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Karen Backstein

dancer, choreographer, and educator, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to a theatrical and musical family. One of New York's most superb and demanding jazz teachers, as well as an excellent choreographer, Benjamin began his career at the age of four, studying with Elma Lewis at her well-respected School of Fine Arts. Two years later, he started studying ballet, a requirement for all of Lewis's students, no matter which style they chose to focus on. When peer pressure led Benjamin to stop dancing briefly—a not uncommon situation for young male dancers—he shifted to acting, taking classes at Boston Children's Theatre. Two years later he returned to Lewis's school and found something new: George Howard, a teacher of Haitian dance. Still a child, Benjamin knew instantly that “that's the thing I wanted to do, with the drums and everything. It was so exciting to me” (Hall, 3).

Lewis ...


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 ...


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 ...


Barbara Toomer Davis

dancer, teacher, choreographer, and community activist, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the only child of Nellie W. Lewis, a research and chemical engineer during World War II, and Julius T. Myers, a chef. Lewis's determination to pursue her interest in chemistry provided a model of high expectations and self-confidence for Brown that enabled her to venture into a world closed to African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s.

Brown was encouraged by a high school teacher to join an after school classical ballet dance club and later took lessons in a private studio Because of de facto desegregation and racism Brown could not enroll in any of the local dance schools for white students but this did not stop her from pursuing her dream Instead she studied a variety of dance forms at the Sydney School of Dance in Philadelphia a school for black dancers Upon her graduation ...


Don E. Walicek

was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is the third of six children of Basilia Otero Rosa, a nurse and homemaker, and Mario Cardona Casanova, a tool and die maker. The family moved to New Hampshire in 1968 and Cardona studied in Manchester, where he was the only boy of Afro-Caribbean ancestry in his class. Upon returning to Puerto Rico, Cardona completed his primary education in the city of Caguas. He graduated from Antonio S. Pedreira High School in 1984.

One of Cardona’s formative experiences was his involvement with the visual art and theater collective Los Teatreros Ambulantes de Cayey. Based at the University of Puerto Rico’s Cayey campus, it was directed by Rosa Luisa Márquez and Antonio Martorell between 1986 and 1990 Also important was his training with renowned international artists including Augusto Boal Theater of the Oppressed Brazil Miguel Rubio Grupo Cultural Yuyachkani Peru and ...


Adam R. Hornbuckle

was born in East Orange, New Jersey, the eldest of the two children of Jetta Clark and Dr. Joe Louis Clark. The Clarks lived in Newark, a short distance from her birthplace, until moving to South Orange after the 1967 riots. Her father, who served as the principal of Eastside High School, in Paterson, New Jersey, gained national attention for enforcing discipline and improving academic achievement at Eastside, one of the state’s toughest inner-city schools, and became the subject of the 1989 film Lean on Me, in which the award-winning actor Morgan Freeman portrayed him.

Clark performed with the Alvin Ailey Junior Dance Company until the age of fourteen, when she began to participate in track, concentrating on the half-mile (880 yards), the distance at which her father excelled at William Patterson University (then known as the Paterson State Teachers College) in Wayne, New Jersey. Interviewed for the Best ...


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 ...


Princess Mhoon Cooper

dancer, choreographer, artistic director, educator, and activist, was born in Effingham, South Carolina, the eldest of three daughters of Jack Cummings and Carrie Cummings sharecroppers who grew tobacco and cotton When Blondell was a year old the Cummingses like many African American families of the mid twentieth century migrated to the North While both her parents had relatives who previously moved to New York it was Jack who followed two of his four church singing brothers to the city to pursue careers in the commercial music industry Upon the family s arrival in Harlem Jack found work as a taxi driver and Carrie earned a living as a domestic and later completed school to become a health care professional Cummings described her upbringing as very strict and typical of most black families Her mother was the disciplinarian and while her father was not an authoritarian together they ran a ...


Melanye White Dixon

dance educator and business owner, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the youngest of three children of Alonzo Durham, a navy yard worker, and Frances Henrietta Morgan, a housewife. Cuyjet's parents hailed from a small community in Cheswold, Delaware, referred to as Delaware Moors. The family had moved to Philadelphia in the early 1900s in search of a better standard of living and educational opportunities for Cuyjet and her older brothers. Cuyjet attended Landreth Elementary School, Barratt Junior High School, and graduated from South Philadelphia High School.

The family settled in the Point Breeze section of South Philadelphia, an area densely populated by African Americans. Cujyet grew up during the Great Migration, during which Philadelphia's black population increased rapidly. Between 1917 and 1930 thousands of blacks had left the south for the urban north in search of employment opportunities The fusion of southern and northern cultures created ...


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 ...


Kitty Cunningham

Known primarily for her work with Lester Horton, Alvin Ailey, and her husband, Geoffrey Holder, de Lavallade has also been a successful interpreter of the works of John Butler and Glen Tetley.

De Lavallade grew up in Los Angeles, where she studied ballet with Carmelita Maracci and modern dance with Horton. She made her debut in 1950 in Horton's Face of Violence, dancing the role of Salome. When the Lester Horton Dance Theatre first performed in New York City in the spring of 1953, critic Walter Terry singled out de Lavallade for critical attention: “The body instrument is strong yet fluid, excellently disciplined, technically and wonderfully responsive to musical and dramatic nuance” (New York Herald Tribune, 5 April). These attributes continue to distinguish her beautiful performances.

From 1952 to 1955 de Lavallade appeared in four films produced by Twentieth Century Fox ...


Born to Creole parents in New Orleans, Louisiana, Carmen DeLavallade was raised by an aunt in Los Angeles, California. At age sixteen she won a scholarship to study with modern dance pioneer Lester Horton. Horton gave her broad training in ballet, modern, and ethnic dancing as well as in music, acting, set design, costuming and lighting. She became a lead dancer in Horton's company in 1950, dancing as Salome, a role he created for her in The Face of Violence.

At this time DeLavallade began her long professional association with Alvin Ailey, whose dance career began after she introduced him to Horton. Between 1950 and 1954, she danced in four films, including Carmen Jones (1955). She later performed in several television productions, including Duke Ellington's A Drum is a Woman (1957). Moving to New York, New York in ...


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 ...


Lois Wilcken

was born Pierre Louis Célestin Desrameaux on 6 August 1928 in Pétionville, a district and suburb of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, to Démosthènes Desrameaux, a farmer, and Fleurina Dorléance Alphonse, a retailer. His mother raised him in Port-au-Prince while his father labored in Delmas, another adjacent suburb. The family lived in the district of Belair, a struggling complex of neighborhoods used as slave quarters during the French colonial period. Some of the district’s houses of Vodou, an Afro-Haitian spiritual tradition, trace themselves back to pre-independence Haiti (before 1804). Desrameaux, who continued to divide his time between Belair and New York in later life, grew up Roman Catholic and, like many Haitians, participated in Vodou rituals at the same time. Scholars have dubbed Vodou a “danced religion,” and the ceremonies in Belair introduced Desrameaux to Haiti’s rich repository of traditional dances.

Desrameaux was born during the final years of the ...


Katherine Ramsey

was born on 26 March 1918 in the coastal town of Saint-Marc, Haiti, where his father worked for the local government and his mother Lucienne Destiné as a seamstress. Moving to Port-au-Prince with his mother, Destiné attended the Lycée Pétion, a prestigious secondary school for boys, and in the late 1930s began to study and perform with the pianist and choral director Lina Fussman-Mathon (later Mathon-Blanchet). Haiti was under US military occupation at the time of Destiné’s birth and for much of his childhood (1915–1934). During the later years of occupation, Haitian intellectuals, writers, and artists began to “re-evaluate” popular cultures long disavowed by elite Haitians, turning to them as a repository and inspiration for artistic creation.

Fussman-Mathon was one of the first musicians to arrange Haitian folk songs for concert performance, and Destiné became a member of the choir she founded in 1939. In early 1941 ...


Felicia A. Chenier

black theater organizer, writer, director, folklorist, chorographer, and educator, was born in Houston, Texas, the only daughter of Gerthyl Rae and Harvey G. Dickerson, an army officer. As a military child Dickerson traveled extensively with her parents and brother, Harvey. After graduating high school in Syracuse, New York, Dickerson studied at Howard University in Washington, D.C. While there she studied theater and was mentored by noted educator and writer Owen Dodson, who was then the Drama Department chair. Noteworthy of her experiences at Howard is her discovery of writings by Zora Neale Hurston. After receiving a bachelor of fine arts (BFA) from Howard in 1966, Dickerson received a master of fine arts (MFA) from Adelphi University in Long Island, New York, in 1968 During the same year she returned to Howard as an assistant professor of drama and staged her directorial ...


Pamela Lee Gray

dancer, choreographer, and teacher, was the only child born to Ruth V. Silas and Mercer K. Ellington. Ellington's parents divorced less than a year after her birth. Her mother remarried the Philadelphia obstetrician and gynecologist James A. Batts, but Mercedes was raised in New York by her mother's parents, Louise and Alfred Silas. Mercedes had two half brothers, Edward and Paul, both of whom were musicians.

Ellington's family was involved in the arts for two generations. Her grandfather was the legendary jazz great Duke Ellington. Her father, Mercer Ellington, was an arranger, composer, and trumpeter who toured, arranged, and performed with the Duke Ellington Orchestra off and on from 1940 through 1965 and eventually took over operation of the orchestra when Duke Ellington died in 1974.

Ellington took dance lessons from an early age and attended Our Lady of Lourdes School in Harlem ...


Barbara Toomer Davis

dancer, choreographer, company director, and educator, was in born Washington, D.C. He graduated from Dunbar High School and then attended Howard University from 1964 to 1966 to study dentistry. During this time, he studied dance with the Capitol Ballet Company and with Carol Tate at Howard. He left school to pursue a dance career after being inspired by a performance of the New York City–based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. In New York, Faison studied at the School of American Ballet (SAB), where he was taught by Arthur Mitchell, James Truitte, and Elizabeth Hodes.

Early in his New York career, Faison was chosen as Lauren Bacall's dance partner for a television special. In 1967 he became a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Faison's most notable performance was in the role of Sinner Man in the company's Revelations He left ...


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 ...


Sibyl Collins Wilson

dancer, choreographer, and university professor, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to Sally Yancey and Joshua Milton. He was their only child. After Arthur's mother and father separated, Sally Yancey raised him with the help of her mother, Emma Yancey, and then moved to Washington, D.C., where she married her second husband, Patrick Hall. Arthur eventually took Hall's surname and joined the family in D.C. In 1950, Hall made his dancing debut in The Ordering of Moses, a production sponsored by the National Negro Opera Company.

The following year, 1951, Hall and his family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he continued studying and performing as a dancer at the Judimar School, which had been founded in 1948 by Marion Cuyjet Hall studied modern dance at the University of Pennsylvania under the direction of Malvina Tase Some of his mentors and instructors included Cuyjet a ...