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 was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up dancing in street performances and clubs. At age 13, she landed her first professional gig as a chorus girl with the vaudeville group The Dixie Steppers. Two years later, she joined the touring company of the all-black musical Shuffle Along in Boston. When she turned 16, she was finally deemed old enough to join the Broadway cast. Baker stood out for her unique brand of comic relief: She would cross her eyes and collapse dramatically at the knees. When she forgot the choreography, she would improvise—which the audience loved. Before long, she was the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville.
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.
Provocative costumes, onstage antics and a real joie de vivreIn 1936, she returned to the U.S. to appear in the Ziegfeld Follies alongside Fanny Brice and Bob Hope. Despite her superstar status in Europe, Baker was unsuccessful in segregated America. Audiences were turned off by the suggestive nature of her performances and couldn’t accept a black female superstar.
Disheartened, she returned to France and refocused, working for the French Resistance in World War II by performing in hospitals and smuggling messages in sheet music. Baker spent her later years as an equal rights activist and refused to perform for segregated audiences. She adopted 12 children from around the world, calling them her “Rainbow Tribe.” She died in 1975 and was buried in France, becoming the first American woman to receive full French military honors.
Baker’s dancing was rooted in popular Jazz Age dances like the Charleston. With long, rubber-like legs, her improvised movement featured quick steps and low kicks, swinging arms and lots of ballon. She fused basic ballet technique with her blend of Broadway, tap and African dance styles. Baker often made funny faces while she performed and was famous for her revealing costumes—she was usually decked out in diamonds, rhinestones and feathers, with her legs bare.
Danse Sauvage (1925) In this finale for La Revue Nègre, Baker danced African-influenced movements topless, capitalizing on the current Parisian fascination with what they considered primitive dance.
La Folie du Jour aka “banana dance” (1926) Baker’s most famous work, in which she danced wearing nothing but a skirt made out of 16 bananas, was conceptualized by French filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
Joséphine (1975) In Baker’s final Paris revue, she sang 34 songs and danced jazz steps to rave reviews. Three days after the premiere, she died at age 68.
The Legacy Lives On
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 NAACP named May 20 Josephine Baker Day.
*Baker loved animals and had many pets, including a leopard named Chiquita and a chimpanzee named Ethel.
*Baker influenced several artists and writers in Paris, including Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein and Alexander Calder, whose wire sculpture, Josephine Baker (III), can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives