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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 ...


Constance Valis Hill

jazz tap dancer, was born Laurence Donald Jackson in Baltimore, Maryland. His parents' names and occupations are unknown. He was a boy soprano at age twelve, singing with McKinney's Cotton Pickers. When the bandleader Don Redman came to town, he heard Laurence and asked his mother if he could take the boy on the road. She agreed, provided that her son was supplied with a tutor. Touring on the Loew's circuit, Laurence's first time in New York was marked by a visit to the Hoofers Club in Harlem, where he saw the tap dancing of Honi Coles, Raymond Winfield, Roland Holder, and Harold Mablin. Laurence returned home sometime later to a sudden tragedy; both of his parents had died in a fire. “I don't think I ever got used to the idea,” he told Marshall Stearns in Jazz Dance in 1968 They always took such ...


Constance Valis Hill

tap dancer and entrepreneur, was born Clayton Bates in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, the son of Rufus Bates, a laborer, and Emma Stewart a sharecropper and housecleaner He began dancing when he was five At age twelve while working in a cotton seed gin mill he caught and mangled his left leg in a conveyor belt The leg was amputated on the kitchen table at his home Although he was left with only one leg and a wooden peg leg that his uncle carved for him Bates resolved to continue dancing It somehow grew in my mind that I wanted to be as good a dancer as any two legged dancer he recalled It hurt me that the boys pitied me I was pretty popular before and I still wanted to be popular I told them not to feel sorry for me He meant it He began ...


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 ...


dancers, were the sons of Redna (maiden name unknown) and Ananias Berry, whose occupations are unknown. Nyas, whose given name was Ananias, and James were both born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Warren was born in Denver, Colorado.

In 1919 Nyas and James began performing together, touring the church circuit in Chicago as elocutionists reciting poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar. After the family moved to Denver, the two elder brothers branched out and began playing carnivals. Their father, a religious man, had forbidden them to dance, but Nyas had memorized dances he had seen other performers do and had built upon them himself. He persuaded his father to let him enter an amateur dance contest, in which he floored the audience. The theater manager offered Nyas $75 a week; the elder Ananias insisted that Nyas and James continue as a team.

The brothers then put together an act ...


Cynthia R. Millman

An American social dance popular in the 1930s, the Big Apple originated in and got its name from an African-American nightclub in Columbia, South Carolina, which had once been a synagogue. As Katrina Hazzard-Gordon has noted, the Big Apple may have had its roots in a pre- 1860 dance type from the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia known as a “ring shout.”

Although the dates for its origination and development are not clear, the Big Apple was discovered and became popular nationwide in the mid-1930s. In 1936 a white local college student, Billy Spivey, along with Donald Davis and Harold Wiles visited Fat Sam s Big Apple nightclub in Columbia The visitors became entranced with a dance being performed in a semicircle by young African Americans To swing music and the shouting of steps by a caller as in a square dance each dancer would perform the ...


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 ...


Allana Radecki

dancer, was born in Harlem, New York, to Alma Briggs and Bubba Jones. Born out of wedlock, “Baby” Briggs received no first name; however, his grandmother Abrella delighted in the toddler's quickness and nicknamed him “Bunny.” The Briggs family gravitated toward entertainment. His mother, Alma, and her brothers held various jobs at Harlem hot spots, and her sister, Gladys, became a dancer (she was sometimes known as Gerry Wiley). The home was frequented by musicians and dancers, who used the space for socializing and rehearsing. The musicians James P. Johnson and Kid Lippy practiced on the family s piano and played their rent parties an important part of African American urban economy and social life providing an evening of entertainment for a small admission The Cotton Club performers Mordecai Wells and Taylor rehearsed there exposing Briggs to the rhythms and footwork of tap Steeped in this atmosphere ...


Glenn Allen Knoblock

dancer, jazz band leader, and businesswoman, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the daughter of Eddie Briscoe, a meatpacker, and Neliska Thomas, a cook and housekeeper born in Mexico. She had two half brothers and a sister who died young. Briscoe's career as an entertainer began early, at about the age of nine, when she performed in a club where her uncle, Escaliere Thomas, was employed part time in the evenings. Soon thereafter Briscoe acquired the nickname “Baby” (sometimes “Babe”), a moniker she retained in her entertainment career even as an adult.

Briscoe performed in New Orleans at the St Bernard Alley Cabaret known for its talented jazz band as an acrobatic dancer in a floor show in which she was the sole child performer accompanied there in the evenings by her mother after work A natural on the stage Briscoe continued to perform as a popular ...


Barbara Bonous-Smit

Americantap dancer and choreographer, was born James Richard Brown in Baltimore, Maryland, to William Brown and Marie Ella Otho-Brown. The only boy, he had seven sisters.

Dance played an important part in Brown's life beginning in elementary school. Inspired by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson while at the Douglas High School, Brown developed a serious interest in tap dancing and tapped in his high school annual production, Autumn Follies. He was not given dance instruction but picked up a bebop jazz style of dance from the streets and from performances he attended at the Royal Theatre in Maryland. Brown and his friends imitated and further developed steps they saw at theaters and they also taught each other any new steps they picked up. At the Royal Theatre in 1929 Brown saw an inspiring performance of the celebrated Whitman Sisters and their nephew, Pops Whitman They would have ...


Clare J. Washington

pilot, who made aviation history when she became the first African American woman to fly for a major passenger airline in the United States, the first to be admitted to the U.S. Navy's flight school, and the first in U.S. military history to qualify as a pilot.

Brown was born in Millersville, Maryland. Her family had taken up aviation as a hobby, and she learned to fly small planes with her parents—Gilbert Brown, who was a former U.S. Air Force instrument mechanic and also owned a building construction business, and Elaine Brown, an art resource teacher in the Baltimore public schools—when she was seventeen years old. For her eighteenth birthday, she received a Cherokee 180D airplane. In 1967 Brown flew her first solo flight in a Piper J 3 Cub She had always dreamed of becoming a commercial pilot but her mother advised her otherwise and ...


David Bradford

an actress, and theatrical producer, was born in Washington, DC. The names of her father, a tailor, and her mother are unknown.

Known as “The Little Mother of Colored Drama,” Anita Bush was an unlikely, though enormously influential, pioneer of African American dramatic theater. Bush was born in Washington, DC, and moved with her family to Brooklyn, New York, when she was two. Her father was a tailor with many show business customers. Bush and her sister helped to deliver costumes, and both became captivated by the theater. While still a child, Bush landed bit parts in plays at the Bijou and Columbia theaters in Brooklyn and the Park Theatre in Manhattan. She later told an interviewer she “fell in love with grease paint, costumes, backstage drama,” (Thompson, 1987, p. 60) and that she was determined to make a career in show business.

Among the show business ...


Brenda Dixon Gottschild

Originated by enslaved Africans living on Caribbean and North American plantations, the cakewalk was a festive dance for which the best executor received a cake as the prize. Dances were witnessed and judged by plantation owners, and slaves were taken from plantation to plantation to compete in the contests. The dance consisted of “a kind of shuffling movement which evolved into a smooth walking step with the body held erect. The backward sway was added, and as the dance became more of a satire on the dance of the white plantation owners, the movement became a prancing strut” (Emery, 1972).

Because of its theatricality, the cakewalk lent itself to the stage. As an all-male, noncouple dance, it was a regular feature in the minstrel show finale and remained a staple of the popular stage thereafter. By the 1890s it was introduced into productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin to enliven ...


A syncopated strutting male dance of African American origin popular in the US during the 19th century It was widely performed by slaves for the entertainment of their owners and derived its name from the fact that a piece of cake would be given as a reward to the dancer ...


Peter Gammond

A 19th-century African-American dance. It originated among plantation slaves (c.1850 reputedly to parody the promenades that opened the plantation owners formal balls In the 1890s it became commercial entertainment and it was used for social dancing at the turn of the 20th century The music is a ...


Eric Bennett

As a product of black folk culture, the cakewalk remains obscure in origin. Perhaps of African origin, it developed on plantations sometime before the American Civil War (1861–1865), as slaves imitated the Grand March that concluded the cotillions and fancy balls given by whites. Although plantation owners often mistook the dance for childlike play, the cakewalk in fact had a satirical purpose. Promenading in pairs, dancers crossed their arms, arched their backs, threw back their heads, and strutted with exaggerated kicks. The cakewalk took its name from the cake that was awarded—by the judgment of a boisterous audience—to the couple with the most flair.

In the 1880s and 1890s, white black-faced minstrels often ended stage shows with the cakewalk, or “peregrination for the pastry.” Thus whites imitated blacks imitating whites—a cultural curiosity that only grew more complex when African Americans began imitating white Minstrelsy.

With the advent ...


Jan Michael Hanvik

The vivid and diverse dances of the Caribbean are both influential and popular in the Americas, Europe, and Africa. Caribbean countries and island territories sustaining strong, viable dance in the twentieth century include Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Martinique, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, the Bahamas, and Jamaica, as well as the coastal regions of such Caribbeanrim nations as Colombia, Venezuela, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and the United States.

The study of dance in the region is inseparable from the issue of migration European colonizers entered the Caribbean at the end of the fifteenth century at that time Native American peoples had lived on the islands and along the coasts for thousands of years After missionizing colonizing and losing most of them to overwork and epidemics African slaves were forcibly transported to the Caribbean by European slave traders until the nineteenth century Slaves escaping island conditions immigrated to the coastal mainland ...


Ingrid Schorr

curator, fashion designer, dancer, and artist, was born James Watson in rural Woodruff, South Carolina, to sharecropper parents whose names are unknown. Little information about his early years is available except that he attended the Fashion Institute of New York and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris before moving to New York in the 1960s.

As Chanticleer established himself as a fashion designer in New York City he also began to propagate the biographical embellishments and falsehoods that would be repeated until his death: that he was born in Harlem to a Barbadian concert pianist and a Haitian high school principal; that he completed a master's degree at the Sorbonne; that as a five-year-old he designed a prize-winning folding chair for a competition at the 1940 World's Fair.

Whether or not he grew up in Harlem Chanticleer identified so strongly with its place at the center of black history and ...


Lolita K. Buckner Inniss

aviator, dancer, and musician, was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the fifth of seven children to Sarah Ragsdale and a father surnamed Jones. Official records such as census records from 1930 and the Social Security Death Index list her birth year as 1906, but family records, photographs, and anecdotal evidence indicate her birth year as between 1900 and 1903. After she was widowed Marie's mother left Muskogee for Los Angeles, California, along with Marie and some of her siblings, where they settled in a vibrant, multiracial neighborhood in East Los Angeles. When Marie's mother married David Austin, a former guitarist for the singer Sissieretta Jones (Black Patti) in 1910, Marie took her stepfather's surname, Austin.

Coker attended and graduated from Central High School in Los Angeles and was the first in her immediate family to attain a high school diploma She was a precocious child particularly ...