African American Dance: 19TH AND 20TH CENTURIES
African American Dance as it concerns the 19TH AND 20TH CENTURIES saw the introduction of new splendour into the system. The dances of the plantation moved onto the stage in the 1800s. Minstrel shows, a popular form of entertainment that included music and dance as well as theatrical skits, introduced black dance to large audiences during the 1800s. These shows originated in the late 1700s and early 1800s from parodies of blacks by whites and from performances by blacks in city streets. As popular entertainment, they were performed by both blacks and whites.
The dancing in minstrel shows derived from the foot-shuffling dances of plantation life. Initially, blacks appeared as caricatures and were often the target of ridicule, but they drew from their cultural traditions even as they made fun of themselves. In 1891 The Creole Show, a revue staged on Broadway in New York City, brought minstrel dance styles, as well as other plantation dances, to a wide audience.
The Creole Show and similar revues introduced the first dance created by blacks to become popular with the white population: the cakewalk. This couples dance had been performed for decades by blacks on plantations to celebrate harvests, and it eventually turned into a competitive dance for which the best couple was awarded a cake. The cakewalk became immensely popular among both blacks and whites during the 1890s. Other black-influenced dance trends that spread to the white population followed: the Charleston in the 1920s, the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Twist in the 1960s.
The 1920s and the 1930s were an especially fruitful time for black dance in the United States. Blacks migrated to urban areas in large numbers after World War I ended in 1918. This migration, along with the birth of various black pride movements, led to a flourishing of black culture, especially in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. During this period, which came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance, African American developments in dance were accompanied by similar innovations in theater, music, literature, and other arts.
Black musical theater, derived from minstrel shows, continued to popularize and legitimize black dance traditions and black performers, as it had in the 19th century. Outstanding performances raised professional dance standards for blacks and whites alike. Shuffle Along (1921), a landmark Broadway show created by blacks and with an all-black cast, was immensely popular with white audiences. In the chorus line was Josephine Baker, who eventually won fame and adoration in Paris, France, performing dances that reflected her African American heritage. Many other all-black shows, including Runnin’ Wild (1923), Chocolate Dandies (1924), and Blackbirds of 1928 (1928), also played to enthusiastic American audiences in the 1920s and 1930s.
A dance style initiated by blacks that gained fame in the early 20th century was tap dance. Featured in such theatrical shows as The Darktown Follies (1913), tap dance combined elements of African-influenced shuffle dances (most notably the buck-and-wing, which was performed in minstrel shows), English clog dancing, and Irish jigs. Black dancers such as Bill Robinson, one of the greatest virtuosos of tap, brought the new form respectability and popularity. Tap dancing developed further in the 1930s and 1940s when Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and other white dancers included it in motion pictures.
Also during the 1930s and 1940s, blacks moved into ballet and modern dance, dance forms previously created and performed by whites alone. Prominent white choreographers, including Ruth Page, Agnes de Mille, and Helen Tamiris, incorporated African American themes and movement styles into their dances and hired blacks to perform them. In 1928 Tamiris performed two dances to traditional spirituals, and for her 1932 piece Gris-Gris Ceremonial, which was based on a West African ritual, she used African-inspired shaken gourds as accompaniment. In 1931 dancers Edna Guy and Hemsley Winfield were featured in a performance in New York City billed as “the first Negro dance recital in America.” Sierra Leonian dancer Asadata Dafora featured African themes and movement in his dance-dramas, large-scale plays that used dances in telling a story. His works Kykunkor (1934) and Zunguru (1938) earned both popular and critical acclaim at their New York City premieres for their authentic portraits of black culture.
During the 1930s and 1940s two American dancers who had been trained as anthropologists, Katherine Dunham and Trinidad-born Pearl Primus, made immensely important contributions to African-influenced dance based on research they had done in Africa and the Caribbean. In 1931 Dunham founded the Negro Dance Group in Chicago. After traveling extensively in the West Indies she choreographed one of her most famous works, L’ag’ya (1938), which was based on a fighting dance of Martinique. She later made Haiti a principal site of her research in dance and culture. In the 1940s Dunham toured the United States with another black dance troupe she had formed, and by 1945 she had opened her own school to teach the African and Caribbean dances she had learned. Pearl Primus began presenting her choreography of African and African American themes in the 1940s. The dance Strange Fruit (1943), for example, expressed rage at the lynching of blacks in America. A nine-month tour of Africa in 1948 produced more African-inspired pieces. These dances fascinated audiences with their use of freely moving torsos, rhythmic vitality, native-influenced costumes, and enormously energetic and enthusiastic performers.
The Lester Horton Dance Theater, founded in 1932, was the first racially integrated dance troupe in America. One of the major dancers was Alvin Ailey, who served as the group’s director from 1953 to 1954. Ailey left in 1958 to form his own modern-dance company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In 1960 his new company premiered Revelations, a piece set to a soundtrack of African American spirituals that reacquainted millions of Americans with the beauty and pathos of those traditional songs. One of Ailey’s dancers, Judith Jamison, won fame for her intense performance of Ailey’s solo Cry (1971), a dance that portrays a black woman’s life story. Other prominent black choreographers who have contributed significantly to modern dance include Donald McKayle, Debbie Allen, Talley Beatty, Garth Fagan, Bill T. Jones, and Joel Hall. In recent years several regional modern dance companies have been created to present works by African Americans.
Beginning in the 1950s, a number of black ballet dancers, including Arthur Mitchell, Janet Collins, Virginia Johnson, Carmen De Lavallade, and Geoffrey Holder, rose to success in regional and national ballet companies. Mitchell was the first African American to dance with the New York City Ballet, and in 1969 he founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem, America’s first ballet company for African Americans. Collins served as prima ballerina for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company from 1951 to 1954. African American Dance during the 19TH AND 20TH CENTURIES was indeed one of great innovation and renewed vigour.