Rodgers, Rod 1937–1937
Rod Rodgers 1937–1937
Rod Rodgers is known for his commitment to bringing dance to poor, underserved communities and for his innovative and thought-provoking works. His work bridged the gap between black dance groups largely drawing upon authentic African dances exemplified by companies led by Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham, with the modern dance traditions of Erik Hawkins, Hanya Holm, and Charles Weidman. With a career that spanned over four decades, Rod Rodgers was one of the co-founders of the Association of Black Choreographers, a co-founder of the Coalition of Dance Arts (C.O.D.A.), and founder of the Rod Rodgers Dance Company. When Rodgers died on March 24, 2002, the dance world lost a remarkable and highly dedicated African-American artist.
Rodgers not only managed to keep his work free from the stereotypical, or oversimplified, images of black culture that were often presented on stage and in the media, but he successfully expressed the unique cultural and social identity of African Americans. In an obituary for the New York Times, Jennifer Dunning cited a quote by Rodgers from a 1968 issue of Negro Digest: “Each dance I create has grown out of my personal experience as a black American. My function in the Revolution will be to share my personal experience through dance, a vital and growing experience, not to show only old stereotypes or create new ones.” Another quote from the Negro Digest appeared in an obituary written by Lewis Segal in the Los Angeles Times: “It is simply a question of what is more important, my total living experiences or those experiences which I consider particularly relevant to my blackness.”
Born on December 4, 1937, in Cleveland, Ohio, Rodgers grew up in Detroit, in a family of professional dancers and performers. His first dance teachers were his parents who acquainted their son with many different dance styles. Rodgers attended the Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts, and studied with several dance teachers whose technique was directly influenced by Katherine Dunham, Pearly Primus, and Hanya Holm. In 1963 Rodgers moved to New York City, where he studied with Mary Antony, Erick Hawkins, Charles Weidman, and Hanya Holm. In the mid-1960s Rodgers began presenting programs and teaching dance to children in impoverished neighborhoods through the Head Start Program. In 1965 he became the director of the dance project for Harlem’s Mobilization for Youth during which time he created a lecture-demonstration program, Dance Poems … Black, Brown, Negro.
For his dedication and talent, Rodgers earned a generous award from the John Whitney Fellowship, a grant which gave him the financial security to devote his time to dancing, teaching, and choreographing. Rodgers formed the Rod Rodgers Dance Company, an experimental and racially integrated company which focused on innovative works that addressed social issues and celebrated prominent African-American artists and activists. Rodgers felt that it was a paradox that dance, a truly universal art form, just like music, attracted relatively small audiences.
Although the Rod Rodgers Dance Company became well known and was in demand, Rodgers remained
Born Rod Audrian Rodgers on December 4, 1937, in Cleveland, OH; died on March 24, 2002, in New York, NY; son of Ernest and LaJune; divorced; children: Jason Delis, Kalan Windsor, Kaldar Audrian, Jamal Kenmar. Education: Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts, scholarships at professional dance studios in NYC.
Career: Choreographer, master teacher and artistic director of Rod Rodgers Dance Co.; choreographer, actor, and director in several television specials; choreographed, staged, and directed The Black Cowboys; choreographed Aida; percussionist; photographer; graphic designer.
Awards: AUDELCO award; John Hay Whitney Fellowship; NEA, Rockefeller Foundation; Spirit of Detroit.
committed to bringing dance programs to communities that had limited opportunities to see professional dance concerts. In 1967 the Coalition of Dance Arts (C.O.D.A.) organized the Dancemobile project which took dance groups, including Rodgers’s, through the boroughs of New York on a flat-bed truck. Later the Rod Rodgers Dance Company toured extensively within the United States and traveled to many other countries including Portugal, Mexico, Syria, Senegal, Kenya, Zaire, Zambia, and Nigeria. Segal’s obituary also included a quote from Rodgers that was printed in the New York Times, in 1992: “When we talk about celebrating the creative struggle of black Americans, we extend that to include not just struggles for freedom and social change, but also struggles to create innovative works.”
Reflecting his training in the visual arts and music, Rodgers’s dances blended traditional African movements and rhythms with African-American dance traditions. His signature works include Rhythmdances whereby the dancers contribute to the music with percussive instruments that are either hand held or worn. The integration of movement and percussion, exemplified by Percussion Suite (1967), Tangents (1968), Hambaree (1970), and Rhythm Ritual (1973), became a trademark of the Rod Rodgers Dance Company. To expand the limits of real and imaginary space, Rodgers often performed Rhythmdances outside the traditional performance space—for example, within city scapes or in the street.
In his memorable Poets & Peacemakers series, Rodgers created works inspired by Langston Hughes (Langston Lives, 1981), Martin Luther King, Jr. (The Legacy, 1984), George Washington Carver (Against Great Odds, 1986), Duke Ellington (Echoes of Ellington, 1989), Harriet Tubman and other women of color (Keep On Goin’, 1990), and Malcolm X (Quest, 1995). He also created major works of social commentary including, Now! Nigga (1970), Box (1971), and Victims (1989). Rodgers’s works also include several jazz ballets that blend traditional with experimental movements. In Backstage, critic Lisa Jo Sagolla wrote, “Choreographer Rod Rodgers makes intelligent work—keenly crafted dances built of classic moderndance vocabulary that display thoughtful preparation and imaginative integration of sound, movement, and ideas.”
Rodgers has also successfully collaborated with other artists, musicians and designers on several projects. For example, he choreographed Aida for the Syracuse Opera Company as well as Malcolm Boyd’s A Study in Color, directed and staged The Black Cowboys for the Harlem Opera, and staged a reading of Ntozake Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo. He also choreographed and performed in the television special, Like It Is. Other prominent dance companies, such as the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble and Phildanco, have added Rodgers’s work to their repertoires. Ever the ground-breaker, Rodgers participated, along with his company, in the first Dance Black America festival in 1983 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Just months before he died from complications following a stroke, Rodgers was honored by the International Association of Backs in Dance for his extraordinary contribution to modern dance. After Rodgers had his stroke, his friends and colleagues, who knew how gracious and generous he was to many artists, organized a benefit to help defray costs for medical treatment. The benefit, which was held in the Annex Theater at La MaMa featured performances by Carmen De Lavallade, Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company, Eleo Pomare, DUO Theater, and Tina Pratt—just to name a few.
Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, MacMillan, 1996.
Backstage, July 16, 1999.
Dance Magazine, June 2002.
Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2002.
New York Times, March 29, 2002.
—Christine Miner Minderovic
"Rodgers, Rod 1937–1937." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rodgers-rod-1937-1937
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