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Theatrical Dance

Theatrical Dance

Africans who came to the Americas brought with them a rich tradition in instrumental music, song, and dance. By the early 1800s, not long after the official creation of the United States as a country, white men were carrying their versions of slave dances to the minstrel stage, arguably America's first indigenous theater form. According to Robert Toll, the arena in which early minstrelsy showed the strongest debt to African Americans was that of dance.

Several African-American minstrel performers were international stars and extraordinary dancers. William Henry Lane, known as Master Juba, ingeniously combined the Irish jig and reel with African derived movements and rhythms to lay the foundation for what is known as American tap dance. Billy Kersands, who introduced the Virginia Essence, was both an excellent dancer and black minstrelsy's most famous comedian. Black minstrel men and women brought fresh and original dance material to the American stage: stop time dances, various trick dances, and authentic exhibitions of the jig, the cakewalk, and the buck-and-wing.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, white road shows generally did not open their stages to black actors and actresses. During those same years, however, such shows as Uncle Tom's Cabin and In Old Kentucky often featured black dancers and choral groups. Some nineteenth-century traveling shows attracted new talent by holding weekly dance contests.

Many touring shows began and ended in New York City around the turn of the twentieth century. With more theaters than any other American city and a solid theatrical tradition for black artists, it was a logical place to plant seeds for the development of black musical theater. Bob Coles and Billy Johnson's production of A Trip to Coon-town (1898) was the first musical play organized, managed, produced, and written by African Americans. An excellent dancer, Coles staged several specialty acts that included dance. Will Marion Cook's Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898) closely followed A Trip to Coon-town. Clorindy set a new standard for the Broadway stage by introducing exuberant dancing and "Negro syncopated music." Cook's model was adapted for the white stage by George Lederer, who produced Clorindy at the Casino Roof Garden.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the cakewalk became the rage of Manhattan, with Bert Williams and George Walker the dancing masters of white New York society. The Williams and Walker musical comedy In Dahomey (1902) lifted the cakewalk to the status of an international dance craze after the show's smashing London run of 1903. Walker's wife, Aida Overton Walker, was America's leading black female singer and dancer of that era. She played the female lead in and created most of the choreography for In Dahomey and the shows that followed and was probably the first woman to receive program credit as choreographer.

A strong influence on many twentieth-century dance steps, the cakewalk initiated the evolution of American social and theatrical dances that would upstage and then replace the nineteenth-century cotillions, schottisches, and waltzes. The long-standing impact of the cakewalk led James Weldon Johnson to observe in 1930: "The influence [of the cakewalk] can be seen today on any American stage where there is dancing. Anyone who witnesses a musi cal production in which there is dancing cannot fail to notice the Negro stamp on all the movements."

Between 1910 and 1920 black theatrical development in New York took place away from Broadway, allowing African-American musical theater to develop without the constraints of white critics. Darktown Follies (1913), the most important musical of the decade leading into the twenties, exploded with such dances as ballin' the jack, tap air steps, the Texas Tommy, the cakewalk, and the tango. Several critics shared the New York World's claim that the dancing was the best New York had ever seen. Astounded by the energy, vitality, and dynamic dancing of the cast, these critics eventually lured downtown visitors to Harlem. Florenz Ziegfeld, one such visitor, bought the rights to "At the Ball," the Darktown Follies' finale, and put it in his Follies of 1914.

In 1921 Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Flourney Miller and Aubrey Lyles joined forces and created the most important

black musical comedy of the 1920s, Shuffle Along. The dancing in Shuffle Along included buck-and-wing, slow-motion acrobatics, tap air steps, eccentric steps, lego-mania, the soft shoe, and high kicking. Several members of the cast later became international stars, notably Josephine Baker and Florence Mills.

Shuffle Along 's greatest contribution and innovation was the dancing of its sixteen-woman chorus line. According to Marshall and Jean Stearns, "musical comedy took on a new and rhythmic life and [white] chorus girls began learning to dance to jazz." Numerous white stars of the theater learned jazz routines from downtown and uptown African-American dance instructors.

Shuffle Along was followed by a wave of African-American cast shows that continued to feature exciting dance. Runnin' Wild (1923) introduced the Charleston, Dinah (1924) introduced the Black Bottom, and Chocolate Dandies (1924), starring Josephine Baker, featured a female chorus line that presented swinging and complex ensemble tap sequences, a new development created by choreographer Toots Davis.

The opening of white producer Lew Leslie's Dixie to Broadway (1924) helped stabilize a trend that stifled the evolution of black musicals for years to come: All the performers were black, but all the producers and off-stage creative talents were white. White dance directors were often credited with choreography created by black dancers. Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928 showcased the talents of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker, and Blackbirds of 1930 featured Buck and Bubbles, the Berry Brothers, and "Jazzlips" Richardson.

The musical comedy hit of 1929 was Hot Chocolates, which began as a revue at Connie's Inn, a Harlem cabaret. Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, and Harry Brooks provided the music and lyrics; Leroy Smith's band played in the orchestra pit; and for part of the show's run, Louis Armstrong played his trumpet during intermission. Even with all the musical talent on hand, however, it was the dancing of the Six Crackerjacks, tap dancer Roland Holder, and "Jazzlips" Richardson that prevailed in the reviews. Cecil Smith commented in 1950 that "the rhythm of Broadway musical comedies is suffused with syncopations and figures which became rooted in our national consciousness in the 1920s."

While black musicals of the twenties were revolutionizing American theatrical dance on Broadway, African-American vaudevillians were impressing theater audiences throughout the country. Since the early 1900s black dance teams were rising in popularity on vaudeville stages, and many original and inventive combinations of comic, tap, and acrobatic routines thrilled audiences and inspired emerging artists. Although some black dancers performed on white theater circuits, most were restricted to black theaters. Jack Wiggins, Bill Robinson, Eddie Rector, the Berry Brothers, and a host of other star dancers served their apprenticeships on the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA), the black circuit. Free of the constraints imposed on aspiring artists in schools and studios, black artists in this setting could experiment and advance the development of vernacular dance at breakneck speed. The Whitman Sisters troupe (1900-1943), the greatest developer of black dancing talent, toured on the TOBA circuit for many years.

While TOBA and black musicals were enjoying their golden years, Harlem was fast establishing itself as one of the entertainment centers of the world. In Harlem cabarets and night clubs, dancers, musicians, and singers participated jointly in revues that rivaled Broadway shows. Business was booming in Connie's Inn, Smalls Paradise, and the Cotton Club, where revues were usually built around popular dance fads. Many of America's most exciting dancers appear on the roll call of Cotton Club dancers: the Berry Brothers, Cora La Redd, the Nicholas Brothers, Peg Leg Bates, Bill Robinson, the Four Step Brothers, Buck and Bubbles, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, the Three Chocolateers, Bessie Dudley, and Earl "Shakehips" Tucker.

The early 1930s saw American vernacular dance slowly disappear from Broadway shows. Between the late 1930s and the late 1950s there were only occasional shows that featured leading dancers of authentic jazz dance: The Hot Mikado (1939) showcased the fancy footwork of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Whitey's Lindy Hoppers; the short-lived Swingin' the Dream (1939) presented Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, including Norma Miller and Frankie Manning; Avon Long played the role of Sportin' Life in a revival of Porgy and Bess (1941); and Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles stole the show every night in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949). In addition, modern dance pioneer Katherine Dunham included African indigenous dances in some of her revues. For the most part, however, it was during this period that the American theater turned its back on indigenous dance.

A new performance format called "presentation" evolved in the early 1930s, as vaudeville theaters slowly converted to movie theaters. By this time, radio broadcasts helped create a demand for jazz bands throughout the country at hotels, supper clubs, theaters, nightclubs, and dance halls. Big bands took center stage, and many showcased two or three dancing acts. Tap dancer Honi Coles reported that during the late 1920s through the early 1940s, there were as many as fifty topflight dance acts. There was also a diversity of tap dancing acts, among them: eccentric dancing, a catchall term to describe dancers' use of individual styles and movements; flash dancing, which uses acrobatic combinations and fast-paced syncopations; adagio dancing, which features a slow style; comedy dancing, which includes singing, dancing, and dialogue; and acrobatic dancing, which includes somersaults, cartwheels, flips, and spins.

The fruitful years that dancers had enjoyed with jazz musicians and singers were brought to a halt in the mid-1940s. Although several factors led to the separation of jazz music and classic jazz dance, the single most detrimental factor was the imposition of a 20 percent tax against dancing nightclubs by federal, state, and city governments. Many theatrical dancers turned to other jobs, such as choreographing stage routines for pop musicians. With the help of choreographer and tap dancer Cholly Atkins, these artists became the new disseminators of vernacular dance on stage. Dancing singers appeared primarily on television, in films, and in rhythm-and-blues concerts in the United States and abroad. In the 1990s dancing singers continue to have a major impact on American vernacular dance from the Cadillacs through James Brown, the Temptations, the O'Jays, and Michael Jackson, to the hip-hop generation.

During the 1960s vernacular dance was kept alive in part by such television variety shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Lawrence Welk Show, Hollywood Palace, The Tonite Show, and American Bandstand. On Broadway there remained an implied African-American presence in the work of Broadway choreographers who combined ballet and modern dance with elements of their own particular interpretations of classic jazz dance. On the concert dance stage, black choreographers Alvin Ailey, Talley Beatty, Eleo Pomare, and Donald McKayle successfully presented works influenced by jazz dance. Ailey collaborated with Duke Ellington on several projects, and in 1976 the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater presented "Ailey Celebrates Ellington," featuring fifteen new ballets set to his music.

Fueled by the appearance of several tap masters at the 1962 Newport Jazz festival, jazz music critics began to write about rhythm tap as an art form. By the seventies, Broadway was once again embracing this genre. Tapping feet figured prominently in musicals of the 1970s and 1980s: No! No! Nanette! (1971), The Wiz (1975), Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976), Eubie! (1978), Black Broadway (1980), Sophisticated Ladies (1981), Tap Dance Kid (1983), and My One and Only (1983), which featured tap master Honi Coles. Cholly Atkins, Frankie Manning, Henry Le-Tang, and Fayard Nicholas won Tony Awards for their tap and jazz choreography in Black and Blue (1989), a musical revue that also featured tap artists Bunny Briggs, Ralph Brown, Lon Chaney, Jimmy Slyde, Dianne Walker, and the talented young dancer Savion Glover.

As Americans danced through the 1990s, African-American vernacular dance took center stage on television, in films, and in American musical theater. The last jazz music critic Martin Williams made this observation in Jazz Heritage (1985):

Most of the characteristics that we think of as "American" in our musicals are Afro-American.The same sort of thing is true of our theatrical dance. Tap dancing is obvious enough. But actually, almost any dancing in which the body moves with hips loose and flexible, with easy horizontal body movement below the waist, is Afro-influenced.

On the North-American continent African-American culture has been a wellspring of new creations in music, dance, comedy, and pantomime. For well over a century, African-American theatrical dancers have graced the stages of the United States and infused American culture with elegance in movement and an unmistakable style that has been embraced worldwide.

See also Baker, Josephine; Robinson, Bill "Bojangles"; Minstrels/Minstrelsy; Musical Theater; Social Dance; Tap Dance; Walker, George; Williams, Bert


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jacqui malone (1996)

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