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Pioneers in Negro Concert Dance: 1931 to 1937
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Denishawn Dancers program
Denishawn Dancers program.
Katherine Dunham's Ballet Negre made its only appearance at the Beaux Arts Ball in Chicago. The attempt to create and sustain a Negro ballet company did not succeed. (The first Negro ballet performed European-style pantomimes at the African Grove Theater in New York City, in 1821, under the direction of James Hewlett. Dancers doubled as actors in plays by Shakespeare.)

White recitalists were still reacting to the 1930 police raid on recital halls, justified by an 1852 law supported by the New York Sabbath Committee, which stated "no performances on Sunday, including Negro or other dancing."

The Denishawn School came to an end. Ruth St. Denis began planning for her Temple School of Spiritual Art, and Ted Shawn envisioned an all-male dance company.

Dancers were divided in their thinking about the German movement in modern dance, and particularly about Mary Wigman. Doris Humphrey warned aspiring dancers about copying Wigman's style and urged them to concentrate on developing their own style. Martha Graham's "Primitive Mysteries" was hailed as a masterpiece of choreography. Helen Tamiris, one of the first white dancers to use black spirituals (1927), announced performances for the newly organized Modern Dance Repertory Company.

The Beginning: Hemsley Winfield and Edna Guy

An actor by profession, Hemsley Winfield appropriated the philosophy of the Harlem Renaissance with reference to developing a sensitivity about the depth and breadth of black culture and the role of the arts in projecting "the new Negro." Hemsley attended concerts by leaders in the American modern dance movement and created a style of choreography that was part German Expressionism, eclectic, and African American. As organizer and director of the Negro Art Theatre Dance, he had directed a small group of dancers as early as 1928 for appearances in plays written by his mother Jeroline. The decision to pursue a dance career resulted from his successful appearance as a substitute dancer in his company's production of Oscar Wilde's " Salome." The first appearance of his dance company, the Bronze Ballet Plastique, on March 6, 1931 in Yonkers, New York, was sponsored by the Benefit for Colored Citizens Unemployment Relief Committee. The event went unnoticed.

For their New York City debut, Winfield's company became known as the New Negro Art Theater Dance Group. Billed as "The First Negro Dance Recital in America," Hemsley Winfield and Edna Guy, along with 18 dancers, opened at Chanin's Theater in the Clouds. Francis Atkins, Randolph Sawyer, and Ollie Burgoyne were a few of the outstanding members of the company. Hemsley was now "regarded as the initiator and chief exponent of Negro concert dancing in the United States." It was according to some, "the outstanding novelty of the dance season," and "one rich in promise." However, dance critic John Martin questioned Negro dancers performing material associated with white dancers. He commented that the evening "constantly brought to mind the rhythm that is the Negro's heritage ... only moments when that rhythm was not present were those when Mr. Winfield and Miss Guy showed too plainly that they had been listening to Gluck-Sandor or Ruth St. Denis longer than was good for them." He was referring to Hemsley's "Life and Death," influenced by Ted Shawn's "Grief and Joy" and Winfield's "Negro," choreographed in the plastique style of Shawn's "The Death of Adonis." Edna Guy's spirituals, "Git on Board Lil Chillun" and "Weeping Mary," were considered more suitable than Ruth St. Denis' works, "Figure from Angkor-Vat" and "Temple Offering." This issue of what the Negro should or should not dance would reach well into the future. Early modern dancers were quite vocal in stating their beliefs and feelings regarding individual technique, form, and the selection of subject matter. Not until the 1940s would the thinking that delimited black creativity change.

African-American Modern Dance Milestones: 1931 to 1937


Randolph Sawyer, original member of the Bronze Ballet Plastique, became the first black dancer in America or Europe to perform the role of the Blackamoor in Stravinsky's "Petrouchka," as a member of the Dance Centre Theatre created by Gluck-Sandor and Felicia Sorel. As a soloist or member of the ensemble,the first integrated dance company in the concert field, Sawyer essayed roles in "The Prodigal Son" (Prokofiev) and "El Amor Brujo" (de Falla).

Edna Guy and Hemsley Winfield appeared on Broadway in the revue "Fast and Furious." Zora Neale Hurston provided sketches. The musical numbers were not reviewed favorably and the show closed abruptly.


In "Let Freedom Ring," directed by Hall Johnson, a choir and dancers told the history of the African American from Africa to the New World.

A benefit for the Dancer's Club provided the opportunity to share billing with modern dance luminaries Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, and Doris Humphrey. Winfield's New Negro Theatre Dance Group and the newly formed Winfield Concert Dance Group (advanced students form his Harlem School of Dance) performed two works from their repertoire, the all-male "Jazz Barbaro" and "Fear."

Edna Guy's group performed at Roerich Hall in a program organized by the Washington Conservatory of Music and School of Expressionism. New works included "After Gauguin," "Luleta's Dance," and "Juba."

Photo: Courtesy of the Joe Nash Collection.

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