In honor of Black History Month, here are some of the most influential and inspiring black dancers who paved the way for future generations.
Born in Trinidad, Pearl Eileen Primus Made Her Mark as a Dancer in New York
Primus received many honors, including an honorary doctorate from Spelman College, the Distinguished Service Award from the Association of American Anthropologists and the National Medal of Arts.
Pearl Eileen Primus (1919–1994) was an ambassador of African dance and the African experience in the Caribbean and United States. Her Trinidadian heritage, combined with extensive studies in the Caribbean, Africa and the American South, became the lens through which she taught and choreographed. Confronting stereotypes and prejudice through movement, she advocated dance as a means of uniting people against discrimination. “When I dance, I am dancing as a human being, but a human being who has African roots,” she declared of her work.
Primus was a force of unparalleled energy and drive, who challenged societal norms with masterful work that honored her ancestors and enlightened generations to come. “I dance not to entertain, but to help people better understand each other . . . because through dance I have experienced the wordless joy of freedom,” she said of her life’s work. “I see it more fully now for my people and for all people everywhere.”
Alvin Ailey Brought the African-American Cultural Experience to the Concert Stage
Ailey’s iconic work Revelations continues to resonate nearly 60 years later.
Alvin Ailey founded what would become one of the world’s most famous modern dance companies.
Born in Rogers, Texas, during the Great Depression. At age 11, he moved to Los Angeles with his mother and began taking modern dance classes from Lester Horton, choreographer and creator of the Horton technique. In Horton’s racially integrated studio and company, Ailey developed a reputation as a strong performer with a commanding stage presence. When Horton died in 1953, 22-year-old Ailey briefly took over the company.
A year later, Ailey moved to New York City to perform in the Broadway show House of Flowers. Over the next four years, he trained with some of the biggest names in modern dance: Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Anna Sokolow, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. In 1958, Ailey created his own troupe—a modern repertory company focused on giving the black cultural experience a voice in concert dance. The company’s first performance at the 92nd Street Y, of Ailey’s sultry Blues Suite, was an instant success with critics and audiences.
The Beyoncé of the Jazz Age: Josephine Baker 1906–1975
The NAACP named May 20 Josephine Baker Day.
Josephine Baker was a comedic dancer, famous for her beauty and risqué performances. Despite racial prejudices of the 1920s, she transformed herself from small-town dance comedienne to international superstar.
Baker’s big break came in 1925, when she was recruited for a new, all-black variety show in Paris called La Revue Nègre. In it, she danced suggestively while nearly nude in a tribal costume. She became an instant hit and the show’s poster girl. After hugely successful runs at the famous Parisian music hall, Folies Bergère, Baker tried her luck in French movies. She starred in Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam-Tam(1935), both big hits.
Instead of letting 1920s stereotypes of black dancers define her, Baker used her image to propel herself to stardom and eventually challenged social perceptions of black women. She paved the way for modern-day female black superstars like Beyoncé, who, like Baker, flaunts her sensuality with confidence. Beyoncé cites Baker as an influence and performed her own version of Baker’s banana dance in 2006.
The Nicholas Brothers
In Sun Valley Serenade (1941).
Fayard and Harold Nicholas, aka the Nicholas Brothers, were known for their one-of-a-kind “flash act” performances, characterized by full-bodied animation, rhythmic perfection and fearless stunts. They were among the first African-American entertainers to break through the segregation of pre-Civil-Rights-era America and be featured in integrated films.
Their song-and-dance act caught them plenty of attention: They were given a small dance number in the film Kid Millions (1934), and George Balanchine cast them in his 1937 Broadway musical Babes in Arms. For the next 14 years, they appeared steadily in films as a dancing duo, though they were never given dramatic or heavy speaking roles. But they made the most of their limited screen time, often stealing the show from the films’ headliners. In Down Argentine Way (1940), they had a dance-off with slides, splits and one-footed wings. Stormy Weather(1943) highlighted their athleticism, via a series of leapfrogging splits while going down a staircase.
By the 1950s, the brothers had dissolved their act, frustrated by the racist attitudes that still limited access for African-American performers and audiences. They parted ways to pursue independent performing careers, eventually reuniting as a duo to make guest appearances at various events throughout the 1970s and ’80s. After a six-decade career, Harold died in 2000 at age 79; Fayard passed in 2006 at 91.
Katherine Dunham Fused Dance and Anthropology
At the age of 82, Dunham went on a hunger strike in protest of the U.S. government’s treatment of Haitian refugees
Katherine Dunham (1909–2006) brought African dance aesthetics to the United States, forever influencing modern and jazz dance. She was instrumental in getting respect for blacks on the concert dance stage and directed the first self-supported African-American dance company.
Dunham was born in Illinois, where she developed an interest in dance during high school. At the encouragement of her brother, she moved to Chicago in 1928, where she began studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. Dunham founded her own company, Ballet Négre, in 1930 as an alternative to the minstrel stereotype that was the predominant role available for African-American performers at the time. Though it soon folded, she was undeterred: Two years later, she created the Negro Dance Group with Ludmilla Speranzeva, her former ballet teacher.
In 1934, she was granted funding to travel to the Caribbean and conduct anthropological fieldwork in dance. She spent 10 months in Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Haiti, where she was initiated into the Haitian religion Vodou.
Upon her return to the U.S. in 1936, she re-formed her company, her choreography newly infused with the polyrhythmic and pulsating movements of the Caribbean. Dunham and her company performed in several Broadway revues, touted by critics as performers of a new dance genre, Negro dance. On tour, the company encountered significant racial prejudice—hotels refused rooms for her dancers, and presenters segregated audiences. Dunham became an activist, threatening to sue for discrimination and to withhold future engagements until circumstances had changed for the better. In 1951, she premiered her racially controversial piece Southland, despite warnings not to from the State Department, and was consequently refused funding for later touring.
In 1945, she opened the Katherine Dunham School of Dance in New York City. Her student body and faculty were both interracial and international; Dunham intended her school to be a model for racial equality.