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5 African American Dancers that changed Dance

Adult Dance School Brussels Belgium, English Speaking

Hello hello! Welcome back to another STU Arts Dance blog! It’s Black History month, and STU Arts Dance is reflecting on some of the most influential black dancers who have significantly impacted the art form. Black history is a month of recognition and celebration of Black History and honouring and remembering the sheer impact that African Americans have had not only on one nation, but around the world. So, without further ado, here are some of the most influential black dancers in history!


1. Josephine Baker. (1906-1975)

Josephine Baker is one of the first black women to set the standards for dance around the world, Josephine’s legacy is a synopsis of bravery, passion, and sensuality. She was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up with a strong and independent spirit, who learned how to provide for herself, and make it on her own. She started performing across the country with the jones Family band and the Dixie Steppers in 1919, and by 1920, she was on stage in Paris taking Europe by storm! Baker went on to perform and choreograph for nearly 50 years in Europe. Although racism within the United States often restricted of her gaining the same renown at home, she fought segregation through organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People ( NAACP). The organization then named the 20th of May the “Josephine Baker Day” in honor of her efforts.

2. John W Bubbles (1902-1986)

Singer and Dancer John W. Bubbles made significant strides in the progression and commercialization of tap dance. He started his career at age 10 by joining six-year old dancer “Buck” Washington to create a signing & dancing comedy Act. The two became very popular, and performed an act in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 becoming the first black artists to perfom in New York’s acclaimed Radio City Music Hall. Bubbles is said to be the first dancer to fuse Jazz with tap, a frontrunner for many jazz-tap companies that exist today. He created off-beats and in turn, altered accents, timing and phrasing within dance. in 2002, John W. Bubbles was inducted into the American Tap Dance Foundations’ International Tap Dance Hall of Fame!

3. Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)

Katherine Dunham was one of the first modern dance pioneers combining cultural, grounded dance movements in accordance with ballet! Born in Illinois, Dunham began her formal training in Chicago where she was taught alongside modern and contemporary ballet pioneers while simultaneously studying anthropology. In the 1930’s, she completed a 10-month investigation into the dance cultures of the Caribbean. The then brought her teachings back to America, developing a new aesthetic that merged rhythms of cultural dance with certain components of Ballet. For 2 decades, Dunham’s dance company toured the world—From the United States to Europe, to Latin America, Asia and Australia. Dunham also founded a school to teach her techniques in New York.

4. Fayard and Harold Nicholas (1914-2006, 1921-2000)

Better known as “The Nicholas Brothers”, Fayard and Harold Nicholas both held unique careers as tap dancers. Getting their first big gig at the Cotton Club in 1931, Fayard was just 18 whole Harold was 11. They followed big appearances and gained commercial success within Hollywood. The Nicholas Brothers lite up the screens in moves such as “Down Argentine Way (1940), Stormy Weather (1943) and St. Louis Woman (1946). Before their retirement, Fayard contributed choreography in the 1989 production of Black and Blue. The Brothers received Kennedy Centre Honours and have had the documentary “The Nicholas Brothers: We Dance and Sing” made in their honour.

5. Janet Collins (1917-2003)

Janet Collins was a forerunner for black female ballet dancers. She was one of the first and very few black women to become prominent in American Classical Ballet in the 1950’s. Inspiring a generation and giving hope for a more equal society within the ballet world. Collins began her dancing in Los Angeles and eventually relocated to New York. Her big Debut was to her own choreographer in 1949 on a shared program at the 92nd street Y. After being praised and well received for her technique. She began performing on Broadway in the Cole Porter Musical “Out of This World”. She was then hired as a principal dancer at the Metropolitan Opera House in the early 1950’s. Throughout her career, Collins has danced alongside Katherine Dunham and performed in the Dunham company in the 1943 musical Stormy Weather.

Dance today would not be shaped without the hard work, dedication and spark that Black dancers offered the world. We should celebrate black dancers not only throughout Black history month, but throughout the rest of the year, it is our homage to the Black community to not only embrace the work that has been contributed but celebrated. It is important to learn from the Black community for it drives us to inclusivity and historical recognition. If you would like to learn more about dance and the history of African dance, STU Arts Dane offers workshops, If you are interested, you can check it out here.

Happy Black History Month!


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