Dance Theatre of Harlem: BDC celebrates Black History Month

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. 

Next up is Dance Theatre of Harlem.

What is Dance Theatre of Harlem?

Dance Theatre of Harlem is renowned for being the first major ballet company to prioritize Black dancers. 

A little history…

DTH was founded in 1969 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It was established by Arthur Mitchell (a protégé of George Balanchine and the first Black dancer with New York City Ballet) and his former ballet master, Karel Shook, as a classical ballet school for young dancers in Harlem. A company was formed with the top dancers and DTH began performing as a way to match money donated to fund the school. George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins bestowed the rights to several of their ballets and before long, DTH was touring internationally, integrating stages, and presenting both classical ballets and contemporary works celebrating African American culture. 

Breaking barriers in ballet

Since day one, DTH has been a multi-ethnic dance company. “[The vision],” says Virginia Johnson, founding member and later Artistic Director of DTH, “was to make people aware of the fact that this beautiful art form actually belongs to and can be done by anyone. Arthur Mitchell created this space for a lot of people who had been told, ‘You can’t do this,’ to give them a chance to do what they dreamed of doing.” Both the school and the company preached inclusivity and innovation. Dancers of all backgrounds and body types were welcomed at DTH. 

Dancing into the future

Now in their sixth decade, DTH continues to educate, perform, and inspire. Despite financial constraints and the recent pandemic, DTH has found a way to keep going. Check out their 2020 virtual performance, “Dancing Through Harlem.” Additionally, DTH’s outreach program, “Dancing Through Barriers,” travels across the country to offer classes in ballet, choreography, and musicology to anyone who wants to study dance—from children to seniors. For more about DTH, visit their website.

Brown Ballerinas: Inside the Dance Theatre of Harlem

Virginia Johnson in Creole Giselle

Pearl Primus: BDC celebrates Black History Month

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. 

Next up is Pearl Primus.

Who is Pearl Primus?

Pearl Primus was an American dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist on a mission prove African dance was worthy of both critical study and professional performance.

Discovering her gift

Primus was born in Trinidad in 1919 and emigrated to New York City with her parents when she was a toddler. She excelled in school and majored in biology/pre-med at Hunter College. However, racial discrimination in the field prevented Primus from landing a job. To make ends meet, she worked backstage for America Dances and was eventually hired as an understudy. Her natural talent for the art form was undeniable, and Primus went on to join the New Dance Group, a Lower East Side dance troupe that promoted social reform through their performance. At NDG, Primus studied with such teachers as Jane Dudley, Sophie Maslow, Nona Schurman, William Bales, Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey, and Louis Horst.

Dance as activism

Primus also began to choreograph her own works, fusing spirituals, jazz music, spoken word, and themes of her own heritage to demonstrate the African and African American experience. An eternal student, Primus did extensive fieldwork to inspire and authenticate her choreography. To experience the impoverished Black communities of the South, she posed as a migrant laborer working in the fields and attending church worship. And when she traveled to Africa for an 18-month anthropological study (with a grant from the Jules Rosenwald Foundation), Primus declared herself a man so that she could learn the dances that only men were allowed to do. Primus’ sociological research was unique in that she kept the original dances, songs, and customs intact in her choreography rather than adapting them to “fit” her artistic vision. 

An art worthy of study and performance

Primus choreographed for Broadway, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and her own troupe, The Primus Company. She continued her education by pursuing an MA in educational sociology and a PhD in anthropology from NYU. She founded the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute with classes in African American, Caribbean, and African dance forms as well as ballet and modern technique. Primus went on to teach anthropology and ethnic dance at numerous universities and was awarded a National Medal for the Arts in 1991. She remained active in the dance community until her death in 1994.

Fanga Dance

Strange Fruit

Michael Peters: BDC celebrates Black History Month

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. 

Next up is Michael Peters.

Who is Michael Peters?

Michael Peters was an African American director and choreographer best known for his work creating music videos for pop stars like Diana Ross, Pat Benatar, and Michael Jackson.

A born and bred New Yorker

Peters was born in 1948 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to an African American father and white Jewish mother. From an early age, he loved musicals like West Side Story and My Fair Lady. As a teen, Peters attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High school of Music & Art and Performing Arts and trained at the Bernice Johnson Cultural Arts Center in Queens. Early on in his career, Peters danced on Broadway in shows like The Wiz and Purlie and worked with modern choreographers including Alvin Ailey and Talley Beatty. 

The “Balanchine of MTV”

Peters got his big break choreographing Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby.” He went on to choreograph music videos for other famous stars like Lionel Richie, Pat Benatar, Diana Ross, Billy Joel, and Michael Jackson. Peters makes a few cameos as a dancer in many of these videos, too. He quickly became known as the “Balanchine of MTV.” Beyond the world of music videos, Peters choreographed and directed for both stage and screen. He won a Tony Award for Dreamgirls (with co-choreographer, Michael Bennett), staged live shows for Aretha Franklin, Ben Vereen, the Pointer Sisters, and Earth Wind and Fire, worked on films such as “Sister Act II,” “13 Going on 30,” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” and directed episodes of popular shows like “New Kids on the Block,” FAME,” and “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”

#CreditTheCreator

In addition to his Tony for Dreamgirls, Peters won two Primetime Emmy Awards (“Liberty Weekend” and “The Jacksons: An American Dream”) and the American Choreography Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Feature Film (“What’s Love Got to Do with It”). He was a strong advocate for choreographers’ rights and started a campaign for an Academy Award to acknowledge choreography. Peters died of AIDS in 1994 at the age of 46.

Watch Peters’ work here:

Michael Jackson “Beat It”

Michael Jackson “Thriller” rehearsals

Francis Morgan and Michael Peters on Soul Train

Mable Lee: BDC celebrates Black History Month

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 AlongBubblin’ 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.

Katherine Dunham: BDC celebrates Black History Month

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.

Next up is Katherine Dunham.

Who is Katherine Dunham?

Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) was an American dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist who informed her work (and namesake technique) with African American, Caribbean, African, and South American movement styles, themes, and other influences.

A dance student beyond the studio

Dunham was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois to a French-Canadian mother and father with ties to Madagascar and West Africa. While she danced as a child, Dunham never envisioned a career in the arts. Instead, she followed her brother to the University of Chicago to study anthropology. After founding the dance company, Ballet Negre, Dunham was encouraged by her professors to integrate her academics and her art. For her master’s thesis, Dunham explored the ethnography (the study of culture) of dance through fieldwork in Jamaica, Trinidad, Martinique, and Haiti. She researched the material aspect, organization, form, and function of dance (for example, the use of dance in ritual and the evolution of dance during the African diaspora).

Bringing her studies to the stage

While Dunham was offered another grant to continue her studies, she decided to head to the coasts where she performed both on Broadway and in Hollywood films such as Star-Spangled Rhythm and Stormy Weather. But in addition to performing, Dunham longed to create. She revived her dance ensemble (renamed The Katherine Dunham Company) and toured her choreography throughout the United States and around the world. The Dunham Company performed on Broadway, in Hollywood films, on national television broadcasts, and in over 30 international countries. Despite their acclaim, the company frequently faced racial discrimination, receiving subpar accommodations and sometimes being denied any hotel options. Dunham refused to perform with her company in segregated theaters where Black audiences were forced to sit in the back or prohibited altogether. She brought several lawsuits to court in order to shine a light on the injustice.

Dance education takes a whole new meaning

In 1946, Dunham founded The Katherine Dunham School of Art and Research (later known as The Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts) in New York City. Here, Dunham cultivated her namesake technique—a modern dance style infused with ballet vocabulary and Caribbean folk movement. While Dunham Technique is a codified method, it is instilled with a philosophy: dance is a way of life—an integration of mind, body, and soul that has the power to transform people’s lives. In alignment with that mission, the Dunham School offered not only Dunham Technique and other genres of dance, but also classes in music, drama, foreign language, and anthropology.

Throughout her career at her school and with her company, Dunham continued to publish scholarly articles and lecture at universities and societies around the world. Even after retiring from the stage, she remained in the spotlight as a writer, educator, and humanitarian. For her incomparable contribution to the field, Dunham was bestowed numerous honorary doctorates and awards including the Haitian Legion Honor of Merit, a Distinguished Service Award from the American Anthropological Association, and a Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts.

A lasting legacy

Dunham’s choreographic, academic, and humanitarian work have inspired people around the globe. Her work lives on through Dunham Technique (which is often part of conservatory and collegiate curriculum) and through The Katherine Dunham Center for the Arts & Humanities and The Institute for Dunham Technique Certification.

Coles & Atkins: BDC celebrates Black History Month

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.

Next up we’ve got Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins.

Who are Honi Coles and Cholly Atkins?

Coles & Atkins were tap duo known for their suave style and impeccable unison. Instead of showing off acrobatics and bold tricks, the pair mesmerized audiences with their cool, laid-back vibe and signature “Soft Shoe” dance where they performed a painstakingly slow and hypnotically smooth routine in perfect harmony—a talent that is especially challenging for tap dancers who need to not only match the physical movements of their partner but also the exact sound and quality of the taps.

Before they were a team

Charles “Honi” Coles (1911-1992) grew up in Philadelphia where he learned to tap on the streets, challenging neighborhood kids to dance duels—and usually winning. As a young adult, Coles moved to New York City to perform as part of vaudevillian troupe, “The Three Millers.” But when the other two dancers sought to replace Coles, he decided to prove them wrong by perfecting his technique and amping up his performance. When Coles returned to the NYC dance scene, he was hailed for his graceful style and incredibly fast feet. He performed with “The Lucky Seven Trio” and as a soloist for Cab Calloway’s orchestra before pairing up with Cholly Atkins (*read more about Coles & Atkins below). After their career as a duo, Coles worked as production manager for the Apollo Theater, served as president of the Negro Actors Guild, co-founder of the Copasetics (a tap ensemble honoring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson), and won both a Tony and Drama Desk award for his performance in Broadway’s My One and Only. Later in his life, Coles was bestowed a Dance Magazine Award, Capezio Award for Lifetime Achievement in Dance, and National Medal for the Arts to honor his lasting legacy in tap dance.

Honi as Tito, the bandleader, in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing

Charles “Cholly” Atkins (1913-2003) was born in Pratt City, Alabama and moved to Buffalo, New York with his family at the age of seven. Atkins grew up performing in his school’s musicals and, as a teenager, worked as a singing waiter. He and coworker, William Porter, partnered up to form the song-and-dance act, “Two Rhythm Pals.” Atkins went on to dance with Dotty Saulters before pairing up with Honi Coles (*read more about Coles & Atkins below). Throughout his performance career, Atkins also choreographed and coached behind-the-scenes. He was named staff choreographer at Motown Records and staged acts for stars like the Temptations, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, and the Supremes. He also won a Tony Award (shared with Fayard Nicholas, Frankie Manning, and Henry LeTang) for his choreography in the Broadway show, Black and Blue. In 1993, Atkins was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to teach vocal choreography (staging for vocal artists and singing groups) in colleges and universities.

A “class act”

Coles & Atkins won over audiences with their elegance, charm, and no-fail formula—beginning with a fast-paced song-and-dance number, followed by their trademark soft-shoe, and ending with an impressive dance challenge where each performer one-ups the other with their very best moves. The dynamic duo performed throughout the Las Vegas show circuit, with the big bands of Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Billy Eckstine, and Count Basie, and on Broadway in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Coles & Atkins were considered a “class act”–the cream-of-the-crop tap dancers—and their signature style continues to influence and inspire tap dancing today.

Don Campbell: BDC celebrates Black History Month

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.

Next up is Don Campbell.

Who is Don Campbell?

Don “Campbellock” Campbell (1951-2020) was an American dancer and choreographer famous for developing “locking” and performing with his dance troupe, The Lockers.

What is locking?

Locking is a style of hip hop in which a dancer freezes or “locks” for a brief moment before returning to fast-paced, fluid movement.

Discovering dance in La La Land

Similar to Janet Collins, Campbell grew up with an affinity for art—specifically sketching and drawing—and discovered his love for dance after moving to Los Angeles for college. He was a regular in the dance club scene gaining recognition for winning contest after contest and beginning to cultivate his signature dance, “The Campbellock” (what we now refer to as “locking”). Campbell’s reputation and suave style landed him a featured dancer role on the hit television series, “Soul Train,” a nationally-broadcast musical variety show featuring primarily Black performing artists.

A pivot to be proud of

Despite two years on “Soul Train,” Campbell was let go after asking that the dancers get paid. Many other dancers were removed from the show for the same reason, so Campbell banded the group together to form The Lockers” (originally “The Campbellockers”). This new dance troupe consisted of Fred Berry, Toni Basil (co-founder), Adolfo “Shabadoo” Quinones, Bill “Slim The Robot,” Williams Fred “Mr. Penguin,” Berry Leo “Fluky Luke” Williamson, and Greg “Campbellock, Jr.” Once tossed aside by “Soul Train” for standing up for dancers’ rights, Campbell and The Lockers swiftly rose to stardom of their own, performing with top celebrity entertainers and on shows including The Carol Burnett Show, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Carson, The Oscars, The Grammys, and Saturday Night Live.

A lasting legacy

While The Lockers disbanded amicably in the 1980s, Campbell and his signature style of dance grew ever more popular. Many of his original steps can be seen in music videos by Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, N’SYNC, Busta Rhymes, and Michael Jackson, to name just a few. Campbell went on to become an international hip hop educator and ambassador, teaching, lecturing, and inspiring dancers all over the world. 

Campbell’s passion and creative innovation are eternal and will continue to influence the evolution of not only hip hop, but all performing arts. 

Janet Collins: BDC celebrates Black History Month

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 Janet Collins.

Who is Janet Collins?

Janet Collins (1917-2003) was the first Black prima ballerina to dance at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House.

Growing up amid adversity

Collins was born in New Orleans in 1917 and moved to Los Angeles with her family for the majority of her childhood. She divided her time between ballet and painting and attended the Los Angeles Art Center School and Los Angeles City College. Collins initially took ballet lessons at the local Catholic community center and then trained under Carmelita Maracci, allegedly one of the few teachers accepting Black students at the time. When she was just 15, Collins auditioned for and was accepted to join the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. However, she turned down the opportunity after being told she would have to wear lighter makeup to try and pass as white. 

Making career moves

Collins eventually made the move to New York City, having saved money from selling her artwork. She performed with Katherine Dunham and Lester Horton’s dance troupes, in films including Stormy Weather and Jack Cole’s The Thrill of Brazil, and on Broadway in Cole Porter’s Out of This World. She also began to choreograph and perform her own work throughout the city. And people were taking notice—Collins won the Donaldson Award (for best dancer on Broadway) and Dance Magazine dubbed her “the most outstanding debutante of the season.” 

In 1951, Collins was invited to join the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company. She was not only the first Black dancer to join the company, but also the first Black artist to perform on the Met stage. Collins danced with the Met until 1954, performing leading roles in ballets such as Aida and Carmen and garnering notable reviews from critics and audiences alike. Collins’ former partner, Loren Hightower, told Dance Magazine, “You could show Janet a movement, and immediately it became something that nobody else could do. But she did not alter it. It was as if Janet looked inward, and a strange power that she had seemed to come from there…it was magic, hypnotic. It was totally intuitive, and when anything is that unadornedly genuine, it’s absolutely compelling.”

Discrimination on the road

Despite her prima status, Collins experienced racism when the Met Ballet Company toured throughout the United States. In several cities, Collins’ understudy had to perform her leading roles, and she was not welcome in many hotels and restaurants. In response, the company threatened not to return to venues that practiced such segregation. Just as in her teen years, Collins rose above, committing herself to her own artistic excellence and allowing her performance onstage to speak for itself. 

Beyond the stage

After her career with the Met, Collins went on to establish her own dance troupe and choreographed for companies including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the San Francisco Opera. She taught at the School of American Ballet, Marymount Manhattan College, San Francisco Ballet, the Harkness House, and St. Joseph’s School for the Deaf, always empowering her students to grow as artists and teaching them to accept nothing short of excellence. Collins passed away in 2003, but her legacy—both on stage and off—paved the way for future generations of Black dancers and continues to inspire and inform choreographers, educators, and audiences today.