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Aaron Myers

Alvin Ailey was born in Rogers, Texas. He grew up in a single-parent household headed by his mother, Lula Elizabeth Cooper. As a boy, he helped her pick cotton. In 1942 they moved to Los Angeles, California, where she found employment in the World War II aircraft industry. Ailey attended George Washington Carver Junior High School and Jefferson High School, primarily black schools. He went on to study literature at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Ailey's dancing career started in 1949 when a high school friend, Carmen DeLavallade, introduced him to Lester Horton, his first dance instructor at the Lester Horton Dance Theater. When Horton died in 1953, Ailey became the director of the company. The following year, Ailey moved to New York City where he joined DeLavallade in the Broadway dance production House of Flowers While appearing in other stage ...

Article

Lili Cockerille Livingston

actor, dancer, and choreographer, was born in Rogers, Texas, the son of Alvin Ailey, a laborer, and Lula Elizabeth Cliff, a cotton picker and domestic. Before Ailey was a year old, his father abandoned the family, leaving them homeless for close to six years. During that time Ailey and his mother made their way, often by foot, across the unforgiving terrain of the impoverished and bitterly racist Brazos Valley in southeastern Texas to seek shelter with relatives and find work in nearby fields.A bright curious child Ailey joined his mother in the cotton fields as soon as he could carry a sack He reveled in the sights and sounds of the gospel choirs and worshipers that he witnessed in the black Baptist churches of his youth Ailey also became acquainted with the less pious side of life through those who spent Saturday nights dancing ...

Article

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 ...

Article

Robert W. Logan

Bailey graced the worlds of movies, television, musical theater, nightclubs, and recordings with a dazzling smile, an engaging personality, and the sense that she was communicating personally with each individual member of her audience. An entertainer who methodically worked her way up the show business ladder, she was unassuming and unpretentious, but nevertheless a star whose charismatic presence illuminated stages and screens for more than fifty years.

Pearl Mae Bailey was born in Newport News, Virginia, to Joseph James and Ella Mae Bailey. Her father was a revivalist minister, and at the age of three she was already dancing and singing in his church. When she was four, the family moved to Washington, DC. When her parents separated, Bailey, the youngest of four children, stayed with her father, but eventually she joined her mother and siblings in Philadelphia, where her mother had remarried.

Bailey attended William Penn High ...

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Lisa Clayton Robinson

For many people, Josephine Baker's name will always evoke a well-known, controversial image: the “Black Venus” naked onstage, except for a string of bananas around her waist, dancing to African drums before her white Parisian audiences. It was this image that first made Baker a star, one whose international fame lasted for five decades. But the picture of the exotic dancer does not fully capture the complexity of the woman who was one of the first black performers to transcend race and appeal to audiences of all colors around the world.

Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri to Freda Josephine MacDonald the name Baker came from her second husband Her parents were not married her father was a drummer in a local band and her mother a washerwoman rarely had enough money to support Baker and her three younger half siblings At age eight Baker began working as ...

Article

Karen C. Dalton

dancer, singer, and entertainer, was born in the slums of East St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Eddie Carson, a drummer, who abandoned Baker and her mother after the birth of a second child, and of Carrie McDonald, a onetime entertainer who supported what became a family of four by doing laundry. Poverty, dislocation, and mistreatment permeated Baker's childhood. By the age of eight she was earning her keep and contributing to the family's support by doing domestic labor. By the time Baker was fourteen, she had left home and its discord and drudgery; mastered such popular dances as the Mess Around and the Itch, which sprang up in the black urban centers of the day; briefly married Willie Wells and then divorced him and begun her career in the theater She left East St Louis behind and traveled with the Dixie Steppers on ...

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Kariamu Welsh

Josephine Baker was the first and greatest black dancer to emerge in the genre now called “performance art.” She epitomized through dance what freedom of expression and artistic expression really meant for generations of artists worldwide. Baker was one of the few artists in the world who were acclaimed and awarded for being themselves. Her genius resided in her conception of music, dance, and comedy; she had a musician’s sense of timing, a dancer’s instinct for cutting a phrase, and a comedian’s ability to deliver a punch line even when it was in a song or gesture. Not merely an entertainer, Baker was in every sense of the word an artist, and it was as an artist that she made her mark on the world.

Baker was also a humanitarian who in her own unique and eccentric way tried to live by example She symbolized beauty elegance grace and most ...

Article

Asli Tekinay

singer and dancer. Josephine Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in a poor black neighborhood in Saint Louis, Missouri. Her mother, Carrie MacDonald, was twenty-one years old at the time and worked as a laundry woman. Her father, Eddie Carson a vaudeville drummer left his wife a year after Josephine was born Josephine thus grew up fatherless and in poverty When she was eight years old her mother hired her out to a white woman as a maid From then on Josephine was on her own in life An ambitious and optimistic child she learned to dance in the back streets of Saint Louis She went to the zoo watched kangaroos camels and giraffes and imitated their movements She wanted to be a great dancer and live a glamorous life At the age of twelve she dropped out of school and at thirteen her professional life began ...

Article

Freda Scott Giles

dancer, singer, entertainer, and actor, was born John William Sublett in Louisville, Kentucky. His parents’ names are not known. His early childhood was spent in Indianapolis, Indiana, where his family was part of a touring carnival; by the age of seven, John was performing on the stage, participating in amateur contests as a singer. Accounts differ as to when he returned to Louisville and when he met his vaudeville team partner, Ford Lee “Buck” Washington. Some sources list their ages as ten and six, respectively, while others list them as thirteen and nine. The team began working professionally by 1915 as “Buck and Bubbles,” an act combining music and comedy.

They would remain together for nearly forty years originally combining Washington s talents as a pianist with Sublett s as a singer when his voice changed Sublett turned to tap dancing as his primary talent As they developed their act ...

Article

Robert Fay

Ford Lee “Buck” Washington and John Williams “Bubbles” Sublett teamed up in 1912 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Bubbles, then ten years old, sang and danced, while Buck, who was six, accompanied on piano. After winning several amateur contests, they played professional engagements (often in blackface) in Louisville, Kentucky; Detroit, Michigan; and New York City.

Bubbles developed a style of Tap Dance called jazz tap. Before Bubbles, performers danced on their toes and emphasized flash steps—athletic steps with extended leg and body movements. Bubbles changed this style by tapping with his heels and toes and developing complicated moves, such as double over-the-tops (a rough figure eight that simulates tripping).

Audiences delighted in the team's singing, dancing, and comedy routine, with Buck's variations in tempo that forced Bubbles to quickly adapt. By 1922 they had performed at New York s Palace Theatre the nation s top vaudeville venue They ...

Article

William Dejong-Lambert

singer and performer, was born Ernest Evans in Spring Gulley, Williamsburg County, South Carolina, one of three sons of a struggling tobacco farmer. The family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when he was nine; there he attended Settlement Music School. He formed his first singing group at age eleven. Evans attended South Philadelphia High School, also the alma mater of teen pop idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian, and worked at a produce market where his boss gave him the nickname “Chubby.” He also plucked chickens at Fresh Farm Poultry, and it was there that Kal Mann, a friend of the owner and cofounder of Cameo-Parkway Records, heard him sing and recommended him to Dick Clark, the host of the television show American Bandstand. Clark had asked Mann to write a novelty song for Christmas and find someone who sounded like Fats Domino to sing it Mann wrote Jingle Bells ...

Article

Diana L. Linden

African American choreography cannot be reduced to or defined by a single “black” style; many dancers and choreographers question the meaning of such terms as “black dance” or “black choreography.” Acknowledging the many contributions made by and social barriers particular to African American artists, experienced voices within the dance community nevertheless express concern that to talk of “black” or “African American” dance or choreography is to create a lesser subset of American dance, of ballet, of modern dance, and of dance overall.

Variety of forms, inspiration from the streets or the church, and the range and engagement with music resonate throughout the work of all black choreographers. Several prominent choreographers—such as Arthur Mitchell and Pearl Primus—draw equally from European classical ballet and traditional African dance. Black choreographers find inspiration in church spirituals, the written and spoken word, and the urban “ghetto” and hip hop.

Yet within this multigenerational heterogeneous group ...

Article

Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker

prima ballerina, modern dancer, choreographer, teacher, and painter, was born Janet Fay Collins in New Orleans, the daughter of Ernest Lee Collins, a tailor, and Alma de Lavallade (the noted dancer Carmen de Lavallade was a first cousin on this side of the family), a seamstress. At the age of four Collins moved to Los Angeles with her family, which included three sisters and one brother. In Los Angeles, Collins had trouble being accepted into “whites-only” dance studios, so she worked with private tutors. Her first formal ballet lessons were at a Catholic community center at the age of ten.

When she was fifteen Collins auditioned for the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo led by the legendary Leonide Massine Collins was accepted but only on the condition that she stay in the corps de ballet and that she paint her face white to blend in with the other ...

Article

Dance  

Katrina Hazzard-Donald

With its origins in the dances of traditional West African and central West African village communities, and having survived through two and a half centuries of human enslavement in mainland North America, by the 1890s African American dance had proliferated into numerous distinguishable forms, sacred and secular, social and theatrical. In the early twenty-first century the theatrical branch, which originated primarily as an entertainment form, was also an artistic genre. With some of its roots in the traveling tent shows, gillies, and early vaudeville, through its uneasy and distressful relationship with minstrelsy, African American dance as performance art refined both the plantation cakewalk and the tap dance, along with the cyclical social dances, into high-culture performance idioms.

Article

The story of African American women in dance weaves its way through the fabric of African American history, spanning almost four centuries. From the forced dance of slaves on ships during the Middle Passage, to the critically acclaimed concert dance companies of the twenty-first century, dance has been a singularly profound expression of African America’s cultural roots.

African American performers have not only used theatrical dance for artistic and entertainment purposes but they have also used it as a means of challenging the oppression that black people have had to endure Over the years African American women have used different genres of dance to help revise racist images of black people These artist activists have been empowered through their creative pursuits employing themselves and others in dance companies that have traveled the world as ambassadors of African art and culture They have used the power of their artistry to support ...

Article

Melinda Bond Shreve

actress, singer, and dancer, was born Vivian Alferetta Dandridge in Cleveland, Ohio. Affectionately called “Vivi” by her family, she was the oldest daughter of the minister and mechanic Cyril and the actress Ruby Jean Butler Dandridge. She is perhaps best known for being the sister of the accomplished actress Dorothy Dandridge, the first black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Lead Actress; however, Vivian was an accomplished performer in her own right. Her mother separated from her father a year after she was born, leaving the family home on East 103rd Street in Cleveland. With little contact with their father, the girls were raised by Ruby and her friend Geneva Williams, also known as “Neva.” Although Cyril expressed an interest in his daughters' lives, Ruby apparently sought to distance Cyril from Vivian and Dorothy (Bogle, 44).

Though she was a screen and radio ...

Article

Gregory Adamo

entertainer. One of the first African American superstars, Samuel George Davis Jr. was a tap dancer; film, theater, and television actor; singer; impressionist; and multi-instrument musician. From the 1940s until his death, Davis was a recognizable American entertainer. Truly a child of show business, he was born to vaudevillian parents in Harlem in 1925. He began performing at age three, eventually joining his father in the Will Mastin Trio, a tap dance troupe. He traveled on the vaudeville circuit in its waning days, and his hard work and talent made him the star of the act, eventually leading the trio to appearances on television and in major nightclubs. In 1954 Davis suffered a serious car accident while driving from a gig in Las Vegas to a recording session in Los Angeles He lost an eye as a result After his recovery Davis returned to performing and was ...

Article

Sammy Davis Jr., was born in New York City, the son of vaudeville performers Elvera Sanchez Davis and Sammy Davis Sr. He began a life-long career of entertaining at the age of three, appearing in the vaudeville group in which his parents danced, Will Mastin's Holiday in Dixieland. Two years later, after his parents' divorce, he stayed with his father and officially joined the group. Davis made his movie debut with Ethel Waters in Rufus Jones for President (1933). Throughout the 1930s he toured with the Will Mastin Trio, becoming the central figure in the group, singing, dancing, and playing several instruments.

In 1943 Davis joined the United States Army and served for two years directing shows and touring military installations. After leaving the army he returned to the Will Mastin Trio, which became an established part of the club circuit, playing bills with American entertainers Jack ...

Article

Pamela Lee Gray

dancer, chorographer, and teacher, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and raised by her aunt Adele, who owned the Hugh Gordon Book Shop, one of the most prominent African American book stores in the city. She was influenced by the success of her cousin, Janet Collins, who was the first black dancer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet company. At the age of sixteen de Lavallade received a scholarship to study at the Lester Horton Dance Theater in Los Angeles. After her initial studies in modern dance, ballet, and various other dance forms, she joined Lester Horton's Dance Theater in 1949 and danced the lead from 1950 to 1954, taking over the roles previously danced by the legendary dance pioneer Bella Lewitzky before Lewitzky's departure from the company. Horton then created chorography especially for de Lavallade, including the role of Salome in The Face ...

Article

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 ...