Did You Know These 4 Famous Black Women Had Their Beginnings in Dance?

January 31, 2021

In a rare photo of the great Maya Angelou, she stands in a loose fourth position, elegant, tall, and grounded with her right arm pointing skyward. Many who stumble upon the photograph don’t realize the Pulitzer Prize–nominated poet was a dancer. She is not the only famous Black female creative whose dance backgrounds are relatively unknown. Several have had deep ties to the art form.

Maya Angelou

Marguerite “Rita” Johnson, better known today as Maya Angelou, had an impressive performing career. While her texts are profound and internationally known, less acknowledged is her dance work. She studied with some of the people many consider foundational to modern dance: Anna Halprin, Martha Graham and Pearl Primus. She started a dance act with Alvin Ailey, and danced and sang in clubs around San Francisco. She also toured Europe as a dancer with a production of Porgy & Bess.

Eartha Kitt

Singer (and Catwoman) Eartha Kitt was most beloved for her distinct voice. Yet she also had a dance career many would dream of. At age 16, she joined the company of the great Katherine Dunham. After touring the U.S., Mexico, South America and Europe as a dancer, she then continued her career as a singer and later an actress. C’est si bon!

Zora Neale Hurston

With the anthropological spirit of many of our great Black dance mothers, like Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, author Zora Neale Hurston was dedicated to amplifying the Black experience. In 1934, Hurston put on a concert called All De Live Long Day, which reenacted dances with roots in African-American culture, such as the courtship dance, the crow dance and the fire dance. This was a time when Black culture and art were seen as primitive and subpar to their white counterparts of expression. The History Engine wrote about the production: “Her data and observations took place in looking at Caribbean dance, which is more unchanged from its origins…And Zora didn’t just observe, she participated with the people, learning the intricacies and feelings behind the dance.”

Lena Horne

Much like the famous Josephine Baker, singer and actress Lena Horne started her dancing career early, at the age of 16, in the chorus line of the Cotton Club in Harlem. Her dance partners included the famed Bill Robinson, Rubberneck Holmes and Ricardo Montalban. In addition to nightclubs, Horne also danced on Broadway and in films.