The Mount Rushmore of Black Dance
And those that changed the culture
“I am the hopes and dreams of slaves.” Maya Angelou’s profound words have circled my mind and will in perpetuity. Every job fulfilled, every country visited, every opportunity to live life as a free man humbles me in knowing that those whose DNA I share could only hope and dream. That maybe one day, generations from theirs could live a life without shackles. A life where the cake walk, which was a dance the slaves were meant to do to entertain their owners with the prize being a piece of cake. To the moon walk, immortalized by the great Michael Jackson. Still I rise.
Celebrating the Legends
I’ve realized that this Mount Rushmore thing can be a series. Starting with comedy, The Mount Rushmore of Black Comedy, now to dance and the skies the limit of highlighting Blackcellence. A struggling for ideas bloggers dream come true. Serving as a tremendous education for me, the research lifts my spirit and increases my Gratitude.
Katherine Mary Dunham, (1909-2006), was a dancer, choreographer, activist, author and humanitarian. Dunham had one of the most successful careers in dance in both America and Europe. A graduate of the University of Chicago in Anthropology, she founded The Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre and was an innovator of African-American modern dance. Referred to as “the matriarch and queen mother of modern black dance. Alumni from her academy include Eartha Kitt, Sidney Poitier, Shirley MacLaine, James Dean, Gregory Peck and Warren Beatty.
The Nicholas Brothers
The Nicholas Brothers, Fayard (1914-2006) and Harold (1921-2000), were the stars of the jazz circuit during the Harlem Renaissance. Fayard, born in Mobile, Alabama, and Harold, born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to pianist mom, Viola Harden, and drummer father, Ulysses, grew up in Philadelphia and never had any formal dance training. Fayard taught himself how to sing and dance by watching and mimicking professional entertainers on stage. His younger brother idolized him and copied his moves and distinct style. Performing in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, the brothers were spotted by Samuel Goldwyn at the Cotton Club in Harlem and invited to Hollywood where they performed in legendary films like Stormy Weather (1943). In addition, the brothers went on to become teachers of tap at Harvard University.
Born Freda Josephine McDonald, (1906-1975), St. Louis native Josephine Baker was a singer, dancer, French resistance agent and civil rights activist. Her career was centered mostly in Europe, primarily in her beloved France. She was one of the most celebrated performers at the Follies Bergere in Paris. As a result, she was enshrined in the Pantheon in November of 2021, becoming the first black woman to receive such an honor in France. Baker refused to perform for segregated audiences on her return to America during the civil rights movement. She was awarded the Resistance Medal by General Charles de Gaulle for her work with the French Army. Renouncing her American citizenship and raising her children in France, the Creole Goddess was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture, the silent film Siren of the Tropics, in 1927.
Ballet dancer, choreographer and founder of several dance companies, Arthur Mitchell, (1934-2018), was the first black principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. As one of four siblings, Mitchell was forced at age 12 to assume financial responsibility for his family following the incarceration of his father in Harlem, New York. After that, Arthur held numerous jobs from shoe shining to working in a meat shop. Above all, Mitchell had a passion for dance, attending the High School of Performing Arts and awarded a scholarship to the School of American Ballet. Working with George Balanchine, Mitchell performed with white partners around the world that could not be shown on commercial television until a 1968 performance on The Tonight show with Johnny Carson. Following the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Arthur founded the legendary Dance Theatre of Harlem with $25.000 of his own money.
Dance Theatre of Harlem
I saw them in a production of Firebird at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in the 90s. In addition, the Arthur Mitchell founded company has a residency there now for dancers aged 8 to 18. The Dance Theatre of Harlem is renowned for being both the first black classical ballet company and the first ballet company to prioritize black dancers. Their vision remains one of the most democratic in dance history.
Alvin Ailey Jr, (1931-1989), is one of the most prolific dancer/choreographer/director/activists in black history. Born in Rogers, Texas, in the height of The Great Depression in the violently racist and segregated south, his hope-fueled choreography continues to bring awareness to black life in America around the globe. He founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in 1958 at the 92nd Street Y in NYC. A student at San Francisco State, he met Marguerite Johnson and together formed a nightclub act called “Al and Rita” in 1951. Marguerite would later be known as Maya Angelou. Ailey died in 1989 of an AIDS-related illness at the age of 58. In 2014, he posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama.
Living legend, Judith Ann Jamison, (born 1943), is the artistic director emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, after serving as his muse for many years. A Philadelphia, PA native, she was taught by her father, John Sr., to play piano and violin. Jamison began dancing at age 6 and would graduate at 17 from the Judimar School of Dance. She would go on to dance with American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and the Swedish Royal Ballet dancing alongside legends like Mikhail Baryshnikov. Her inspiration was the Dunham technique, invented by her idol, Katherine Dunham.
Dorothy Jean Dandridge (1922-1965), was the first African American film star to be nominated for an Academy award for Best Actress (Carmen Jones 1954). Born in Cleveland, Ohio, her mother, Ruby, was an entertainer who taught her daughters to sing and dance. When Ruby moved to Hollywood in 1930, Dorothy and her sister, Vivian, began performing as The Dandridge Sisters. In addition to Carmen Jones, Dandridge would also be nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in Porgy and Bess, opposite Sidney Poitier. Married and divorced twice, including first husband Harold Nicholas, who she met at the Cotton Club and whom she had her only child, Harolyn. Her tragic personal life led to her mysterious death in 1965 at age 42. She was allegedly penniless at the time.
Gregory Oliver Hines, (1946-2003), is one of the most celebrated tap dancers of all time. Growing up in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem, New York, he went on to appear in over 40 films. Parents Alma and Maurice Sr were dancers and actors and Gregory and younger brother, Maurice, started performing with their father as Hines, Hines and Dad. A student of the Nicholas Brothers, his idol was Sammy Davis Jr, with whom he appeared in the movie, Tap. In addition, Hines is well known for films like White Nights with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Running Scared with Billy Crystal. He won a Tony award for his role in Jelly’s Last Jam. (1992). On a personal note, I auditioned for him for his television show, The Gregory Hines show. Didn’t get the part, but the nicest man ever.
Michael Joseph Jackson, (1958-2009), is one of the most significant, cultural figures of the 20th Century. It would be redundant to write anything else, but, the video above shows why every single performer after him stands on his enormous shoulders. The most awarded music artist in history, no one will ever match his incredible dance ability.
Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter, (born 1981), is qualified, at age 42, to be on many Mount Rushmore’s. Selling 120 million records worldwide, she was included in Time magazines list of 100 Women who have defined the last century. In 2014, Billboard named her the highest-earning black musician of all time. Beyonce names Michael Jackson as her major musical influence. Looking at the video above illustrates how obvious that is. There will never be another like her.
Misty Danielle Copeland, (born 1982), was the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater. The first in its 75-year history. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, but raised in San Pedro, California, Copeland didn’t even start taking ballet until age 13. Late for a prima ballerina. A tumultuous childhood, Misty did not see her father, Doug, who is of German and African decent, between the ages of 2 and 22. Emancipation and restraining orders against her mother, Sylvia, a former Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader, led her to the Boys and Girls Club where she took her first ballet lesson. In 2015, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Wow. That was a big one. So worth it though. Researching this blog was exhilarating. What a privilege to highlight these amazing performers and learn so much about them. Dancing around the house in my underwear has long been a favorite pastime of mine. If I go long enough, it counts as exercise for the day. Unfortunately, I never learned how to moonwalk. However, I am grateful I never had to cakewalk.
Who’s your favorite dancer?