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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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


Constance Valis Hill

tap dancer, raconteur, and stage, vaudeville, and television performer, was born Charles Coles in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of George Coles and Isabel (maiden name unknown). He learned to tap-dance on the streets of Philadelphia, where dancers challenged each other in time-step “cutting” contests, and he made his New York debut at the Lafayette Theater in 1931 as one of the Three Millers, a group that performed over-the-tops, barrel turns, and wings on six-foot-high pedestals. After discovering that his partners had hired another dancer to replace him, Coles retreated to Philadelphia, determined to perfect his technique. He returned to New York City in 1934 confident and skilled in his ability to cram several steps into a bar of music Performing at the Harlem Opera House and at the Apollo Theater Coles was reputed to have the fastest feet in show business And at the Hoofer s Club where only ...


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 ...


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 ...


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 ...


Karen Backstein

dancer and choreographer, was born in St. Marc, Haiti, to an upper-class family about whom little is now known. Unlike many of his fellow elite, however, who shunned the rituals of Haiti's poor, Destiné chose to plunge into Vodou and other aspects of national popular culture. In the process he became one of the most influential figures to bring these expressions of Haitian life to the stage and around the world.

Destiné began his training as a teen in Haiti with Lina-Mathon Blanchet, whose group performed folklore-based dance. Later he studied at the Institute d'Ethnologie in Port-au-Prince, where he had the opportunity to analyze Vodou as well as many other local dance styles as performed by practitioners from throughout the nation.

In 1941 he traveled to Washington D C with Blanchet s company to dance at the National Folk Festival where the group performed to acclaim Soon ...


Lisa E. Rivo

dancer, choreographer, school founder, and anthropologist, was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Albert Millard Dunham Sr., an African American tailor and amateur jazz musician, and Fanny June Guillaume Taylor, a school administrator of French Canadian, English, Native American, and possibly African ancestry. The Dunhams lived in the predominantly white suburb of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, until Fanny's death when Katherine was four. Forced to sell the family home, Albert Dunham became a traveling salesman and sent Katherine and her older brother, Albert Jr., to live with relatives on the South Side of Chicago, where she was exposed to black vaudeville and blues performances.

Although Albert Sr. reunited the family after he remarried and purchased a dry cleaning store in Joliet Illinois he became increasingly unpredictable and violent Katherine found an outlet in athletics and dance while attending public high school and junior ...


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 ...