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Three African-American Women Who Revolutionized Modern Dance

Angelitos Negros at Broad Stage | Osofu Washington
Angelitos Negros at Broad Stage | Osofu Washington
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Debbie Allen. Judith Jamison. Llanchie Stevenson.

Marie Bryant. Carmen de Lavallade. Dianne Walker.

The list of notable African-American women who revolutionized dance is seemingly endless. From ballet and modern dance to Lindy hop and hip-hop, African-American women have left indelible marks on the dance community.

They have formed companies, authored books, penned choreographies, taught legends and wowed audiences near and far with breathtaking movement.

They have blended techniques and created technique; studied the masters and became masters.

Their fascination with movement metamorphosed them into trailblazing hyphenates: dancer-choreographer-anthropologist-artistic director-executive director.

The three dancers on this list (modern and contemporary dancers), have soared over poverty, racism and ageism and inspired others to do the same.

Katherine Dunham created the Dunham Technique and is heralded as the “Matriarch of Black Dance.”

Katherine Dunham | Phyllis Twachtman, World Telegram staff photographer via Wikimedia Commons
Katherine Dunham | Phyllis Twachtman, World Telegram staff photographer via Wikimedia Commons

“We weren't pushing Black is beautiful. We just showed it.”

Katherine Dunham was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois to an African-American father and a French-Canadian mother. She developed a love for dance as a child and a love for the study of dance while she was a social anthropology student at the University of Chicago. Armed with grant funding from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, in 1935 she traveled to several Caribbean countries — most notably Haiti — where she studied local dances.

Her training and travel coalesced into the Dunham Technique, which was the first dance technique to incorporate traditional ballet with Caribbean movement and African rituals. She taught dancers (including Eartha Kitt and Alvin Ailey), and created the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the only self-supported black modern dance troupe of its time. The company toured throughout the U.S., Europe and South America in the 1930s and 1940s.

Dunham was also a passionate advocate for racial equality. She refused to perform in segregated venues. After she was denied access to the Hotel Esplanada in São Paulo, Brazil in 1950 because she was black, she very publicly criticized the incident. Her actions pressured politicians to pass the Afonso Arinos Law in 1951, which made racial discrimination in public places in Brazil a felony.

In 1967 Dunham founded the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis to provide residents with a therapeutic arts space amidst the rampant poverty and racial injustice in the area. The center proved particularly useful to residents during the 1968 Riots.

In 1983 Dunham received The Kennedy Center Honors Award, and St. Louis created a museum in her honor.

Today students across the globe study the Dunham Technique.

Lula Washington established a world-class dance company and dance academy in inner-city Los Angeles.

"To me, the arts can prevent war, the arts can save a nation, and they can save young people.” 

Lula Washington and her dancers | Ian Foxx
Lula Washington and her dancers | Ian Foxx

Born into housing projects in Los Angeles’ Watts community, a young Lula Washington never dreamed she’d become a dancer. In fact, she didn’t even watch her first modern dance performance — the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at UCLA — until she was a student at Harbor Community College. That single performance compelled Washington to switch her major from nursing to dance.

Post-college, an enthusiastic Washington applied to transfer to UCLA’s dance program but was rejected because the admissions committee felt that 22 was too old to begin professional training. Washington, however, petitioned the school to reverse its decision; Impressed by her tenacity, the school accepted her application, first to its undergraduate dance program, and later to its graduate dance program.

Washington established the Black Dance Association at UCLA as a student, and in 1980 she and her husband Erwin Washington founded the Lula Washington Contemporary Dance Foundation right in her hometown of South Los Angeles. The facility hosts the professional dance company (Lula Washington Dance Theatre), a dance school, youth dance ensemble and dance studio.

The couple’s goal was to create a world-renowned dance company “that travels worldwide with contemporary modern dance works that reflect African-American history and culture.” To date, the company has performed in more than 150 cities in the U.S. and Germany, Israel, China and other countries.

Similarly, the school has fulfilled its mission to teach inner-city youth “the art of dance” and to “launch careers in dance.” The school has become a space “where dance is used to motivate, educate, inspire, challenge and enrich the lives of young people.” More than 45,000 students have studied there.

Washington was the first recipient of the Minerva Award from the State of California and First Lady Maria Shriver; Washington also created the movement and choreography for “Avatar" and Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Washington’s papers sit in the UCLA Research Library’s archival collection of dance pioneers.

Pearl Primus famously documented and preserved African dance as an anthropologist and dancer-choreographer.

American dancer and choreographer Pearl Primus (1919 - 1994), circa 1950. | Erika Stone/Getty Images
American dancer and choreographer Pearl Primus (1919 - 1994) circa 1950  | Erika Stone for Getty Images

“Dance is the fist with which I fight the sickening ignorance of prejudice.”

Primus moved from Trinidad to New York City when she was two years old. That move, coupled with a future career hiccup, would providentially prepare Primus for her ascent in the dance world.

Trained to become a medical doctor, Primus joined the New Dance Group after she couldn’t secure a job in medicine. She gave the first performance of her work in 1943. The following year she choreographed her first major dance, “African Ceremonial.” Four years later, a research trip to Africa enabled Primus to fuse African dance forms with modern dance and ballet technique with an anthropologist’s lens.

Primus created unique choreography that reflected life in Africa and the everyday experiences of African-Americans. One of her most famous and riveting pieces is her 1943 “Strange Fruit,” [Warning: this video link contains graphic content] which documents the brutal lynchings that took place in Southern U.S. states. The original poem was penned by Abel Meeropol in 1937 and recorded by singer Billie Holiday in 1939.

In 1961, Primus traveled back to Africa, where she became the director of the African Performing Arts Center in Monrovia, Liberia, the “first organization of its kind on the African continent.”

In 1978, she completed her doctorate in African and Caribbean studies at New York University. In 1979 Primus and her husband Percival Borde established the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute in New York, where they taught fusion dance classes based on Primus’ research.

President George H.W. Bush awarded Primus the National Medal of Arts in 1991, and the Liberian Government honored her with the “Star of Africa.”

Primus’ detailed research now serves as a treasure trove for dancers and academics alike.

Top Image: Angelitos Negros at Broad Stage | Osofu Washington

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