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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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