Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Home About the Film Dance Timeline Behind the Dance Biographies Resources Lesson Plans Screensaver
Free to Dance Behind The Dance
HISTORIC ESSAYS

Pioneers in Negro Concert Dance: 1931 to 1937
1 2 3 4


1933

The most unusual event of the season took place on January 7, 1933 at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was the premiere of Louis Gruenberg's American opera "Emperor Jones," with Met star Lawrence Tibbett. Winfield choreographed his role of the witch doctor and the ensemble numbers. Critic Mary Watkins wrote, "When Hemsley Winfield's troupe of Negro dancers stormed on in the final scene, so much raw vitality and exuberance was a distinct shock. Mr. Winfield was, as a matter of fact after Mr. Tibbett, the hero of the occasion. ... His sinister and frantic caperings as the witch doctor made even the most sluggish, opera-infected blood run cold." This performance almost didn't happen because the Met wanted to blacken the faces of Met singers and dancers rather than use black dancers. Mr. Tibbett threatened to quit unless the Winfield group appeared. The Met retaliated by not listing the dancers in the playbill. (The Met cast had appeared in blackface for the opera "Dance in the Place Congo" during the 1900s.

Hall Johnson's folk play, "Run Lil Chillun," was staged on Broadway with dances by Doris Humphrey. And the Workers Dance League invited Winfield to participate in the first "forum recital." "What Shall the Negro Dance About?" was the main topic of discussion led by Winfield and sculptor Augusta Savage.

1934

Hemsley Winfield succumbed to pneumonia. His final words: "We're building a foundation that will make people take black dance seriously."

Gertrude Stein's unconventional opera, " Four Saints in Three Acts," introduced the stylized choreography of English choreographer Frederick Ashton. Mabel Hart was one of six dancers, and the exposure to a new style of movement extended their range of expressive capability.

The sensation of the year was Asadata Dafora's dance drama "Kykunkor" (The Witch Woman). Based upon traditional folk expressions (from Mende, Sierra Leone), it proved that themes from folklore could be successful on the American concert stage. The company of 25, called Shologa Cloba, was composed of Africans and African Americans. Frances Atkins (Winfield Dance Co.) assisted Dafora in locating dancers for the company. Critics were unanimous in praising Dafora's concept of an African dance theater, blending ritual, legend, chanting, drumming, acting, singing, and a variety of dances to further the story. Shologa Cloba was the forerunner of all national dance companies, which introduced their culture to the American public. Alma Sutton was noticed for her stunning solos, and Abdul Assen's power-charged acting as the witch doctor attracted Broadway actors to the theater to study his technique. One commentator said, "Let this be an inspiration to the Negro to dance, not always as a diversion but as an expression of life."

Katherine Dunham and her Negro Dance Group appeared in William Grant Still's West Indian ballet, "La Guiablesse," at the Chicago Civic Opera House. Her meeting with Dr. Redfield, ethnologist at the University of Chicago, sparked her intense interest in showing that "there was a sound black dance tradition, deserving the same respect as the white European tradition then dominating the dance stage ... and she would trace the roots of black dance as far as she could."

1935

The Hampton Institute Creative Dance Group made its first appearance off campus at the Mosque in Richmond, Virginia on March 23, 1935. (History books have incorrectly indicated March 1925.) Dances on the program were composed and taught by Mrs. Bernice M. Smothers and Charles H. Williams.

The program format was similar to Ted Shawn's -- The Cycle of Depression (emotional states), Dances of the People (world cultures), African Dances, Characteristic Dance Rhythms, and Negro Spirituals. Ted Shawn choreographed the section Labor Rhythms, which included "Cutting the Sugar Cane" and "Dis Ole Hammer -- Water Boy." During their 1937 New York appearance, critic Walter Terry indicated that he preferred the spirituals as danced by Helen Tamiris and Ted Shawn. Negro dancers did not have the technique to do justice to their own material.

The Karamu Dance Group, organized by Margaret Witt, became a major entity in Karamu's Performing Arts Division (founded in 1916). Several Karamu dancers later joined modern dance groups in New York and appeared in Broadway shows.

1936

The Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre (WPA) scored a hit with Orson Welles' "Macbeth." Asadata Dafora choreographed the dances and created the rhythms for the Haitian setting of the drama. The Lafayette Theater was also the locale for Ad Bates' performance as the Lion in Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion." Edna Guy performed at the First National Dance Congress and Festival. For the first time in her career, her spirituals were given a negative review by Henry Gilfound in DANCE OBSERVER.

Black choreographer Herbie Harper introduced George Balanchine to vernacular dances and rhythms for the jazz ballet "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" in the Broadway-bound musical "On Your Toes." Dance historians believe the successful use of black material in white shows contributed to the near extinction of black musicals.

essay list