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Celebrate Black History Month by Remembering These Trailblazing Black Dancers

Instead of letting 1920s stereotypes of black dancers define her, Josephine Baker used her image to propel herself to stardom and eventually challenged social perceptions of black women. Photos courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

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 Nicholas Brothers

In Sun Valley Serenade (1941).

Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library's Jerome Robbins Dance Division

Fayard and Harold Nicholas, aka the Nicholas Brothers, were known for their one-of-a-kind "flash act" performances, characterized by full-bodied animation, rhythmic perfection and fearless stunts. They were among the first African-American entertainers to break through the segregation of pre-Civil-Rights-era America and be featured in integrated films.

Their song-and-dance act caught them plenty of attention: They were given a small dance number in the film Kid Millions (1934), and George Balanchine cast them in his 1937 Broadway musical Babes in Arms. For the next 14 years, they appeared steadily in films as a dancing duo, though they were never given dramatic or heavy speaking roles. But they made the most of their limited screen time, often stealing the show from the films' headliners. In Down Argentine Way (1940), they had a dance-off with slides, splits and one-footed wings. Stormy Weather (1943) highlighted their athleticism, via a series of leapfrogging splits while going down a staircase.

By the 1950s, the brothers had dissolved their act, frustrated by the racist attitudes that still limited access for African-American performers and audiences. They parted ways to pursue independent performing careers, eventually reuniting as a duo to make guest appearances at various events throughout the 1970s and '80s. After a six-decade career, Harold died in 2000 at age 79; Fayard passed in 2006 at 91.

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How does your studio handle enrollment for boys? Photo courtesy of Shona Roebuck

I recently set up a classical ballet partnering master class for my youth dance company. A pas de deux class, if you will—think Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, etc., chock full of promenades, pirouettes and lifts.

I knew we would have plenty of girls interested in signing up, but enlisting boys is always a challenge.

Without much thought, we offered it for free to boys who attended because, here's the thing: no boys = no class. At least, in a ballet partnering class—every Sugar Plum Fairy needs a Cavalier, right?

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Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Sean Boyd, courtesy of White

Julie Hammond White is an associate professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she directs the dance education BFA. Here, the mother of two (Townsend, 10, and Dominic, 7) takes us through a typical week of juggling her personal and professional life. We caught up with White in October on the first day of work after her fall break. —Jill Randall


6:30–10 am Up and trying to rouse the boys. Throw in a load of laundry, pack lunches, set out uniforms. Drop kids off at school and head to the library. Finish planning advanced ballet.

10:30–11 Read 99 (?!) work e-mails. Taking a few days off is a bad idea…

11 am–12:30 pm Teach advanced ballet. I'm doing what I call "vitamin phrases": 2- to 3-minute phrases that focus on one aspect of ballet (this week, petit allégro).

12:40–1:55 Teach Methods in Dance Education. This is a course that all juniors, regardless of their major (performance/choreography or dance ed), must take to learn how to effectively teach dance in K–12, studios, higher education or community programs.

3:30–4 Grab a quick salad at restaurant across the street. Read letters from the promotion committee—passed the first stage of being recommended for full professor!

4–6 Grade DED 360 papers. These take a while. DED 360 is one of two writing- and speaking-intensive classes for the major. In their papers, students comment on eight areas of diversity as defined by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and find a media resource that addresses each to compare and contrast their views.

7–8 Grocery: bread, cantaloupe, Go-GURTS, apples, bananas, peanut butter, Nutella, pasta, cheese and oatmeal.

8–9 Laundry. Three loads. Also do a quick pickup of the house.

9 Boys home from day with Dad. They shower, brush teeth and set out their clothes for tomorrow. I sign homework and read them a story. Hugs and kisses, then bed by 10 pm.

10–10:30 More e-mails. Bed.

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Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Kyle Froman, courtesy of The Ailey School

Depending upon whom you ask, there are different approaches to mastering the art of turning. Whether it's fouetté turns or a single pirouette, every teacher tends to have their own unique way to break down the physics of pulling off balance, strong arms and quick spotting to students. And here's one more visual to consider, courtesy of master ballet teacher Finis Jhung.

Bottom line: There are never enough ways to describe how to do a pirouette.

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Do you call the pirouette position passé or retiré, or do you use both? What about the term élevé? Do you use it? Have you ever considered what these French words actually mean?

“Ballet terminology is somewhat subjective," says Raymond Lukens of ABT's JKO School. “Often there is no definitive way to say something. What's really important is to create a picture in the minds of your students so that they will do the step you're asking the best way possible. You can split hairs forever over this stuff!"

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Taylor Swift's latest music video for her hit song "Delicate" has taken the internet by storm since its premier at the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards. (Is anyone surprised? 💁) If you've been watching headlines, you know that it's simultaneously dancey, goofy, nods at Margaret Qualley's dance advertisement for KENZO and is chock-full of secret messages for all of Swift's biggest fans.

This entertaining video has us reflecting on some other dance-centric music videos we'll never get over. Check out our list of dancey music videos you need to watch right now. Let us know your favorite over on our Facebook page!

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Today in Ballet Dancers Are Actual Superheroes news:

You've no doubt heard that the fabulous Alicia Vikander is playing Lara Croft in the newest iteration of Tomb Raider, which hits movie theaters this Friday. But while her training for the high-octane action role was crazy tough, she says, studying at the Royal Swedish Ballet Schoolwas far tougher.

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Dance Teachers Trending
DaSilva (center) teaching at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts Center in NYC. Photo courtesy of DaSilva

Chanel DaSilva has two pillars of focus for every class she teaches: performance quality and musicality. The former Trey McIntyre Project dancer asks her students to really listen and be the music, emphasizing the importance of being expressive artists. She wants students to find that euphoric place dancers feel when they're under the lights with an audience watching. "I want that in class," she says. "Don't wait for the stage."

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