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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

The Revolution Will Be Danced
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The same is true for dance. Gerald Myers, in his essay "African Americans and the Modern Dance Aesthetic," published in the ADF booklet, "African-American Genius in Modern Dance" bemoaned the failure to appreciate the African-American impact on American modern dance and the tendency to "assign African-Americans to some 'ethnic' dimension apart from mainstream modern dance." For proof, Myers pointed first to the testimony of black choreographers and second to the "abbreviated attention given to African-American dancers in the literature." He insisted that it was important to realize that "African-American dancing genuinely belongs to modern/concert dance." Witness the struggle for self-definition by anthropologists and choreographer/dancers Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham in the 1930s and '40s. Or the fact that in the 1950s, "Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, Alvin Ailey, and Eleo Pomare were developing a homegrown, singularly American modern dance that simultaneously delineated their own African-Americanism." There were other indicators in the work of black choreographers that they would continue early modern dance's effort to give dance moral, social, and religious meaning, even as others took another course. Faithfulness to the power of the narrative and the genius for "reducing the psychic distance between performer and audience" made performance "shared rather than merely witnessed." This, Myers said, "is so complete in African-American aesthetics as compared with European theories, that it deserves to be added to the principles of traditional modern dance philosophy." While Morrison and Myers confirmed that boundaries existed, the very fact that in the '90s, Jones chose to ignore them was a reflection of the many victories won in the '70s and '80s.

Consolidating Civil Rights Gains

The 1970s was an extension of the struggles and a consolidation of the gains of the 1960s. Overhead, the clouds created during the '60s era of social unrest were still visible -- only two years before the dawn of the new decade, a "long, hot summer" saw race riots devastate major cities, massive protests against the war in Vietnam, and a disturbing Kerner Commission report documenting the "widening gap between white and Negro Americans." Civil rights issues were still front-page news. Black communities were translating their dissatisfaction into political action as more and more black politicians won keys to city hall and seats in Congress. Black artists searched for a black aesthetic and forged new links with the community.

On top of all that, there was a national dance boom, and "one of the world's most popular troupes" was the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In fact, some would argue that Ailey was one of those largely responsible for the upsurge in dance's popularity because hedrew new audiences to the theater.

By 1991, it is reported, the AAADT had performed for an estimated 15,000,000 people in 48 states and 45 countries. Ailey's masterpiece, "Revelations," continued to be the phenomenal international favorite. In 1971, he debuted "Cry," a solo for the company's stunning beauty, Judith Jamison, that was dedicated to all black women everywhere. Critical acclaim coupled with a passionate audience response catapulted Jamison to success unlike that enjoyed by any black dancer since Katherine Dunham. Jamison's towering elegance, short Afro, and distinctively African features graced the covers of countless national magazines. Ailey undertook numerous other groundbreaking ventures, including starting Ailey II, a repertory ensemble under the directorship of former Ailey dancer Sylvia Waters, and Ailey III, a workshop company for students at the Ailey school under the directorship of Kelvin Rotardier.

Black dance companies proliferated during the 1970s. And in addition to such established venues as the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts and the American Dance Festival, which in the fall of 1977 left its home at Connecticut College in New London to journey down South to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, new performance sites were being created.

In New York, reaching untapped inner-city communities was the mission of the Harlem Cultural Council's Dancemobile. They were taking the show on the road, putting down stakes for one night on the streets of Harlem, the South Bronx, and the Lower East Side. A flatbed truck was the stage, starry skies and street lamp posts provided the lighting, and Eleo Pomare, Rod Rodgers, Fred Benjamin, and others presented works for free to highly appreciative neighborhood audiences that gathered around, sat on t stoops, or leaned out of windows.

Funding sources like the New York State Council on the Arts and the Rockefeller and Ford foundations offered critical financial backing that allowed emerging choreographers and companies to develop an infrastructure. The National Endowment for the Arts launched a touring program, and dance went on the road in a big way. While New York City retained its reputation as the dance capital of the world, black dance companies began to spring up in other major cities. Joan Myers Brown launched Philadanco (which one critic called "a one-woman urban renewal project"), Anne Williams started Dallas Black Dance, and Cleo Parker Robinson founded her own ensemble in Denver.

The black dance companies springing up at this time were the actual or creative offspring of major pioneers. Ailey invited talented young choreographers to set works on his company alongside seasoned masters like Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, John Butler, Jose Limon, and others. New talent emerged from AAADT's ranks, including George Faison. After leaving the company to dance in the Broadway show "Purlie Victorious," choreographed by Louis Johnson, he started the George Faison Universal Dance Experience with a repertoire that reflected his genius. When his own company folded, his work became a staple of the Ailey repertoire. Faison blazed a trail by taking an unconventional career path and staging concerts for major recording artists like Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Ashford & Simpson before MTV music videos opened new doors. Faison would go on to win a Tony Award for choreographing the hit Broadway musical "The Wiz."

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