Broadway Dance Center is celebrating Black History Month by honoring some of the Black dancers, choreographers, and educators who broke through barriers and transformed the industry.
First up is Mable Lee.
Who is Mable Lee?
Mable Lee was an acclaimed jazz tap dancer, singer, and entertainer on both the stage and screen.
If I can make it there…
Lee was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1921 and started performing at school and local venues before she was 10 years old. In 1940, Lee and her mother moved to New York City so she could pursue a professional performance career. She danced in the chorus of the Apollo Theater, the West End Theatre, and at various nightclubs. Eventually Lee broke out of the chorus to become a soubrette, a soloist with a line of dancers behind her. On Broadway, Lee danced in musicals including Shuffle Along, Bubblin’ Brown Sugar, and The Hoofers. During World War II, she toured with the first all-Black USO unit, performing at hundreds of army camps and veterans’ hospitals—sometimes up to five shows per day.
“Queen of the Soundies”
In the 1940s, “soundies” were the precursor to music videos. They were 3-minute black-and-white films that featured big band music, jazz vocalists, and high-energy dancers. Lee appeared in over one hundred of these mini movies, earning her the title, “Queen of the Soundies.” Lee also choreographed for many of the soundies she appeared in, though she did not receive formal credit.
A tap dance legend
Lee was recognized with numerous accolades throughout her illustrious career. In 1985 she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create dance instruction videos of vintage chorus line routines. In 2004, Lee won the Flo-Bert Award (honoring outstanding figures in the field of tap dance) and was inducted into the Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2008. She continued to choreograph and perform at tap festivals and events up until her death in 2019 at the age of 97.