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HISTORIC ESSAYS

Pioneers in Negro Concert Dance: 1931 to 1937
By Joe Nash
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First Negro Dance Recital
"First Negro Dance Recital."
Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, a symbol of the Jazz Age, the flip side of Main Street, became home to a spectacular creative resurgence known as the Harlem Renaissance. The neighborhood was bursting at the seams with people from the West Indies, Puerto Rico, Latin America, and diverse parts of the southern United States. And joining the throng of writers, musicians, singers, painters, and artists flocking to the mecca on the Hudson, triggering cultural critical mass were dancers and choreographers. Filled with the hype and hope fostered by the proliferation of the "new" -- New Masses, New Era, New Science, New Woman -- this group of dancers was anxious to wrestle with the negative images popularized by decades of minstrelsy to create a New Negro dance. Rhodes scholar Alain Locke's 1925 book, THE NEW NEGRO, was the creative catalyst that helped set the whole thing off while also defining the nature of the mission. Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, Sterling Brown, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Claude McKay, Carl Van Vechten, Zora Neale Hurston, and others laid the foundation for the idea that the arts could play a critical role in crafting a new image for the race. Here are the highlights of a decade of dance pioneers and their struggle to successfully enter the world of concert dance.


The Background: In 1931 ...

Black dancer Feral Benga appeared as a star attraction at the Folies Bergère in Paris. Josephine Baker, the ebony Venus, appearing at the Casino de Paris, received the adulation of such people as Erich Remarque, who said "she brought an elemental strength and beauty to the tired showplace of Western civilization."

Buddy Bradley, behind-the-scenes choreographer for all-white Broadway shows, taught rhythm dancing to Broadway luminaries at Billy Pierce's Dance Studio. "Minnie the Moocher" was introduced by Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club, and "Mood Indigo" was Duke Ellington's latest composition.

Shimmy dancer, singer, and actress Ethel Waters starred in "Blackbirds of 1931." "Hot from Harlem" featured three-time winner of the award for "Best Dancer on Broadway," Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and "Rhapsody in Black" displayed the extraordinary talents of "Snake Hips" Tucker and the tap class act of Eddie Rector.

Theater critics were acknowledging the influence of Negro dancing and singing in Broadway shows and revues. Performers were described as possessing "supervitality," and they "infected spectators with high spirits," "providing a dashing, exciting rapidly-paced quality," and "creating an atmosphere full of the ecstasy and joy of living." In addition, critics asserted that "chorus dancing has taken on an importance in musical shows it never had before and producers are searching for more dances out of the black experience." The film TRADER HORN presented yet another distorted version of African culture. Dances in it were referred to as "grotesque" and the music was considered "weird off-rhythms."

This was the era of black entertainers and attitudes formed by inauthentic images in minstrelsy, drama, literature, and films. Prevalent thinking declared that "the Negro dancer is a natural-born entertainer," that "training would diminish their natural gifts and effectiveness on the stage," and that "they must guard against the white man's art of dance." This was the time of the Depression and fading interest in black musicals. Yet the creative impulse of the Harlem Renaissance would influence and spur the beginning of a black aesthetic in dance. The Negro was a modern dancer long before the movement began in America or Europe.

The propitious moment to make an artistic statement in movement, as had been made in spirituals, poetry, drama, and art, had arrived. In place of the Broadway stage, the dancing ground would be the concert hall. The aesthetic manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance would provide a philosophical underpinning for "the new Negro dance." And just as poets and writers "tore away the mask that grins and lies to reveal the stark black truth beneath," pioneer dancers and choreographers would use the art form that delights the gods to express their aspirations, ideals, and understanding of the grim struggle of the black soul.

The pioneers of dance included Hemsley Winfield, Edna Guy, Randolph Sawyer, Mabel Hart, Alma Sutton, Lavinia Williams, Asadata Dafora, Al Bledger, Ad Bates, Charles Williams, Bernice Brown, Belle Rosette, and Maudelle Weston. Their names are not as familiar as Katherine Dunham's but still significant in the history of the African-American modern dance tradition. These individuals who found little encouragement to pursue their dreams were able to succeed on the dance stage.

They were confronted with the questions "Could the Negro create a vital art form based upon his African and Caribbean heritage?" And if so, "What should the Negro dance about?" The pioneers sought to portray positive images of black culture despite expectations of what they should or shouldn't do on the concert stage.

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