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Donna Waller Harper

dancer, choreographer and actress, was born Deborrah Kaye Allen in Houston, Texas, to Andrew Allen, a dentist, and Vivian Ayers-Allen, a poet and librarian; her parents had two other children, the actress Phylicia Rashad, and Hugh Allen, better known as Tex. Although she exhibited an early interest in dance and desired to join the Houston Foundation for Ballet, she was denied admission when she applied in the 1950s in what her mother saw as a clear example of discrimination. Her parents were able to pay for private ballet lessons with the Ballet Russes. She later traveled and trained in Mexico City with the Ballet Nacional de Mexico. In 1964 she returned to Houston where she once again auditioned for the Houston Foundation for Ballet This time she was not only accepted to the prestigious organization but was awarded a scholarship Her talent won her ...


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 ...


Wendi Berman

playwright, actor, director, singer, and dancer, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the third child of Gloria Diaz Bagneris and Lawrence Bagneris Sr. Bagneris's mother was a housewife and deeply religious woman who “quietly outclassed most people,” and his father was a playful, creative man, a World War II veteran, and lifelong postal clerk. Bagneris grew up in the tightly knit, predominantly Creole Seventh Ward to a family of free people of color that had been in New Orleans since 1750 From the age of six he had a knack for winning popular dance contests and during christenings and jazz funerals he learned more traditional music and dance By the mid 1960s the once beautiful tree lined neighborhood in which he was raised fell victim to the U S government s program of urban renewal known colloquially as Negro removal A freeway overpass was ...


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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


A young African American dancer named Josephine Baker and her act, La Revue Nègre (The Negro Revue), took Paris by storm in 1925. Baker described their effect in these words: “When the rage was in New York of colored people, Mr. Siegfied of Ziegfied Follies said: ‘It's getting darker and darker on old Broadway.’ Since La Revue Nègre came to Gai Paree, I'll say, ‘It's getting darker and darker in Paris.’”


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 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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


Sholomo B. Levy

singer, dancer, and actor, was born in Harlem, New York, the first of two children of Sammy Davis Sr., an African American vaudeville entertainer, and Elvera Sanchez, a Puerto Rican chorus dancer. Sammy's paternal grandmother, “Mama Rosa,” raised him until he was three years old, when his father, who had separated from Elvera, took his son with him on the road. Within a few years, the child's role grew from that of a silent prop to that of a show-stealing singer and dancer, the youngest member of the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis Jr.

Fellow performers were the only family Sammy knew and the world of the theater was the only school he ever attended He was billed as Silent Sam the Dancing Midget to hide him from truant officers and child labor investigators After a period during which the group could not find work or shelter ...


comedian, was born Jodie Edwards in Marietta, Georgia. Little is known about his early life, including his exact birth date, which has been listed as both 1898 and 1895. It is believed that Edwards began performing professionally in carnivals at age twelve with the Moss Brothers Carnival doing minstrel routines.

In 1915 Edwards met Susie Hawthorne, who later became his wife, while they were both working for the Smart Set variety show, which was run by Ma Rainey and performed out of a tent. In 1916 the pair left the show and set off on their own, originally as a dance act. Soon they added comic banter in between their dances. In 1917 they left Smart Set for good and went off on their own as a musical comedy team.

In May 1917 Edwards and Hawthorne were married on stage as a publicity stunt in either ...


Rainer E. Lotz

singer, dancer, musician, and stage and screen actor, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We know nothing of her early life, including her family name at birth. “Fields” was the name of her first husband and the name she retained professionally. We have no information on when he and Bella were married. Fields's career was primarily in Europe. Any earlier career she might have had in the United States would probably have been prior to her marriage; not knowing her maiden name, however, we cannot identify her. Her first husband, James C. Fields, had traveled to Europe in 1894, as a member of the San Francisco Minstrels. Whether Bella was a performing member of this troupe, we do not know, but in January 1896 in Rostow on Don she resided in Russia on James passport Our first sight of her as a performing artist ...


Meredith Broussard

dancer, choreographer, and musical performer, was born in Newark, New Jersey, to the singer and actress Yvette Glover, who chose her son's name as a variation on “saviour.” Glover and his two elder brothers, Carlton and Abron, were raised by their mother and their grandmother, Anna Lundy Lewis, who was a minister of music at the New Point Baptist Church in Newark.

Glover began drumming on pots and pans at age two. At four, he enrolled in drum lessons; however, he was asked to leave the class for being “too advanced.” The teacher instead arranged an interview at the Newark Community School of the Arts, where at five he became their youngest student ever to receive a full scholarship. Glover attended the José Feliciano School for the Performing Arts in Manhattan, and graduated in 1992 from the Arts High School in Newark.

Drumming led Glover ...