African-American Modern Dance Choreographers

African-American modern dance employs various aspects of modern dance while infusing elements of African and Caribbean movements into choreography.

During the early 20th Century, African-American dancers such as Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus used their backgrounds as dancers and their interest in learning their cultural heritage to create African-American modern dance techniques. 

As a result of Dunham and Primus' work, dancers such as Alvin Ailey were able to follow suit. 

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Pearl Primus

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Pearl Primus, 1943. Public Domain

 Pearl Primus was the first African-American modern dancer. Throughout her career, Primus used her craft to express social ills in United States’ society. In 1919, Primus was born and her family immigrated to Harlem from Trinidad. While studying anthropology at Columbia University, Primus began her career in the theatre as an understudy for a performance group with the National Youth Administration. Within a year, she received a scholarship from New Dance Group and continued to develop her craft.

In 1943, Primus performed Strange Fruit. It was her first performance and included no music but the sound of an African-American man being lynched. According to John Martin of The New York Times, Primus’ work was so great that she was “entitled to a company of her own.”

Primus continued to study anthropology and researched dance in Africa and its Diaspora. Throughout the 1940s, Primus continued to incorporate the techniques and styles of dance found in the Caribbean and several west African countries. One of her most famous dances was known as the Fanga.

She went on to study for a PhD and did research on dance in Africa, spending three years on the continent learning native dances. When Primus returned, she performed many of these dances to audiences throughout the world. Her most famous dance was the Fanga, an African dance of welcome which introduced traditional African dance to the stage.

One of Primus’ most notable students was writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou

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Katherine Dunham

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Katherine Dunham, 1956. Wikipedia Commons/Public Domain

 Considered a pioneer in African-American styles of dance, Katherine Dunham used her talent as an artist and academic to show the beauty of African-American forms of dance.

Dunham made her debut as a performer in 1934 in the Broadway musical Le Jazz Hot and Tropics. In this performance, Dunham introduced audiences to a dance called L’ag’ya, based on a dance developed by enslaved Africans ready to revolt against society. The musical also featured early African-American forms of dance such as the Cakewalk and Juba. 

Like Primus, Dunham was not only a performer, but also a dance historian. Dunham conducted research throughout Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Martinique to develop her choreography.

In 1944, Dunham opened her dance school and taught students not only tap, ballet, dance forms of the African Diaspora and percussion. She also taught students philosophy of learning these dance forms, anthropology and language.

Dunham was born in 1909 in Illinois. She died in 2006 in New York City. 

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Alvin Ailey

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Alvin Ailey, 1955. Public Domain

Choreographer and dancer Alvin Ailey often receives credit for mainstreaming modern dance.

Ailey began his career as a dancer at the age of 22 when he became a dancer with the Lester Horton Company. Soon after, he learned Horton’s technique, he became artistic director of the company. At the same time, Ailey continued to perform in Broadway musicals and teach.

In 1958, he established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Based out of New York City, the dance company’s mission was to reveal to audiences African-American heritage by combining African/Caribbean dance techniques, modern and jazz dance. Ailey’s most popular choreography is Revelations.

In 1977, Ailey received the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. Just one year before his death, Ailey received the Kennedy Center Honors.

Ailey was born on January 5, 1931 in Texas. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was a child as part of the Great Migration. Ailey died on December 1, 1989 in New York City.