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Article

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 ...

Article

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 ...

Article

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 ...

Article

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 ...

Article

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 ...

Article

Barbara Toomer Davis

tap and theatre dancer, teacher, and choreographer, was born in Harlem, New York, the second son of five children of Clarence and Marie, both of whom were from the Virgin Islands. Clarence and Marie LeTang owned a radio and phonograph repair shop in Harlem, where Clarence built and designed phonographs. Music and dancing were a family pastime, and so the LeTang children were all encouraged to play an instrument. As a young boy LeTang attended a dance recital that began his love of tap. He started dancing when he was seven years old and it became his life. LeTang started touring and at the age of fifteen and danced in the Sophie Tucker stage show.

LeTang went to the Lafayette Theatre almost every weekend to watch the stars of the time, including such great headliners as Stepin Fechit, Buck and Bubbles, Earl Snake Hips Tucker ...

Article

Melanye P. White-Dixon

Inspired by a dance concert presented by Pearl Primus, McKayle began his dance studies at the New Dance Group Studio in New York City. He made his professional debut in 1948. Since then he has performed in the work of Sophie Maslow and Anna Sokolow and as a guest performer with the companies of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, and he has established a diverse career as both dancer and choreographer in modern dance, musical theater, television, and film.

McKayle performed on Broadway in House of Flowers (1954) and West Side Story (1957). His numerous Broadway, television, and film choreography credits include Sammy Davis's Golden Boy (1964), Raisin (1974), Sophisticated Ladies (1981), the Ed Sullivan Show (CBS, 1966/67), Minstrel Man (CBS, 1977), Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1970), and the film version of The ...

Article

Jada Shapiro

dancer, choreographer, and teacher, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to parents whose names and occupations are unknown. As a child he was a popular soprano soloist in churches and studied voice at the Karamu House, a local arts center devoted to celebrating the African American experience through the arts in a racially integrated environment. As he grew older Moore studied modern dance with Eleanor Frampton at the cultural center. He had the opportunity to see Asadata Dafora, the famed West African choreographer and dancer, perform the Ostrich Dance at Severance Hall. This event so moved Moore toward his future work in re-creating African dance that, as he explained in the 1984 documentary by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, Dance Black America, he “never forgot that first glimpse of Africa.”

In 1948 Moore received a Charles Weidman dance scholarship and moved to New ...

Article

Germaine Ingram

dancer and educator, was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, one of fourteen children of David Robinson, a construction worker, and Katherine Griffin, a homemaker. Robinson's South Philadelphia neighborhood pulsed with percussive street dancing, an example of vernacular culture that became the springboard for his distinguished career. When he was seven years old, his mother took a break from preparing supper to teach him his first tap step, which he practiced on the wooden floorboards of the family's kitchen. He expanded his repertoire by watching and imitating rhythm dancers who entertained themselves and challenged each other on street corners along Philadelphia's South Street corridor, where, according to Robinson, tap dancing was a common pastime for men, women, and children.

By his early teens Robinson was a street dancer himself busking dancing for money in Philadelphia s downtown He and two or three other youngsters became what was ...

Article

Princess Mhoon Cooper

dancer, instructor, and artistic director, was born in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City to Benjamin Franklin Waters, a social worker and landscaper, and Brittania Rachel Waters, a beautician and homemaker. Raised in Harlem, Waters was an only child who grew up with a large extended family of cousins who lived with her family during different periods of her childhood. Her parents eventually adopted two of her cousins and raised them as their own. From the age of four she spent summers with her grandparents in Virginia, her mother's home. Every summer from the ages of seven through thirteen she was enrolled in a two-week summer camp where her father worked; at the end of the two weeks she would be sent back to her grandparents in Virginia for the remainder of the summer.

During her childhood Waters studied piano in Virginia and ...

Article

Millery Polyné

dancer and choreographer, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Little is known of her early life, although she claimed that one of her first memories as a dancer was her playful gyrations on top of a box at her Portsmouth, Virginia, home. A self-proclaimed “born performer” Williams regularly entertained her family, particularly her grandmother, a janitor for a local dance school (Williams Collection). Faced with the realities of a segregated southern community during the 1920s Williams entered through the back door of a dance school to take private ballet lessons at the end of the day from a Russian instructor.

As a young African American ballet dancer in the white ballet world of the 1930s Williams quickly learned that she would be denied access to the premier dance companies in the U S Being brought up in America Williams recalled you were told you were not supposed to be a ...

Article

Brenda Dixon Gottschild

Trained in classical ballet, Williams-Yarborough performed in musical comedy and modern dance before turning to African-derived, New World dance forms as a means of reaffirming her cultural heritage. Following Katherine Dunham and Jean-Léon Destiné, she combined the religious and folkloric dances of the Caribbean—particularly those of Haiti—with European forms of theatrical dance and created a syncretic, contemporary, theatrical black dance style. She also helped to establish national dance academies in Haiti, Jamaica, Guyana, and the Bahamas.

Raised in Portsmouth, Virginia, and Brooklyn, New York, Williams-Yarborough began studying ballet when she was three years old. Tap, modern, acrobatics, singing, and acting classes soon followed. She graduated from Washington Irving High School in New York City and won a scholarship to the Art Students' League. Her dance teachers included Kay Perper (Denishawn School), Anna Sokolow, Martha Graham, Agnes de Mille, Katherine Dunham, Valerie Bettis, Lisan Kay, Helen ...