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Kathleen Thompson

Ambitious, talented Debbie Allen has broken ground for black women in a variety of roles, primarily behind the scenes of the entertainment industry—directing, producing, writing, and choreographing television shows, films, and musical theater.

Debbie Allen was born into a remarkable family in Houston, Texas. Her father, Andrew Allen, was a dentist, and her mother, Vivian Ayers Allen, is a poet who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her sister, Phylicia Rashad, is a well-known actor, and one of her brothers is Andrew “Tex” Allen, a jazz musician.

Allen decided early that she wanted to be a dancer She began her training when she was three and by the time she was eight she had decided to go into musical theater When she tried to enroll in the school of the Houston Foundation for Ballet she was rejected for reasons her mother considered discriminatory As a ...


Christopher Wells

tap dancer and choreographer, was born Charles Atkinson in Pratt City, Alabama, the son of Sylvan Atkinson, a construction and steel worker, and Christine Woods. At age seven Atkins moved with his mother to Buffalo, New York. Woods, herself an avid social dancer, encouraged her children to dance, and Atkins won his first local contest at age ten doing the Charleston. As a teenager Atkins made his first money as a dancer by busking at rest stops while working as a bus line porter between Buffalo and Albany. His dancing caught the attention of a talent scout for the Alhambra on the Lake, a Lake Erie nightclub, who booked Atkins as a regular act. There he learned to tap from William “Red” Porter, a dancing waiter who became Atkins's first dance partner.

In 1929 Atkins joined a traveling revue produced by Sammy Lewis and toured through ...


C. S'thembile West

choreographer, dancer, and teacher, was born in Cedar Grove, Louisiana, the son of a housepainter. His parents' names are unknown. In the small town of Cedar Grove, right outside Shreveport, Beatty's earliest dance influence was the legendary Katherine Dunham. According to the historian Joe Nash, a close friend and colleague of Beatty, Dunham invited him to “watch dances in progress” when he was eleven years old. Dunham was in rehearsal for Ruth Page'sLa Guillablesse, scheduled to open at the Chicago Civic Opera in 1933, and was trying to keep the young boy's playing from disrupting her work. Beatty danced onstage for the first time in the opera's 1934 season and emerged as a dancer of note after studying from 1937 to 1940 at Dunham's Studio de la Danse in Shreveport. He danced the role of a priest in Dunham'sYanvalou a ...


Thomas F. DeFrantz

Afro‐Caribbean dancer and choreographer, was born Percival Sebastian Borde in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the son of George Paul Borde, a veterinarian, and Augustine Francis Lambie. Borde grew up in Trinidad, where he finished secondary schooling at Queens Royal College and took an appointment with the Trinidad Railway Company. Around 1942 he began formal research on Afro‐Caribbean dance and performed with the Little Carib Dance Theatre. In 1949 he married Joyce Guppy, with whom he had one child. The year of their divorce is unknown.

Borde took easily to dancing and the study of dance as a function of Caribbean culture. In the early 1950s he acted as director of the Little Carib Theatre in Trinidad. In 1953 he met the noted American anthropologist and dancer Pearl Primus who was conducting field research in Caribbean folklore Primus convinced Borde to immigrate to the United States as ...


Constance Valis Hill

choreographer and jazz tap dancer, was born Clarence Bradley in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His parents' names and occupations are unknown. His father died when he was quite young, and his religious mother brought him up strictly. After seeing the tap dancers Jack Wiggins and Clarence “Dancing” Dotson at a local theater, Bradley learned to do the time step on one foot by age eight. He taught himself the Charleston, the strut, the drag, the shuffle, and a vast assortment of African American vernacular dances.

After his mother died when he was fourteen, Bradley went to live with a brother-in-law in Utica, New York, and worked as a hotel busboy. A few months later he ran away to New York City and lived at a Harlem boardinghouse inhabited by many show people, especially dancers. With a group of other youngsters that included Derby Wilson who became a well known tap dancer ...


Julia L. Foulkes

singer, dancer, and choreographer, was born John Warner Dafora Horton in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Little is known of his parents, but both were part of the prominent black elite in colonial society. Dafora's great-great-grandfather was the first black man to be knighted by Queen Victoria and the first black mayor of Sierra Leone. Dafora's parents, moreover, met in England, while his father was studying at Oxford and his mother studying the piano. Dafora received a British education at the local Wesleyan School in Freetown and went on to study music and dance in Italy and Germany.

Dafora's career took off after he moved to New York City in 1929 traveling with a troupe of African dancers His first years in New York were rather unremarkable however and there is little evidence of Dafora s influence on the theatrical scene during this period But that soon changed ...


Robert W. Logan

The illustrious career of Carmen DeLavallade began at the midpoint of the twentieth century and continued into the twenty-first century. In that time she graced the arenas of dance, theater, movies, and television as one of the great dancers of her time, as well as a distinguished choreographer, actor, and teacher.

Carmen Paula DeLavallade was born in Los Angeles, California, to Leo Paul DeLavallade, a bricklayer and postman, and Grace DeLavallade She was a student at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles when she won an apprenticeship in the Lester Horton Dance Theater Horton a pioneer of modern dance believed that a dancer s education should be well rounded and his apprentices were taught ballet modern and ethnic dance forms as well as painting sculpture and acting Being a Horton apprentice also meant learning from experience the rudiments of scenic design costuming and stage lighting With ...


Rainer E. Lotz

dancer, choreographer, actor, and impresario, was born Winston Louis Douglas in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Frederick Douglas (no relation to the veteran antislavery campaigner Frederick Douglass, although Louis's name is sometimes found spelled in the latter way). Frederick Douglas was a music hall or vaudeville performer whose specialty was juggling with plates; young Louis started life on the boards handing plates to his father, ad-libbing when the act went wrong and the plates tumbled. His mother, a devout Catholic, ensured his formal education at a missionary school and hoped he would become a missionary to Africa; instead Douglas traveled across the Atlantic at an early age as a member of the Georgia Pickaninnies, one of many vaudeville troupes that featured young black performers while drawing heavily on racial stereotypes. The troupe arrived in Ireland in 1903 and started a European tour that would ...


Barbara L. Ciccarelli

dancer, choreographer, and dance teacher, was born in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of Mildred Dill. Her mother tried to enroll the four-year-old Syvilla in ballet classes, but teachers refused her entrance because they were afraid they would lose clientele by admitting an African American student. Her mother then recruited a group of black children interested in learning dance and hired the advanced white ballet students to teach them. At nine Syvilla had private teachers and was on her way to becoming an African American pioneer in ballet and modern dance.

Sensitive throughout her life to discrimination, Fort passed on what she learned to other black children. As a high school freshman, she taught ballet, tap, and modern dance to as many as sixteen children under the age of thirteen for fifty cents a lesson. In 1935 Fort received a scholarship and became the first black ...


Joseph Wilson

child television star and tap-dance prodigy, award-winning choreographer, and Hollywood film actor. Savion Glover, the youngest of three brothers, was born in relative poverty in a section of Newark, New Jersey, engulfed by the civil unrest of the 1960s. His mother, Yevett Glover, said that Savion started dancing in her womb: “And when I would type, and the carriage would automatically return, he'd walk; he'd follow it in my stomach. You could see him move” (Glover and Weber, p. 31).

Hailed by critics as one of America's greatest tap dancers, Glover was mentored by and toured with African American tap legends including Gregory Hines, James “Buster” Brown, Jimmy Slyde, and Dianne Walker. He was discovered by the choreographer Henry LeTang, who recognized his star potential and selected him to debut on Broadway in The Tap Dance Kid at the age ...


Stanley Bennett Clay

tap dancer, actor, recording artist, and choreographer, was born Gregory Oliver Hines in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, New York, the youngest of two sons of Maurice “Chink” Hines, a drummer and nightclub bouncer, and Alma Lawless, daughter of West Indian immigrants. Before he was three Gregory and his brother Maurice Jr., who was two years older, began studying with the master tapographer Henry LeTang. In 1954 the siblings debuted at Harlem's Apollo Theater. Also that year the Hines Kids, as they became known professionally, appeared in the Broadway musical The Girl in Pink Tights. The following year they began performing at previously all-white Playboy Clubs in Chicago, Kansas City, and New Orleans, and they soon became regular opening act attractions on the liberal Borscht Belt circuit in the Catskill Mountains.Gregory Hines proved to be more than just a ...


Born in New York City, Gregory Hines began to dance at age three. Two years later, Hines teamed with his brother Maurice to perform professionally. The brothers toured nightclubs and theaters nationwide as the Hines Kids. Hines studied Tap Dancing with Henry LeTang in New York City, and while touring he also learned from such dance legends as Honi Coles, Howard “Sandman” Sims, The Nicholas Brothers, and Teddy Hale.

In 1964 the brothers were joined onstage by their father, Gregory Hines, Sr., who played drums. As Hines, Hines & Dad, they toured internationally and appeared on the Tonight Show. Tired from almost two decades of intermittent touring, however, Hines moved to California to pursue a career as a guitarist. In 1973 he formed Severance, a Jazz-rock band, and released an album.

Returning to New York City, Hines debuted on Broadway in Eubie ...


Jaime McLean

Judith Jamison has spent most of her life perfecting her craft. As a dancer, choreographer, teacher, and artistic director of the internationally renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Jamison has attempted to foster an appreciation for modern American dance and African American cultural expression in both her audiences and her students. She stresses the universality of dance and its ability to promote cross-cultural understanding through the expression of human experiences. “When you come to the theater,” Jamison says, “you open your head and your heart and your mind because we are there to transform you. I’m a human being who has seen the world, so I’m giving you that perspective.”

Jamison, the younger of two children, was born in Philadelphia Her parents instilled in her a passion for the arts As a young child Jamison studied piano and violin before shifting her focus to dance At age six Jamison ...


Rachel Shor

dancer, choreographer, and educator, was born in Statesville, North Carolina. The family moved to Washington, D.C., where Johnson, nimble in gymnastics and athletics, was noticed at the local YMCA. Recommended to the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet, which he attended on scholarship, the teenager was selected by the school's founders, Doris Jones and Clara Haywood, to apply to the prestigious School of American Ballet (SAB) in New York City. Along with classmate Chita Rivera, Johnson was accepted, again on scholarship, as one of the first African Americans and the first “black black” (Dunning, New York Times, 25 September 1975) to achieve this honor. He decided to first finish high school, where he was studying art, another talent that aided his professional career.

At SAB, Johnson was mentored by Jerome Robbins co director of the New York City Ballet had a solo in the ...


Baron Kelly

dancer, actress, and singer, was the youngest of three girls born to Lehman Clarence Kelly and Ruth Naomi Dempsey in Jacksonville, Florida. When Kelly was six months old, the family, like many other African Americans at this time, migrated from the South to the North seeking a new life. The family settled in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, where her father became superintendent of the building and famous neighbors included Ralph Ellison, Billie Holiday, Billy Strayhorn, and Johnny Hodges. The family was close and communicated through a love of music and a joy of life. For Kelly, music was always the thread and remains the catalyst for most of her projects.

Before she was old enough to walk, Kelly would bob her head to the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Buddy Johnson When she was a young ...


Barbara Toomer Davis

tap and theatre dancer, teacher, and choreographer, was born in Harlem, New York, the second son of five children of Clarence and Marie, both of whom were from the Virgin Islands. Clarence and Marie LeTang owned a radio and phonograph repair shop in Harlem, where Clarence built and designed phonographs. Music and dancing were a family pastime, and so the LeTang children were all encouraged to play an instrument. As a young boy LeTang attended a dance recital that began his love of tap. He started dancing when he was seven years old and it became his life. LeTang started touring and at the age of fifteen and danced in the Sophie Tucker stage show.

LeTang went to the Lafayette Theatre almost every weekend to watch the stars of the time, including such great headliners as Stepin Fechit, Buck and Bubbles, Earl Snake Hips Tucker ...


Donny Levit

dancer, choreographer, and director, was born Beryl Miller in Brooklyn, New York, to Hazel Carter Miller, an elementary school nurse. Miller and her mother relocated to Queens in the early 1960s. Her introduction to dance began under the tutelage of Murray Louis at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She was exposed to dancers such as Louis, as well as others who studied under and collaborated with the innovative choreographer Alwin Nikolais. With Louis, Miller became familiar with the concepts of composition and improvisation. When she was twelve years old Miller studied ballet. She felt quite isolated during the study of this particular dance form and refers to the experience as “disastrous,” explaining that it discouraged her from rigorously studying dance until her college years (discussion with author, 10 Dec. 2006).

In 1967 Miller left New York to ...


Diana L. Linden

dancer, choreographer, and creative director of both the Dance Theatre of Harlem (his troupe) and its related dance academy. Arthur Mitchell's lasting impact on American dance cannot be overvalued. By breaking the color line that reserved classical ballet as the province of white, elite, wealthy Americans, Mitchell, a self-described “political activist through dance,” disproved the myth that “because you were black … you could not do classical ballet” (Kennedy Center). Acknowledging that his life was saved through education, in the late 1960s Mitchell established the Dance Theatre of Harlem both as a teaching academy and as a performing dance troupe.

Mitchell was born in 1934 in Harlem during the Great Depression A guidance counselor saw Mitchell dance the jitterbug and encouraged him to apply to the High School of Performing Arts which both accepted him and awarded him a scholarship Mitchell s teachers encouraged him to pursue ...


Jada Shapiro

dancer, choreographer, and teacher, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to parents whose names and occupations are unknown. As a child he was a popular soprano soloist in churches and studied voice at the Karamu House, a local arts center devoted to celebrating the African American experience through the arts in a racially integrated environment. As he grew older Moore studied modern dance with Eleanor Frampton at the cultural center. He had the opportunity to see Asadata Dafora, the famed West African choreographer and dancer, perform the Ostrich Dance at Severance Hall. This event so moved Moore toward his future work in re-creating African dance that, as he explained in the 1984 documentary by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, Dance Black America, he “never forgot that first glimpse of Africa.”

In 1948 Moore received a Charles Weidman dance scholarship and moved to New ...


Adam Rosen

dancer, choreographer, and gender‐bending performance artist who rose to fame with the 1990 film Paris Is Burning, was born William Roscoe Leake in New Hyde Park, Long Island, New York. Leake's mother, Esther Leake, worked at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center; he had little contact with his father, who was an alcoholic and largely absent from his life. Leake was seven when he began dancing, inspired by trips with his mother to various New York cultural institutions such as the Apollo Theater, Radio City Music Hall, and the New York City Ballet, and exposure to martial arts and kung fu gleaned from living in a diverse neighborhood home to a large population of Asian Americans. Leake also credited the PBS program Dance in America, the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire, and Olympic gymnastics as important influences.

Though without formal training Leake began performing in Manhattan s Washington ...