Black American dance and music has been a major contributor to the American dance scene both historically and in modern times. Drawing upon African cultural influences, social dancing and folk traditions, black American dance and singing groups continue to entertain and enrich the cultural landscape. Their influences are seen in places such as the Harlem Renaissance that influenced world dance styles, performing-arts dance troupes, Motown and modern pop singing groups, who incorporate a great deal of choreography into their performances.
The Civil War was over and blacks from the deep South and the Caribbean were migrating north. New York's Harlem became a cultural mecca, and artists from around the world gathered there. Out of the mostly black clubs came dance forms influenced by black culture that would shake the world. This included the Charleston, the jitterbug, the Lindy hop and swing. Eventually, the Harlem Renaissance transcended geography and came to stand for a movement in which black American artists embraced black culture as part of their art. West African dancer and choreographer Asdata Dafora formed the black dance company the Federal Theater African Dance Troupe. It performed dance dramas and worked with actors such as Orson Welles to add choreography to films and theatrical performances. Katherine Dunham, sometimes called the matriarch of black dance, formed the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, which performed both modern dance and ballet. A highly trained dancer and an anthropologist, she studied dance forms and introduced them to young African-American dancers in the U.S.
Modern African-American Dance Troupes
Modern African-American dance troupes continue to use African cultural dance as inspiration for their choreography. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is the most famous modern dance troupe. Founded in New York in March 1958, Alvin Ailey built his company on engaging African-American cultural experiences such as blues, jazz, spirituals and gospel. The Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded in 1969 shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It set out to bring ballet and classical dance to the black community and has become a world-class dance troupe and school. The Lulu Washington Dance Theatre was founded in South Los Angeles in 1980. It is a world-class contemporary dance company that choreographs modern dance incorporating African-American history and culture.
Motown gets its name from the record company founded by Barry Gordy in Detroit in 1959. An African-American owned record company, it helped integrate African-American music into popular culture. Choreographers such as Cholly Atkins introduced dance moves to many of these groups, having a huge affect on groups such as the Supremes, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. These groups all ended up incorporating dance moves into their performances and concerts, and it became part of their fame.
Popular black singing groups for the past several decades have continued to use dance and choreography as part of their performances. Groups such as the Jacksons hired choreographers and made dance a huge part of their music, creating moves that would be popularized in dance clubs. The introduction of MTV gave groups in the 1980s and '90s a chance to show off dance. Black boy bands such as Bel Biv Devoe, New Edition, Boyz II Men, Jagged Edge and Blackstreet performed rap and hip-hop, popularizing new dance forms that continue to evolve today.
- Photo Credit Thos Robinson/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images Bill McCay/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
- Victoria and Albert Museum: History of Black Dance -- 20th-Century Black American Dance
- African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond; John O. Perpener
- PBS: Pioneers in Negro Concert Dance -- 1931 to 1937
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