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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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