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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.

Katherine Dunham Fused Together Dance and Anthropology

At the age of 82, Dunham went on a hunger strike in protest of the U.S. government's treatment of Haitian refugees

Photo courtesy of Southern Illinois University Carbondale

Katherine Dunham (1909–2006) brought African dance aesthetics to the United States, forever influencing modern and jazz dance. She was instrumental in getting respect for blacks on the concert dance stage and directed the first self-supported African-American dance company.

Dunham was born in Illinois, where she developed an interest in dance during high school. At the encouragement of her brother, she moved to Chicago in 1928, where she began studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. Dunham founded her own company, Ballet Négre, in 1930 as an alternative to the minstrel stereotype that was the predominant role available for African-American performers at the time. Though it soon folded, she was undeterred: Two years later, she created the Negro Dance Group with Ludmilla Speranzeva, her former ballet teacher.

In 1934, she was granted funding to travel to the Caribbean and conduct anthropological fieldwork in dance. She spent 10 months in Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Haiti, where she was initiated into the Haitian religion Vodou.

Upon her return to the U.S. in 1936, she re-formed her company, her choreography newly infused with the polyrhythmic and pulsating movements of the Caribbean. Dunham and her company performed in several Broadway revues, touted by critics as performers of a new dance genre, Negro dance. On tour, the company encountered significant racial prejudice—hotels refused rooms for her dancers, and presenters segregated audiences. Dunham became an activist, threatening to sue for discrimination and to withhold future engagements until circumstances had changed for the better. In 1951, she premiered her racially controversial piece Southland, despite warnings not to from the State Department, and was consequently refused funding for later touring.

In 1945, she opened the Katherine Dunham School of Dance in New York City. Her student body and faculty were both interracial and international; Dunham intended her school to be a model for racial equality.

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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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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.

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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.

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

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