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Free to Dance

By Susan Clark | HUMANITIES, January/February 2001 | Volume 22, Number 1

In much of the twentieth century, African American dancers were turned away from schools and dance companies, and some audiences questioned their right to appear in ballet or modern dance at all. In spite of that, the contribution of African American dancers to modern dance has been considerable--and the documentary film Free to Dance tells their story.

Edna Guy was fifteen when she first saw Ruth St. Denis dance in Greenwich Village. St. Denis, with her husband and dance partner, Ted Shawn, founded the Denishawn school and dance company, which became the training ground for dance pioneers Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, and Doris Humphrey. Guy sent a note backstage, asking to meet St. Denis, and a long friendship between the two began.

At St. Denis's urging, Guy tried to enroll in schools of modern dance. One school accepted her, but then asked her to leave because "some of the other girls didn't like a colored girl in their class." Edna wrote to her friend "Miss Ruth," who wrote back:
"Dear Girlie, Yes, I know you have this race problem with you constantly, and a big problem it is. But, you see, dear, you are a very ignorant little girl in relation to the conditions in this big city. Some things cannot be forced or hurried."

Although St. Denis's reply sounds disturbing and patronizing now, Free to Dance producer Madison Davis Lacy points out that St. Denis was also confined and trapped by her times. In the 1920s, blacks and whites simply did not appear on a concert stage together in the United States, even as members of a band. Edna Guy could not get a job as a chorus girl in Harlem in spite of her abilities as a dancer because her skin was too dark. St. Denis admitted Guy to Denishawn, where she grew as an artist and was a great favorite with the teachers. Yet she was only permitted to dance in school performances, not public ones. Even Ruth St. Denis, a pioneer in a revolutionary art form, would not risk putting a black dancer on the stage.

Edna Guy's role is not only poignant, but pivotal. She persisted as a dancer after leaving Denishawn and put together an evening of dance in New York City in 1937. The performance was significant in that it featured African American dancers--and because it helped launch the career of Katherine Dunham. Dunham would go on to help develop the look of modern dance into forms that still resonate today.

Some dancers nicknamed Dunham "Anthropological Katie" because of her extensive background in anthropology, which informed her company's dance. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, she spent a year in the Caribbean filming and documenting Afro-Caribbean dance, and some of her original footage is featured in Free to Dance. Dunham's technical mastery and high-voltage stage presence might have helped make her a star, but it was the didactic component of her dance that made it acceptable to a wide American audience. Context was important in her performances; the ballets often reflected a mixture of regional dancing, drumming, costuming, and speech, and she insisted that her dancers understand the social and religious underpinnings of each dance.

Dunham, now in her nineties, is the recipient of many national and international honors for her contributions to modern dance. She says it is "foolish" to present any cultural phenomenon as growing in total isolation, even classical ballet. Some of Dunham's contributions are clearly delineated. It is impossible to think of modern dance without the articulation of the shoulders or the pelvis--but these seemed revolutionary when first introduced as part of the Dunham method. Her influence, and that of African and Afro-Caribbean dance, are traced in Free to Dance, and so is the influx of other influences fresh from Africa.

The documentary makes extensive use of archival dance footage, recreations of historic dances, and interviews with African American artists--some well-known, some almost unknown. The film demonstrates what has been called the Africanization of American movement, showing how American dance of many types--concert, folk, theatrical, ballroom--has combined the European ideals of movement with those brought from Africa. European dance, whether it is ballet, flamenco, or Irish step dance, has as an aesthetic ideal of the upright torso and the extended leg. Once that aesthetic was transplanted to the United States, it became something else because it blended with African influences. In many African cultures, a bent knee symbolizes life--and a straight leg symbolizes death. Thanks to African movement, the bent knee and the articulated torso became important features in modern dance.

Free to Dance grew out of a series of projects by the American Dance Festival, which has been a force in American dance since its founding by Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman in 1934. Charles Reinhart, director of ADF, says that the inspiration for the documentary came from an African American teacher in the late 1980s: "She walked into our office and said, 'My students do not understand their history, their dance history, the history of African American dance in this country.'" He adds that once ADF began investigating what they could do to remedy the gap, they realized that the picture was even larger: "Maybe we're even in danger of losing a lot of the masterpieces created by African American choreographers--Alvin Ailey we didn't have to worry about because he had his own company--but Donald McKayle and Talley Beatty and Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham and Eleo Pomare, and so forth--and we were concerned with what was going to happen to those works."

The American Dance Festival started staging some of those dances with existing repertory companies such as Dayton Contemporary Dance, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company, Philadanco, and Urban Bush Women. These are the next generation of modern choreographers and dancers that use an integrated vocabulary of African and other kinds of dance as their standard. ADF interviewed the original choreographers whenever possible, to discover the intent and the context of the work when it was created. They looked at the African American contribution to modern dance as a window on American culture at large, "Probably," says Charles Reinhart, "because we are the only arts organization that we know of that has a philosopher in residence, Jerry Myers." Myers ran several tours with dance companies, tours that combined performance with discussions and in some cases, with members of dance companies teaching at elementary schools or universities. Myers says the response of audiences was always very emotional, and discussions were often intense.

He describes the upcoming film as "the latest layer on a snowball" of information being gathered about the African American contribution to modern dance. Except for ADF's two slender books on the subject, The Black Tradition in American Modern Dance, and African American Genius in Modern Dance, very little else has appeared in print.

That was a problem for producer Madison Davis Lacy when he started research for the film. "African American dance has, over the past century, been relegated to chapters within the context of modern dance. There have been lots of books about modern dance but the conventional wisdom all along has been that it began with Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, and lo and behold, it wasn't until the mid-thirties or late thirties and Katherine Dunham appeared on the scene that African Americans wanted to be part of the modern dance scene. And I rejected that from the beginning."

The heritage of African American modern dancers has three major streams feeding into it: the European American "mainstream," the eclectic African American experience, and direct influences from African cultures. Asadata Dafora, for example, was a West African dancer who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. His performances of African dance were popular successes-- his 1934 ballet Kyunkor combined African and American material with such success that any artistic barriers between the two were effectively shattered. Pearl Primus did extensive field work in West Africa, and also in the American South. The film examines her role in promoting African dance as an academic discipline of study, and looks at her compelling dances based on African American experience, such as Strange Fruit, a protest against a wave of lynchings, and another called The Negro Speaks of Rivers.

Other choreographers have looked to the African American experience for inspiration. Donald McKayle's Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder focuses on the human degradation of a chain gang; Eleo Pomare's twitching drug addict gave a gritty passion to Blues for the Jungle; Alvin Ailey's Revelations drew from his Texas heritage. He says, "I have lots of 'blood memories' of Texas: blues, spirituals, gospel music, ragtime, folk music--I based ballets on those." The ability of these works to transcend their context and speak to the core of human existence means that many continue to be relevant to audiences and dancers today.

Free to Dance demonstrates this with a number of works, including Talley Beatty's 1947 Mourner's Bench. Beatty's work was inspired by his reading about how communities formed by blacks and whites in the South following the Civil War were destroyed by a combination of the Ku Klux Klan and northern business interests. The title Mourner's Bench refers to a person seeking conversion, called a mourner, who would sit on the mourner's bench to be prayed over. The film shows the newly preserved dance performed by Jerome Stigler of Dayton Contemporary Dance intercut with clips from Beatty's original work. Commentary on the dance comes from an interview with Beatty about his choreography and from contemporary dancers about what it means to perform such a dance. Jerome Brown says, "It feels good to give yourself over to the dance, to let your spirit go on that journey, being connected to the divine in the way that you're connected to that when you shout, when you pray in church."

Choreographer Donald McKayle gives his definition of dance as "movement that lights the soul." Although dance is rooted firmly in the physical realm, Free to Dance explores the social, cultural, and spiritual aspects that have played such a large role in the development of African American dance, and consequently in what the world knows as the art of modern dance.