images courtesy of Umoja Dance
As African American dancers and choreographers became more and more widely respected, a few individuals's contributions to the art form stood out form the rest as particularly unique. One of the first individuals to make such a contribution was Katherine Dunham. She had already established herself as a star of the dancing stage in 1933, at the age of 19. In 1938 she formed her own company, and began to choreograph dances based on topics such as traditional Brazilian dance, Cuban dance, and inner city life in Chicago; all of her pieces pertained in some way to identity as a black person, though a lot of her work was "showy". Dunham choreographed for Broadway musicals and stared on Broadway, as well as in a few Hollywood movies. In 1945 she opened a school with the hope of establishing "a technique that would be as important to the white man as to the Negro... To take our dance out of the burlesque- to make it a more dignified art."
Dunham's most notable contributions pertianed to her background in anthropology.She traveled to the Caribbean several times to study, document, and participate in traditional tribal dance in order to truly understand the roots of jazz dance, as well as to explore her own roots. All of Dunham's work was influenced in some way by her field work. One example was her creation of a series of Tropical Reviews throughout the 1940's, which incorporated dance styles and specific movement vocabulary that she learned while in the Caribbean.
Dunham was chastised by her contemporaries for her desire to use her anthropological knowlege to entertain the public. Dunham used entertainment as a tool to achieve her goal of making the material accessible to as many audience members as possible, but many critics claimed that her motives were purely economic. In any case, Dunham did succeed in conveying aspects of traditional Caribbean culture to audiences in the US, including the fact that many social dances and fads, as well as some contributions to modern dance, were originally of Caribbean descent.
Black Choreographers in the 1960's and 1970's:
Similarly to their forerunners, these artists met resistance and criticism, but they stood by their messages because they were aware of the important of their work.
Donald McKayle created Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder (1959) in order illustrate some of the more personal, and less economic, aspects of working on a chain gang
Eleo Pomare created Blues for the Jungle (1966), a depiction of the mysery involved with African American life from the auction blocks of slavery to the prostitutes and junkies of modern city streets
Gus Solomons created City/Motion/Space/Game (1968) which was a primarily abstract piece based in part on his former studies of architechture; his movement vocabulary and general approach to dance was inspired by a desire to break away from European-based ballet technique, and to explore non- traditional methods of creating dances
Today, African American dancers and choreographers work in conjunciton with their fellow artists to create new dance works. Most black dancers are involved with the creation of new and innovative modern dance, dance on Broadway, and in various sorts of social clubs. In addition, there are a few companies that specialize in traditional African dance styles. Umoja Dance Company is one of the largest companies in this business. Umoja was estabished in 1993 to "educate, preserve and present dance as a communal and spiritual expression of life. Umoja creates a nurturing environment that encourages cross-cultural exchange and celebrates their accessibility to the human spirit." In addition to performances, Umoja offers master classes to the public, and provides lecture/demonstrations upon request. In such a way, the company has been able to share traditional African dance with the public, and to pass on African movement by educating the next generation of dancers.