• 50 Years - A Million Thanks
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Free to Dance About the Film
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Episode 1: WHAT DO YOU DANCE?
"What Do You Dance?" begins the story of the evolution of a uniquely American form of movement with African slaves on a southern plantation hunched low to the ground, feet pounding the earth with rhythmic intensity as they hum, clap, sing, and dance the "Ring Shout" -- one of the dances writer Ralph Ellison called America's first choreography.

As the dominant strain in a cultural synthesis of Irish clogs, Scottish jigs, English reels, Spanish fandangos, Caribbean rhythms, and more, African dances left an indelible imprint on American dance. The story of their influence unfolds against the backdrop of American history, tracing Africans through slavery, the Great Migration north, the culturally rich Harlem Renaissance, racial segregation, and the Great Depression. For many Americans, African dance, from the plantation "Ring Shout "and "Cakewalk" to the Jazz Age "Charleston," "Black Bottom," and tap, was a liberating force from the rigid restrictions of European dance and culture. And in the early 1900s, when American choreographers Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis created a revolutionary alternative to Europe's classical ballet, African-American dancers played a role in this "aesthetic dance" movement.

Meet Edna Guy, a 15-year-old disciple of Ruth St. Denis; Hemsley Winfield; and an African student named Asadata Dafora -- black pioneers of dance on the American concert stage. Witness the emergence of a beautiful young anthropology student at the University of Chicago, Katherine Dunham, whose life-changing field trip to the Caribbean was inspired by scholar Melville Herskovits and funded by a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation.

See footage shot by Dunham in 1936, during her research trip to Jamaica, Trinidad, Martinique, and Haiti. Hear Dunham (now 91) tell how she came to be initiated into Haiti's Vodoun religion and what prompted her to transfer the results of her research to the concert stage. Within a year of her return to Chicago, Dunham was invited to perform the "Yanvalou," a ritual dance she learned in Haiti, at an historic event in New York called the "Negro Dance Evening." Staging this pivotal milestone was a committee of black dancers who declared their aim to be "to show the public that the Negro has made an important contribution to the dance world, a fact not previously emphasized."



Dancers perform the "Yanvalou," a ritual dance Katherine Dunham learned in Haiti.
Episode 2: STEPS OF THE GODS
Katherine Dunham's year in the Caribbean, during the 1930s was both an anthropological field trip and a journey in search of her own roots. She experienced dance that was a powerful echo of African culture and an integral part of spiritual and secular life. After completing her master's thesis, "The Dances of Haiti," Dunham turned to the concert stage -- a bold move at a time when black dancers were confined to roles as sensual exotica in cabaret chorus lines or comic relief in minstrel shows and vaudeville.

To accomplish her mission, Dunham had to mold dancers who could perform what she called "the steps of the Gods." She crafted a movement system that fused the isolations and polyrhythmic syncopations of African-derived dance from the Caribbean with European ballet. The Dunham Technique, along with those created by Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Jose Limon, was one of modern dance's seminal movement systems. Showcased in "L'Ag'Ya," a piece based on dances she studied in Martinique, and in a class taught by former Dunham dancer Walter Nicks, it is also visible in Dunham's performance in the motion picture version of the Broadway musical on which she collaborated with New York City Ballet's George Balanchine, "Cabin in the Sky."

By the early 1940s, having premiered on Broadway, toured Europe, Asia, and Latin America, and appeared in Hollywood and foreign films, Dunham's ensemble was the most famous modern dance company in the world. Although maintaining her company and school was a constant struggle, she nonetheless blazed a trail that others would soon follow.

On February 14, 1943, a young Trinidadian studying at Hunter College gave her first performance at New York's 92nd Street YMHA with three "dances of protest" that signaled the arrival of a new, revolutionary voice: "Strange Fruit," "Rock Daniel," and "Hard Time Blues." Pearl Primus would later become an anthropologist and Rosenwald Fellowship recipient. And, like Dunham's Caribbean visit, her year-and-a-half study of African dance would have a profound impact. After her field trip to West Africa, Primus' performance of "Fanga," the West African dance of welcome, marked a new direction that would inspire others, like DanceAfrica's Chuck Davis, to bring to the concert stage the power and glory of their African heritage.

Following in Dunham's and Primus' footsteps in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Talley Beatty and Donald McKayle emerged in a post-World War II America swirling with activity that signaled a social and political change that would profoundly affect America and African Americans. Beatty's "Mourner's Bench" and McKayle's "Games" and "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" took an unflinching look at American society and staked the black dancer's claim to a place within it.

None would more clearly define that place as being squarely center stage as Alvin Ailey. Emerging from the star-studded cast of the Broadway musical "House of Flowers," which he and Carmen de Lavallade had traveled from California to join, Ailey would pull together a group of dancers for what was meant to be a one-night performance at the city's modern dance showcase, the 92nd Street YMHA. That night would change his life and alter the face of American modern dance, while also providing an answer to the perennial question, "What shall the Negro dance about?"

"... the pulse of African-American life, its melodies and rhythms echoing hopes and frustrations, humor and anger, warmth and hostility -- about, in fact, anything that matters to African Americans," was the reply of the man who created America's most popular multiracial dance company and broke the mold by showcasing works by other choreographers alongside his own brilliant ballets, such as "Revelations" and "Blues Suite." Alvin Ailey would play a key role in shattering the boundaries surrounding black dancers and choreographers.



A poster from the Broadway musical "Cabin in the Sky."
Episode 3: STEPS OF THE GODS
Through the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, a "dance explosion" made it America's newest spectator sport. Any given season, an uncanny number of ballet and modern dance companies strutted their stuff on the stages (and even rooftops) of New York City -- the dance capital of the world. At the same time, cultural, social, and political upheaval gripped the nation. The times, they were a-changin' -- the civil rights movement inspired the women's liberation and gay rights movements, and more. Choreographers and other artists reflected and forecasted society's seismic shifts. Change was the only constant. Everything was questioned.

In 1963, Eleo Pomare studied with Kurt Jooss in Germany. Like so many African-American artists before him, he had fled to Europe in search of a more hospitable climate. Meanwhile, in America, civil rights organizers prepared for the massive March on Washington. A call from his friend, expatriate writer James Baldwin, prodded Pomare to return home for the historic occasion: "That March changed the rest of what I would do, what I would say, and where I would belong. Up until this day if any shit is going to fly, I want to be there when it happens."

Pomare's dances of social protest were unflinching weather reports from the eye of the hurricane. "Blues for the Jungle" was a stark slice-of-life-in-the-ghetto piece in which whores, pimps, bag ladies, junkies, and other characters inhabited the modern dance stage for the first time. "Las Desenamoradas," based on the play by Garcia Lorca, was a chilling snapshot of tyranny.

In Greenwich Village, young dancers dubbed the New Moderns or Post Moderns dismantled dance's time-honored assumptions. Choreographer Trisha Brown recalled how the Judson Movement demolished the concept of the "noble dancer" and traditional performance space. Dances including ordinary people and everyday movement were performed in lofts, on rooftops, in vacant lots, and even on the sides of buildings. The line between the personal and performance was blurred. Dancers demolished theater's fourth wall.

For African-American choreographers, opportunities increased. Gus Solomons, jr., Blondell Cummings, Bill T. Jones, and others joined the ranks of dance's avant-garde, even as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater became the most popular modern dance company ever. When Ailey choreographed "Cry," a solo for lead dancer Judith Jamison, and dedicates it "to all black women, everywhere, especially our mothers," modern dance's first star was born.

In 1983, "What is black dance?" the modern version of the old question, "What shall the Negro dance?" sparked heated dialogue at a four-day series of concerts and symposiums called "Dance Black America." A who's who of black choreographers, dancers, teachers, and scholars attended the landmark event sponsored by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Garth Fagan's Bucket Dance Theatre (formerly Bottom of the Bucket, But ... Dance Theatre) emerged as the new star on the block.

Episode 3, "Go for What You Know," includes Garth Fagan's "Griot New York," Bill T. Jones' "D-Man in the Water," Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's "Shelter," and Blondell Cummings' "Chicken Soup," as well as performances by Cleo Parker Robinson's Philadanco, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. The future of modern dance can be glimpsed in the hip-hop choreography of Rennie Harris and Ron K. Brown's club dance-inspired style, in collaboration with dance pioneer Donald McKayle, as young African-American choreographers and dancers find inspiration, innovation, and freedom by drawing on their roots.



The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.