in the opposite direction and kept smashing into each other.
The hit song was Dancing on the Ceiling, in which Jessie Matthews and Sonnie Hale danced around a huge chandelier pointing upwards from the floor. Unusually for Rodgers and Hart, the music was written first. Hart sensed a weightlessness in the melody and wrote the lyrics around a girl dreaming that her lover is dancing above her on the ceiling. The BBC banned the song for a while because the word 'bed' occurred three times.
Printed programme for musical Ever Green, 1930
American born Buddy Bradley was an important teacher and choreographer in British dance from the 1930s, when C.B. Cochran brought him in to work on the Rodgers and Hart musical Ever Green. He was the first black choreographer to work on an all white theatre production. He set up a studio in London, and until 1967 worked with the greatest names in British musical theatre, including Jessie Matthews, Jack Buchanan and Anna Neagle.
Bruce Forsyth went to him as a boy to learn American-style tap dancing. The revolving stage in Ever Green was a nightmare for Bradley and his co- choreographer Billy Pierce.The dancers had never performed on a revolve before. They had rehearsed on the non-moving floor of the dance studio and didn’t get to work with the revolve until the pre-London try-out in Glasgow. As the floor moved one way, the dancers moved in the opposite direction and they kept smashing into each other.
Newspaper cutting, Fair Attractions in Ever Green, 1930
Newspaper cutting, Fair Attractions in Ever Green, King's Theatre Glasgow, Scotland, about 1930
Calypso opened in London in 1948. It was the first musical based on a West Indian subject with a predominantly West Indian cast. The date was significant. The opening night was just a month before the Windrush brought the first West Indian immigrants to Britain. Calypso was devised by English actor, dancer and designer Hedley Briggs, who became fascinated by Trinidad culture when he was stationed there in World War II.
Calypso took local songs and dances and pasted them into a standard musical comedy story of lovers' misunderstandings. The plot was old, but the West Indian dances were performed with a dash and verve that were new to English audiences in the late 1940s. The leading role was played by West Indian actor Edric Connor, who spent his life working to increase opportunities for black British performers. He set up an agency to represent them and campaigned for black British actors to replace visiting African American casts after six months. In 1958 he was the first black actor to perform in Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Modern black dance
The emergence of a black modern dance movement was inspired by the work of two black American women, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus. Both were academics as well as dancers and spent a great deal of time researching the origins of black dance in the USA. Both toured to Britain with great success. In particular their work influenced the young Berto Pasuka, who went ahead to form the first British black dance company Ballet Nègres.
Dunham made her name in 1934 on Broadway with musicals Le Jazz Hot and Tropics where she introduced a dance called L’ag’ya. This was based on the rhythms and martial arts dances of the slaves who used dance to develop their stamina in preparation for uprisings against their white masters.
Dunham researched dance from Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Martinique for her choreography. She believed that black dance should have equal status with the white European tradition and wanted to trace black dance roots. The technique that she developed also drew on ballet and modern dance. In 1944 she founded a school of dance. At her school students learnt philosophy, anthropology and languages as well as tap, ballet and primitive dance and percussion
Pearl Primus was the first black modern dancer. Strange Fruit was her first performance. It had no music but a sound tape of a poem about a black man being lynched by a white racist. It was passionate and angry. Like other black dancers in the emerging black dance culture she used the art form to express the social and political constraints on black people within America.
She was born in Trinidad before her parents immigrated to Harlem in 1919. She worked at the New Dance Group Studios which was one of few places where black dancers could train alongside whites. She went on to study for a PhD and did research on dance in Africa. Her most famous dance was the Fanga, an African dance of welcome which introduced traditional African dance to the stage.
In the 1940s, Pearl Primus was one of the first dancers to make an in-depth study of black dance traditions, embracing West Indian, African, and primitive dance. Her recitals and performances with her company showed these dances both in their authentic form and used as a basis for new choreography.
She was an important figure in the preservation and study of ethnic dance and was consulted on dance in many countries, including Libya. This photograph shows the influence of African dance on Primus' work. She spent three years in Africa making a survey of native dances and, on her return in 1951, she presented many performances based on the dances and rituals she had studied.
Black American dance companies
In the 1950s and 60s Arthur Mitchell challenged the myth that black dancers were unsuited to ballet. He grew up in the Harlem district of New York and when he was 18 won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. On graduation in 1956, he joined New York City Ballet and danced with them for 15 years. George Balanchine, the choreographer and founder of the company, created many roles for him, including the ballets Agon and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Mitchell had a great belief in the power of education to help children develop their potential. He wanted children within the black community to have more opportunities. In 1968, shortly after Martin Luther King's assassination, Mitchell founded a school called the Dance Theatre of Harlem. The school was a huge success and in 1971 the company, also known as Dance Theatre of Harlem, gave its first performances. It has since performed to great acclaim all over the world. The repertory includes works by major 20th-century choreographers, including Fokine, Nijinska, Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Mitchell also commissioned works, some of which explored the origins of black dance.
Alvin Ailey Dance Company
Born in Texas in 1931 in a poor rural area, Ailey was inspired to dance after seeing Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo as a schoolboy. He trained at Lester Horton Studio in New York and later with Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Katherine Durham. He supported himself during his studies by dancing in Broadway musicals and teaching. During this time he was lead dancer in Jamaica, a musical choreographed by Jack Cole.
In 1958 Ailey founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. The company’s twin aims were to express black cultural heritage and enrich American dance. His choreography showed a highly individual mix of elements taken from primitive dance, modern dance and jazz dance. His most famous and popular work is probably Revelations.
Photograph of Arthur Mitchell in Agon
Arthur Mitchell challenged the idea that black bodies were not suited to classical ballet. He danced with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet in the 1950s and 1960s, the first black dancer to become a leading dancer with a ballet company.
In 1957, Mitchell was not yet a soloist. He also had a foot injury but Balanchine was eager to begin work on his new ballet Agon, saying 'OK, I'll do everything for you on the right foot'. The music too was a problem. The score was a new one by Igor Stravinsky. 'There are parts I don't understand,' the company pianist said. 'That's all right,' replied the composer, 'I don't understand them either'.
Until Agon, Mitchell had been cast without regard for his colour. Now Balanchine used the difference between him and his partner, the fair Diana Adams, so that the placing of a hand or the arms provided a colour structure that became part of the choreography. It was to be one of the greatest pas de deux ever created.
Dance Theater of Harlem
Dance Theater of Harlem was the first black classical ballet company. Forces of Rhythm was choreographed by Louis Johnson to show various forms of black dance: Afro-ethnic, jazz dance and ballet. Its message was that Dance Theater of Harlem was not turning its back on its heritage but believed it had equal right to make classical ballet its own. This photograph was taken during the company's hugely successful first London season in 1974. The visit started quietly. Then word spread that something special was happening at Sadler's Wells Theatre and suddenly huge queues formed at the box office.
To cope, the theatre staff gave up their free time to help. T-shirts and lapel badges bearing the company logo of two strutting dancers were to be seen everywhere. When founder and director Arthur Mitchell announced that the next company into the theatre had generously changed its rehearsal schedule so that the season could be extended by a week he was greeted with shouts of 'We want six months'.
Dance Theater of Harlem
Dance Theater of Harlem was the first black classical ballet company. Its founder, Arthur Mitchell, wanted to challenge ballet companies on their own ground and show that black dancers could dance the same ballets equally well. Concerto Barocco was one of George Balanchine's major ballets and a great test for the company, some of whom had only been dancing for five years. It was the ballet chosen to open the company's first season in London in 1974. Audiences were amazed that a company only five years old could master the cool serenity of Balanchine's style. As Mitchell said, London was important for his company because it was one of the major centres of classical dance.
Arthur Mitchell teaching
Arthur Mitchell challenged the prejudice that black bodies were not suited to classical ballet. He danced with George Balanchine's New York City Ballet in the 1950s and 1960s, the first black dancer to become a leading dancer with a ballet company. In 1969 Mitchell started his own school in Harlem 'to get the kids off the streets'. He used 'dance' rather than 'ballet' which the boys thought 'sissy'. They soon found out their mistake. Ballet training involves more physical discipline than any sport. But Mitchell knew when to relax the rules. Boys did not have to wear the dreaded tights. They danced to drumbeats rather than classical music. He also believed that the discipline would help children who had known little control in their lives. In 1971 he founded Dance Theater of Harlem to showcase the dancers he had trained. Mitchell gave structure and purpose to the lives of thousands of children who went on to dance, work in the theatre or, applying the discipline he had taught them, to become doctors or lawyers.
Revelations - Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre
Alvin Ailey was the protégé of American pioneer modern dancer Lester Horton, and also danced with Martha Graham. He formed his own black dance company, American Dance Theatre, in 1958 to present his own works, a blend of tribal African-American dance, jazz, and modern dance. He wanted to explore the black experience: what he called, in Martha Graham's phrase, 'blood memories', but also to keep key works in the modern American dance repertory alive. Revelations is Ailey's tribute to black sacred music and the evangelical force of religion. His 'blood memories' were the church of his youth when he was growing up in the Depression in Texas. Like the churches of the Deep South, Revelations mixes ritual, hell fire and rousing praise. The company always performed it with a passion and commitment that had audiences on their feet, shouting. In the 'Take me to the Water' sequence, shown here, figures move against a deep blue ground, the white dresses and the parasols weaving themselves inextricably into the choreography.
Hidden Rites - Alvin Ailey Dance Company
The photograph shows Sara Yarborough and John Parks in Alvin Ailey's Hidden Rites. They were members of his City Center Dance Theatre and in this piece are playing the roles of two deity spirits who dominate the action. In Hidden Rites, Alvin Ailey delved so deep into the African roots of black ritual that it became a study of the roots of all ritual. The patterned tights have African sources but also suggest the Minoan civilisation of Crete, of around 2000 B.C. The action centred on universal themes of creation, love and death. This was in keeping with Ailey's aims. Although his company had its roots in African- American culture, he always wanted it to include the best works from whatever source, and not be limited in themes.
Roots of the Blues - Alvin Ailey Dance Company
The photograph shows Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theatre in Roots of the Blues. This ballet was Ailey's tribute to the Blues and its place in American black culture, and another example of his drawing on 'blood memories' to create dances. It was a series of short sketches tracing the Blues from the brothels of New Orleans to the speakeasies (shops or bars where alcohol was sold illegally during Prohibition in America) and nightclubs of the 1920s. The setting was very spare - a few chairs, stools, a ladder, a hatstand, but combined with Ves Harper's equally simple yet striking costumes, and stunning lighting and back projections, it created unforgettable stage pictures. Ailey's choreography showed off the individual dancers to perfection. On the company's first visit to London in 1964, it was the work that made audiences realise just how good Ailey's dancers were.