In honor of Black History Month, here are some of the most influential and inspiring black dancers who paved the way for future generations.
The Beyoncé of the Jazz Age: Josephine Baker 1906–1975
The NAACP named May 20 Josephine Baker Day.
Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives
Josephine Baker was a comedic dancer, famous for her beauty and risqué performances. Despite racial prejudices of the 1920s, she transformed herself from small-town dance comedienne to international superstar.
Baker's big break came in 1925, when she was recruited for a new, all-black variety show in Paris called La Revue Nègre. In it, she danced suggestively while nearly nude in a tribal costume. She became an instant hit and the show's poster girl. After hugely successful runs at the famous Parisian music hall, Folies Bergère, Baker tried her luck in French movies. She starred in Zouzou (1934) and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935), both big hits.
Instead of letting 1920s stereotypes of black dancers define her, Baker used her image to propel herself to stardom and eventually challenged social perceptions of black women. She paved the way for modern-day female black superstars like Beyoncé, who, like Baker, flaunts her sensuality with confidence. Beyoncé cites Baker as an influence and performed her own version of Baker's banana dance in 2006.