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.

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.