Festivals Mark a Peak in the Dance Created by Black Artists

A series of festivals around the United States focused on black dance forms and black dance artists through films, seminars, lectures, and performances of choreography.

Summary of Event

The years 1983 and 1984 marked a peak in the presentation of festivals, performances, and seminars that emphasized both black dance forms and the work created by black dance artists. The achievements of African American dancers gained more recognition by the general public during the 1980’s, and dances that portrayed aspects of the black experience gained increasing acceptance. While scholars and artists concurred that no exact or concise definition of the term “black dance” existed, at least two distinctions within the field were made. Black dance was defined as dance forms that were developed by specific African, Caribbean, or African American cultural groups. The term also applied to the dances created by artists who happened to be black. In any event, the broad continuum of black dance continued to grow, and it was significant that the mid-1980’s began to witness a long-overdue recognition of the achievements of African American choreographers and dancers. African Americans;dance
Dance Black America
[kw]Festivals Mark a Peak in the Dance Created by Black Artists (1983-1984)
[kw]Dance Created by Black Artists, Festivals Mark a Peak in the (1983-1984)
[kw]Black Artists, Festivals Mark a Peak in the Dance Created by (1983-1984)
[kw]Artists, Festivals Mark a Peak in the Dance Created by Black (1983-1984)
African Americans;dance
Dance Black America
[g]North America;1983-1984: Festivals Mark a Peak in the Dance Created by Black Artists[05070]
[g]United States;1983-1984: Festivals Mark a Peak in the Dance Created by Black Artists[05070]
[c]Dance;1983-1984: Festivals Mark a Peak in the Dance Created by Black Artists[05070]
Ailey, Alvin
Beatty, Talley
Davis, Chuck
Hall, Arthur
Mitchell, Arthur
Fagan, Garth
Moore, Charles
Dafora, Asadata
Pomare, Eleo
Washington, Lula

In 1983, New York City’s Brooklyn Academy of Music presented Dance Black America, a four-day event that featured performances, seminars, lectures, and historical films. Dance Black America was cosponsored by the State University of New York; those in attendance included not only dancers and choreographers but also historians, critics, anthropologists, musicologists, and folklorists.

The festival, which commenced on April 21 and continued through April 24, included six diverse programs of dance performances and was one of the major dance events of 1983. In addition to concert dance forms, the festival offered presentations of black street and social dance. Dance Black America celebrated nearly three hundred years of African American dance tradition and included virtually every prominent figure in the history of black dance.

On the first program, dancer and choreographer Charles Moore presented his reconstructions of two works by Asadata Dafora, a native of Sierra Leone who had staged concerts of African dance in New York during the 1930’s. Dafora’s work was dynamic and vivid, replete with spectacle and tribal heritage. Moore performed Awassa Astrige and Kykunkor to the accompaniment of African drums. In Awassa Astrige, a warrior metamorphosed into an ostrich, imitating the bird with arm and chest isolations. Kykunkor portrayed a courtship ritual of a warrior and a bevy of village maidens.

Jamaican-born Garth Fagan presented From Before, a dance that combined ethnic, modern, and ballet techniques to a score by Trinidadian composer Ralph MacDonald. MacDonald, Ralph Fagan’s Bucket Dance Theater Bucket Dance Theater performed the piece, which exhibited solid, low shifts of weight underneath lyrical upper bodies. In a manner reminiscent of an African tradition, each dancer performed a solo in turn. From Before revealed many of the influences on black American dance and was hailed by critics such as Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times. Fagan’s choreography exhibited the syncretism of African dance traditions blended with contemporary dance stylizations.

The Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble performed Road of the Phoebe Snow, a dance choreographed by Talley Beatty that merged jazz and modern movement motifs. The senior company of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater presented excerpts from Ailey’s signature work Relevations, considered by many to be a masterpiece of modern dance. Ailey’s choreography evoked enthusiastic responses from the audience and reaffirmed his position as one of the most prominent figures in modern dance.

The Eleo Pomare Dance Company Eleo Pomare Dance Company staged an interpretation of Federico García Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba. Pomare’s retelling was titled Las Desenamoradas and represented the choreographer’s focus on social issues. Pomare also performed his solo Junkie, which offered a biting social commentary on drug abuse.

As part of the four-day series, the Dance Black America festival also presented an evening of street and social dance. Choreographers such as Chuck Davis and Arthur Hall were represented, as were performers such as Chuck Green, Leon Jackson, and Gloria and Sean Jones. Lengen-Go/Mandiani was a reconstruction of street games interpreted by the Chuck Davis Dance Company. Chuck Davis Dance Company Arthur Hall’s Afro-American Ensemble performed Marie Laveaux and Danse Congo Square, which portrayed the location in nineteenth century New Orleans known as Congo Square; the Municipal Council of New Orleans had encouraged public performances by blacks in Congo Square as an attempt to curtail possible insurrection by the slaves. Hall’s troupe also performed excerpts from Fat Tuesday accompanied by a New Orleans brass band. The choreography of both Davis and Hall illustrated the black dance tradition within historical frameworks.

These vernacular dance forms were supplemented by performances of jump rope teams, roller skaters, drill teams, and break dancers. A group of young Brooklyn girls known as the Jazzy Jumpers jounced through intricate patterns that often featured two girls on a rope simultaneously. Roxy’s Solar Rollers was a quartet of performers who danced on rollerskates, and Electric Boogie was one of two break-dancing groups that the festival featured. The performances of street dancing galvanized the audience, and dance critic Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times remarked that the dancing of the Magnificent Force-Breaking group was exciting as both ritual and spectacle.


As a result of Dance Black America’s success, and also since recognition of the contributions of black dance artists was long overdue, several other festivals of black dance occurred during 1983 and 1984. On Sunday, May 22, 1983, the Brooklyn Academy of Music sponsored an annual event called the DanceAfrica DanceAfrica[Danceafrica] festival. Choreographer Chuck Davis staged the event, which featured ten different African American dance companies. Davis centered the festival on an African lineage-based marriage ritual. After a wedding ceremony, which commenced with drum incantations to the earth and sky, a bride and groom were entertained by an assortment of dance companies. Dance;festivals

An Ethiopian wedding song was performed by the Women of the Calabash, who were accompanied by traditional folk instruments. Dinizulu and His African Dancers, Drummers, and Singers staged a robust drum solo that was a highlight of the festival. The group’s drummer played his instrument with both his hands and feet. Additional companies at the DanceAfrica festival included the multigenerational dance troupe called the Calabash Dance Theatre, the Izulu Dance Theatre, the International Afrikan American Ballet, and drummers from A Touch of Folklore and More. The Chuck Davis Dance Company, which had performed a month earlier at the Dance Black America festival, also danced as part of the celebration. Both the Dance Black America festival and the DanceAfrica festival marked a peak in the recognition of African American dance artists during 1983.

A few months later, during the summer of 1983, Chuck Davis organized Festival Africa Festival Africa as part of the American Dance Festival American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina. The festival consisted of three evenings of African dance and music and was the first festival of its kind in the southeastern United States. Featured performers included Chuck Davis’s company the African American Dance Ensemble African American Dance Ensemble as well as the Calabash Dance Theatre; the Weaver Street Dancers; Dinizulu and His African Dancers, Drummers, and Singers; the Art of Black Dance and Music; the Cultural Movement; Kombo Omolara; and Olukose Wiles. Several of these troupes had previously participated at the Brooklyn Academy’s Dance Africa and Dance Black America festivals.

Another festival that occurred as a result of the 1983 events was the Olympic Black Dance Festival, Olympic Black Dance Festival held on June 16, 1984, at the Japan America Community Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The festival was significant in its presentation of prominent black dance artists such as Rod Rodgers Rodgers, Rod and Cleo Parker Robinson. Robinson, Cleo Parker The event was a component of a larger ten-week parent event, the Olympic Arts Festival, which featured a variety of performing artists and companies. As part of the Olympic Black Dance Festival, the Dance Theatre of Harlem Dance Theatre of Harlem staged seven performances under the artistic direction of Arthur Mitchell. The one-day black dance festival was organized by Lula Washington, artistic director of the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre. Washington, with the assistance of a panel of adjudicators, chose black dance artists to perform at the festival. She also solicited private and corporate funding in order to sponsor films, workshops, and master classes prior to the actual performance date. In addition, panel discussions that addressed specific concerns of the black dance community were planned.

Panel discussions were also offered at a one-day seminar organized by Brenda Dixon-Stowell, Dixon-Stowell, Brenda Sally Banes, Banes, Sally and Julinda Lewis Lewis, Julinda and sponsored by the Dance Critics Association. The conference, which took place on November 5, 1983, examined issues raised at the Dance Black America festival, which had occurred approximately six months before. The event was held at the Dance Theater Workshop/Bessie Schoenberg Theater in New York City and was titled “You’ve Taken My Blues and Gone: A Seminar on Black Dance in White America.” One purpose of the seminar was to attempt to define black dance in relationship to the entire dance field. Participants raised intriguing questions that prompted a discussion of the responsibilities of both white and black researchers, critics, and educators in regard to the subject of black dance. An additional conference was hosted by Joan Myers Brown, Brown, Joan Myers the artistic director of the Philadelphia-based dance company Philadanco.

In 1987, the American Dance Festival initiated a three-year project called The Black Tradition in American Modern Dance. The project, which was cosponsored by the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, included performances, seminars, and the publication of a collection of essays focused on black dance. The festival also commissioned archival recordings of the works of selected black choreographers.

In June, 1987, four black choreographers were featured at the American Dance Festival. The work of Talley Beatty, Eleo Pomare, Donald McKayle, McKayle, Donald and Pearl Primus Primus, Pearl was represented. The Joel Hall Dancers performed Beatty’s “Congo Tango Palace,” an excerpt from Come and Get the Beauty of It Hot. The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company performed Las Desenamoradas, originally choreographed by Pomare in 1967. A highlight of the concert was Donald McKayle’s piece titled Games, which was presented by Chuck Davis’s African American Dance Ensemble. Another program highlight consisted of three solos representative of the work of dancer and anthropologist Pearl Primus: The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Strange Fruit, and Hard Times Blues. Dance;festivals
African Americans;dance
Dance Black America

Further Reading

  • Aschenbrenner, Joyce. Katherine Dunham: Reflections on the Social and Political Contexts of Afro-American Dance. New York: Congress on Research in Dance, 1981. Well-researched work presents the career of modern dance pioneer Dunham through an anthropological perspective. Discusses the social and cultural climates in which African American dance developed and includes analysis of critical responses to Dunham’s work. Features photographs and excellent appendixes, including drawn notations of the Dunham method and technique.
  • Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today. 2d rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Book Company, 1988. Definitive work on the history of black dance in the United States is informative and comprehensive. Addresses both concert and vernacular forms. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998. Eclectic work focuses on the influence of African American culture in dance but also covers such varied subjects as vaudeville and gangsta rap. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Haskins, James. Black Dance in America: A History Through Its People. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1990. Good source gives an overview of black dance in the United States. Features brief biographies of prominent dancers and companies and provides an interesting videography of both concert and vernacular dance. Includes photographs, brief bibliography, and index.
  • Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. Interesting study focuses on the social dance phenomena of the black community from 1619 to the 1960’s. One of the few sources that addresses the institutions in which black social dance developed. Includes photographs, detailed endnotes, and index.
  • Kraus, Richard, Sarah Chapman Hilsendager, and Brenda Dixon. “Black Dance in America.” In History of the Dance in Art and Education. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991. Overview of black dance in the United States provides an interesting chronology of black concert dance from 1931 to the late 1980’s. Addresses concerns in defining black dance and discusses the exclusion of blacks from ballet. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Malone, Jacqui. Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996. Presents a thorough history of black dance traditions, from Africa to America.
  • Thorpe, Edward. Black Dance. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1990. Offers accounts of major black figures in the development of American concert dance. Informative and easy to read. Provides a historical overview but does not offer an in-depth study of any one area. Includes many excellent photographs and index.

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