In honor of Black History Month we reflect on some of the dance pioneers who broke racial barriers while leaving a legacy of contributions and an indelible mark upon the world of dance.

Culminating at a time when African Americans were legally barred from entering most establishments, much less participating in countless activities, those early visionaries and pioneers who were able to break through the often impenetrable walls of prejudice are celebrated today through their brilliant work,  achievements and sacrifice. Opening doors and helping to pave the way for modern day stars of dance such as Misty Copeland.
Attempting to list all of the key figures is quite a hefty task. There are so many whose achievements and contributions have made an indelible impact on dance. In this piece we’ll highlight just a handful of the groundbreaking pioneers whose contributions greatly shaped and have had a tremendous impact on the world of dance.
With segregationist Jim Crow laws still in full effect at the turn of the century, people of color were still relegated to a few limited areas of employment, even in the arts.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Despite not being allowed to train at traditional dance academies and schools, dancers of African descent were often self taught.
there weren’t many opportunities available for people of color across many industries.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949)- what is the earliest African American dancers to achieve notoriety and mainstream success and Phil film and television. Bo jangles it Is best known for his appearances in classic Hollywood Shirley Temple movies, dancing alongside Ms. Temple herself. He is also credited as being the first black Vaudeville performer. 

In his career, Robinson appeared in a total of 14 films and six Broadway shows, sometimes in prominent roles – an enormous triumph for a black actor in his day.

In addition, Robinson was the first black solo performer to star on white vaudeville circuits, where he was a headliner for four decades.

Josephine Baker (1906-1975)

One of the first black women to leave her mark on the dance world, Josephine Baker’s legacy is synonymous with sensuality, bravery and uninhibited passion. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Baker grew up with little and quickly developed an independent spirit, learning to provide for herself and make her own way. This free and bold behavior led her to perform across the country with The Jones Family Band and The Dixie Steppers in 1919. By the time she sashayed onto a Paris stage during the 1920s, she was confident in her abilities and performed with a comic, yet sensual appeal that took Europe by storm.

Famous for barely-there dresses and modernized movement, Baker went on to perform and choreograph for 50 years in Europe. Although racism in the States often restricted her from gaining the same renown at home as she did abroad, Baker fought segregation through organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organization actually named May 20 “Josephine Baker Day” in honor of her efforts.


Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)

Some dance historians have named Katherine Dunham the most important women of African American dance. Dunham was one of the first modern dance pioneers in her own right, combining cultural, grounded dance movements with elements of ballet.

Dunham, who was born in Illinois, began her formal study of dance in Chicago where she trained with modern and contemporary ballet pioneers while simultaneously studying anthropology. In the 1930s, she completed a 10-month investigation into the dance cultures of the Caribbean. She brought what she learned back to America, developing a new revolutionary aesthetic that merged the rhythms of cultural dances with certain components of ballet.

For two decades, from the 1940s to the 1960s, Dunham’s dance company toured the world – from the United States to Europe to Latin America to Asia and Australia. She also founded a school to teach her technique in New York.

Fayard Nicholas (1914-2006) and Harold Nicholas (1921-2000)

Better known as “The Nicholas Brothers,” Fayard and Harold Nicholas both had unique careers as tap and “flash” dancers. They got their first big gig at the Cotton Club in 1932, with Fayard at 18 and Harold at just 11 years old. Following appearances with big bands, they became very successful in Hollywood.

The Nicholas Brothers lite up the screen in movies like Kid Millions (1934), Down Argentine Way (1940), Stormy Weather(1943), and St. Louis Woman (1946). They even performed in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Babes in Arms.

Before they retired, Fayard contributed choreography to the 1989 production of Black and Blue and Harold performed as part of the 1982 Sophisticated Ladies national tour and in The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway in 1986.

The brothers have received Kennedy Center Honors and have had the documentary The Nicholas Brothers: We Dance and Sing made in their honor.

A biography on the life of Janet Collins was published a few years ago by dance historian Yael Tamar Lewin. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Janet Collins (1917-2003)

Janet Collins, who died just a few years ago in Fort Worth, Texas, was a forerunner for black female ballet dancers. She was one of very few black women to become prominent in American classical ballet in the 1950s, inspiring a generation and giving hope for a more equal society.

Collins began dancing in Los Angeles and eventually relocated to New York. Her big debut was to her own choreography in 1949 on a shared program at the 92nd Street Y.  She was well received, being praised for her sharp, technical precision. After performing on Broadway in the Cole Porter musical Out of This World, she was hired as a principal dancer at the Metropolitan Opera House in the early 1950s.

Throughout her career, Collins also danced alongside Katherine Dunham and performed with the Dunham company in the 1943 film musical Stormy Weather.

She danced a solo choreographed by Jack Cole in the 1946 film The Thrill of Brazil, and even toured with Talley Beatty in a nightclub act.

In recognition of Collins’ great work, her renowned cousin Carmen De Lavallade started the Janet Collins Fellowship.

Pearl Primus (1919-1994)

If anyone could contest Dunham’s title of being the “grande dame of African American dance,” it would be dancer, choreographer, director and activist Pearl Primus. Primus is equally important, as she is known to have facilitated a deeper appreciation for and understanding of traditional African dance.

With the help of a grant, Primus spent over a year in Africa in 1948, gathering materials and detailing tribal dances that were quickly slipping into obscurity. She returned to the U.S. and established the Pearl Primus School of Primal Dance. Through her teaching and performances, she not only helped to promote African dance as an art form worthy of study and performance, but to disprove myths of savagery.

Pearl Primus. Photo courtesy of the Barbara Morgan Archive.

In addition to many other accomplishments, she became the director of the African Performing Arts Center in Liberia in 1961, the first organization of its kind on the African continent.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989)/ Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (1958-now)

Alvin Ailey was first introduced to dance in Los Angeles by performances of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. He began his formal dance training with an introduction to Lester Horton’s classes. Horton, the founder of one of the first racially-integrated dance companies in the country, became a mentor for Ailey as he embarked on his professional career.

After Horton’s death in 1953, Ailey became Director of the Lester Horton Dance Theater and began to choreograph his own works.

In 1958, he founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, now a world-class and internationally renowned dance company. He established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center (now The Ailey School) in 1969 and formed the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (now Ailey II) in 1974.

In addition to his huge contribution to the furthering of modern dance, Ailey was a pioneer of programs promoting arts in education, particularly those benefiting underserved communities.