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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

"Revelations" and Beyond
By Zita Allen
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During the 1950s and '60s, the story of blacks in American modern dance was part of the most dramatic political and social upheaval since the Civil War, and this would be reflected both onstage and off. The NAACP launched an attack on the segregated public school system in five states. Rosa Parks, a middle-aged African-American woman, defied custom by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white man. A 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till was brutally disfigured and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. These and other events triggered two decades of turbulence that ended with the dismantling of a significant part of a system of institutionalized racism. At the same time, there was an explosion of creativity among black dancers and choreographers that heightened both their impact and their image. Art imitated life and life imitated art with ricocheting reciprocity.

By the late1950s, the doors once barred shut to blacks were opening, and the struggles of Edna Guy, Helmsley Winfield, Asadata Dafora, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and others made it possible for countless more to fulfill dreams of meaningful careers in dance. For the first time, there was a sizeable number of experienced, highly trained black dancers and choreographers. Some had gained their experience as members of Katherine Dunham's internationally successful company; others had trained with more obscure but nonetheless significant choreographers like Lester Horton. Dancers also trained at Dunham's School of Arts and Research or the small, politically progressive New Dance Group Studio in New York, or at one of the numerous other training grounds springing up around the country that were open to blacks. Of course, change was not complete. There were no blacks in America's modern dance companies, which were still predominantly white, at the beginning of the 1960s. But as black dancers and choreographers stormed the barricades, demanding schools to nurture their talent and outlets to express it, the names of this new, ever-growing phalanx of talent became legion:- Judith Jamison, Loretta Abbott, Carolyn Adams, Alvin Ailey, Consuelo Atlas, Shawneeque Baker-Scott, Talley Beatty, Ruth Beckford, Delores Brown, Janet Collins, Carmen de Lavallade, Judy Dearing, Merle Derby, George Faison, Laverne French, Dyanne Harvey, Thelma Hill, Mary Hinkson, Louis Johnson, Bill Louther, Dianne McIntyre, Donald McKayle, Minnie Marshall, Michele Murray, Joe Nash, John Parks, Al Perryman, Joan Peters, Eleo Pomare, Albert Popwell, Rod Rodgers, Kelvin Rotardier, Dorene Richardson, Clive Thompson, James Truitte, Matt Turney, Delores Vanison, Sylvia Waters, Dudley Williams, Billy Wilson, Lavinia Williams, Sarah Yarborough, and on and on.

Even NEW YORK TIMES dance critic John Martin felt compelled to take note of this phenomenon, declaring in his book, THE DANCE: "A development that is destined to have great significance in the postwar world is the emergence of a number of highly gifted Negro artists." Acknowledging the hurdles blocking black artists' progress since the era of blackface minstrelsy, Martin admitted that until now African-American performers had been "confined almost exclusively to the inertias of the entertainment field." He also acknowledged that in modern dance the black dancer "found a medium for expressing himself in forms of his own devising" and was able to "find his rightful place in the creative arts and to do so with impressive results."

Yet though all this talent was increasingly available, there were precious few vehicles to display it. While new modern dance companies sprang up with remarkable regularity, there were far more dancers than there were troupes for them to join. Many African-American modern dancers were forced to jockey back and forth between the concert stage and commercial Broadway theater or television if they wanted to work consistently. The 1946 Broadway revival of "Showboat" helped, as did "Inside USA," a work choreographed by Helen Tamiris; "Finian's Rainbow" (1947); "South Pacific" (1949); "Out of This World" (1950), "Flahooley" (1951); "Damn Yankees" (1955); and "Bless You All" (1958)., But it was the premiere of "House of Flowers" in 1954, with two young dancers from California -- Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade -- that would have the greatest impact.

At the beginning of the 1950s, the modern dance world was still under the influence of iconoclasts determined to develop a uniquely American form. Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and other Denishawn revolutionaries gained ground in their struggle to make dance more egalitarian, more contemporary, and more American, while Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn roamed the land. Also, a growing number of Katherine Dunham's and Pearl Primus' students edged toward center stage, taking up where their predecessors had left off, even as the pioneers themselves continued to perform. The dance world was still in the throes of the revolution begun in the early 1900s. New York was the primary battlefield modern dance venues like the American Dance Festival in Vermont, Connecticut and North Carolina; Jacob's Pillow in Massachusetts, and Lester Horton's studio and workshop and Ann Halprin's experimental Dance Workshop, both in California. Choreographers were rebels with a cause: their dances were movement manifestos and each concert was a guerrilla skirmish. Ballet, with its prevalent image of neat symmetry, careful attention to formal technique, and numerous fairy-tale scenarios, was the enemy. On all fronts, the balance of power was shifting and the world was changing.

Photo: Photograph by Paul Kolnik. Courtesy of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

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