In this moment of history, choreographers of all walks of life are addressing racism and violence through dance. But this is not a new trend. For as long as this country has struggled with racial discrimination, dance has been a way to bring community together, a way to share a message and a way to take a stand. Here’s a glimpse back at a few major milestones that brought injustices against African Americans to the stage.
Weidman leading a rehearsal of Lynchtown. Photo by John Daughtry, Courtesy DM Archives.
Charles Weidman’s Lynchtown depicts a mob hunting an outsider and surrounding him like vultures, an experience that Weidman himself witnessed as a child. The piece was part of a larger suite of works entitled Atavisms.
How Long Brethren? (1937)
Helen Tamiris choreographed a suite of eight pieces called Negro Spirituals, a protest of the discrimination against African Americans. The most famous was How Long Brethren?, which shed light on the lives of unemployed Southern blacks.
Strange Fruit (1945)
Pearl Primus’ Strange Fruit is a commentary on the panicked culture of lynching as seen through the eyes of a woman who witnesses the brutal event.
A two-part work about lynchings in America, Katherine Dunham’sSouthland premiered in Chile, shocking the American embassy. It had only one other performance, in Paris. The U.S. government denied funding for future works by Dunham for her negative portrayal of the U.S. at the height of the Cold War.
Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder. Photo by Rosemary Winkley, Courtesy DM Archives.
Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (1959)
Donald McKayle’s dramatic masterwork reveals the frustration of oppression and aspirations for freedom of a chain gang toiling in the American South.
Blues for the Jungle (1966)
A signature work that came to the stage in the Civil Rights era, Eleo Pomare’s Blues for the Jungle shed light on struggles like the Harlem riot of 1964.
Ceremony of Us. Laurie Gruenberg, Courtesy DM Archives.
Ceremony of Us(1969)
Following the Watts race riots in Los Angeles, Anna Halprin choreographed Ceremony of Us. She developed choreography for dancers from Studio Watts, an African-American arts organization, and separately for her all-white dance company, the San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop. The groups came together for a short rehearsal period before performing.
Alvin Ailey created Cry for “all black women everywhere—especially our mothers.” Judith Jamison, who originated the role, wrote: “She represented those women...who came from the hardships of slavery, through the pain of losing loved ones, through overcoming extraordinary depressions and tribulations...she has found her way and triumphed.”
Deep South Suite (1976)
Dianne McIntyre’s Deep South Suite shares realities of the 1940s South, set to Duke Ellington’s music.
Creole Giselle. PC Leslie E. Spatt, Courtesy DM Archives.
Creole Giselle (1984)
Frederic Franklin’s restaging of Giselle for Dance Theatre of Harlem sets the work in antebellum Louisiana, where Giselle can’t marry Albrecht because of her family ties to slavery.
Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990)
In this three-hour work, Bill T. Jones, then known mostly for pushing the avant-garde, dealt directly with his black heritage, confronting slavery and racism.
Minstrel Show (1991)
Donald Byrd created Minstrel Show in light of the slaying of Yusef Hawkins, a Brooklyn teenager killed by a white mob. Byrd reworked the piece in 2014 as The Minstrel Show Revisited after Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (1996)
Savion Glover’s musical revue showcased a history of African-American men from slavery to present day (the mid-’90s), with numbers like “The Chicago Riot Rag,” “The Lynching Blues” and “Slave Ships,” as well as a parody of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Invisible Wings. PC Alan E. Solomon, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow
Invisible Wings (1998)
Joanna Haigood’s site-specific Invisible Wings is set on the grounds of Jacob’s Pillow, illuminating its history as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Come home Charley Patton (2004)
In the third part of The Geography Trilogy, Ralph Lemon focused on various sites from the Civil Rights period, with a recording of a James Baldwin lecture about race.
Walking with Pearl (2004–05)
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of Urban Bush Women, created an homage to Pearl Primus in Walking with Pearl...African Diaries and Walking with Pearl...Southern Diaries, which received a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie).
Mr. TOL E. RAncE (2012)
Camille A. Brown’s Mr. TOL E. RAncE looks at intolerance and the modern dance minstrelsy.
What did we miss?
Share which dance works about racism and social injustice have spoken to you. Write to us on Facebook or Twitter @Dance_Magazine.
Pacific Northwest Ballet principals Rachel Foster and Jonathan Porretta took their final curtain call on June 9, 2019. Photo by Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB
We all know dance careers are temporary. But this season, it feels like we're saying goodbye to more stars than usual.
Many have turned to social media to share their last curtain calls, thoughts on what it feels like to say farewell to performing, and insights into the ways that dancing has made them who they are. After years of dedicating your life to the studio and stage, the decision to stop dancing is always an emotional one. Each dancer handles it in their own way—whether that means cheekily admitting to having an existential crisis, or simply leaving with no regrets about what you did for love.
We will miss these dancers' performances, but can't wait to see what awaits each in their next chapters.
A previous lab cycle. Photo by Evan Zimmerman/MurphyMade, Courtesy RRR Creative
Choreographic incubator Broadway Dance Lab has recently been rechristened Dance Lab New York. "I found the nomenclature of 'Broadway' was actually a type of glass ceiling to the organization," says choreographer Josh Prince, who founded the nonprofit in 2012.