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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

The History Of An American Dance Festival Project
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Supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the North Carolina Humanities Council, and coinciding with the reconstructions/performance funding from the Ford Foundation, ADF inaugurated a series of humanities events under the title "The Black Tradition in American Modern Dance." These consisted of scholarly panel discussions, open seminars, and a publication bearing the project title. The aim of the project's humanities component was and continues to be the enhancement of public appreciation of the historical and cultural significance of African-American contributions to the development of 20th-century modern dance. The humanities events were and continue to be scholarly/educational complements to the theater performances of both historical and contemporary works of African-American choreographers. NEH also awarded ADF a media-planning grant leading to a possible television series on the African-American presence in modern dance: That this presence is as integral to the evolution of modern dance as the contributions of Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, or Paul Taylor is a truth that this project emphasizes and elaborates.

The ADF project tells the story of how African Americans overcame formidable obstacles during the 20th century to become recognized as modern dance artists. The humanities, represented by the scholars featured in the pages of ADF's booklets, on numerous panel discussions, and in the PBS documentary "Free To Dance," are essential to the telling of this story. History, religion, anthropology, philosophy, literature, and the theory and criticism of the arts all have a part in illuminating our understanding of how African-American dancing gradually entered the mainstream of modern dance. They all have a part in deciphering the aesthetic and cultural significance of the gradual recognition of the work of black modern dancers and choreographers.

The project's events began in 1987, with illustrated discussions led by historians Robert Hinton of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Peter Wood of Duke University. These occasions were designed to show the depth of the African presence in American history and culture, to explore what the culture was like at the turn of the 20th century, when modern dance was burgeoning and American blacks had yet to join in that development. Hinton and Wood provided the historical introduction to the project's story. Scholars in the ADF history and criticism of the arts discussion included Zita Allen, William Moore, and Joe Nash, writers in black dance history and criticism from New York City; Brenda Dixon Gottschild, author of publications in dance history and aesthetics from Temple University's dance department; Elizabeth Fenn, writer on African-American history from North Carolina; and Richard Long, writer on dance and literary history from Emory University's interdisciplinary studies department. They furnished the facts about Afro-Caribbean roots, early African-American dance styles, black modern dance pioneers, and the eventual recognition of black dancers as major figures within the modern dance movement. But together with Hinton and Wood, they also had an interpretive story to tell that involves religion as well as philosophical and aesthetic ideas. As a special treat, joining the program were four distinguished choreographers -- Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, Eleo Pomare, and Pearl Primus -- who together took the audience inside and behind the facts, dates, and places for an understanding of the feelings, aspirations, and intentions of those artists who forged the black tradition within 20th-century modern dance.

Their revelations were enhanced in a second production, funded by an NEH grant: the publication, in 1992-1994, of the ADF booklet "African American Genius in Modern Dance," a sequel to "Black Tradition in American Modern Dance." This second publication featured scholars Beverly A. Barber from Florida A & M University; VeVe Clark, associate professor of African and Caribbean literature from the University of California, Berkeley; Karen W. Hubbard of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Halifu Osumare from the University of Ohio; Cynthia S'thembile West, Ph.D., from Temple University; and writer Arthur T. Wilson. These scholars' essays and participation in panel discussions have brought us closer to the kinds of experiences that choreography by black modern dancers reflects.

ADF's Humanities and Public Education programs have flourished because of the insights gained by bringing humanities scholars together with practicing artists. Pearl Primus herself, renowned both for her choreography and for her anthropological research, illustrates this point par excellence in her life and work that art and the humanities are mutually enriching. It is for this project's audiences to enjoy, equally with the dance artists and scholars, the rare stimulation of thought and feeling that such occasions as these and the byproduct of their enriching investigations provide.

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