Gyrating hips, fast feet, high stepping, and magnificent moves, are characteristics that belong to the great African-American dancers of history’s past. Famu’s Black Archives Museum has a vast collection of African-American artifacts including a variety of pictures of dazzling African-American dancers. These dancers Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham, and Bill “Bo jangles” Robinson exemplify black beauty, style, and grace.
Katherine Dunham was born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois on June 22, 1909, to Albert and Fanny Dunham. Katherine was a great dance teacher. Later in her career she was able to get together her own dance company. In February 1940 the Katherine Dunham Dance Company opened at the Windsor Theatre, west 48th Street, with Dunham’s own Tropics and Le Jazz Hot. The show was a phenomenal success. Following that show many newspaper companies were amazed and wanted to inter view Mrs. Dunham. Katherine Dunham was indeed on her way to the top. From that night her name and her dances took her behind the footlights of the world’s greatest stages.
Her unique and stylistic perfection were the forces that propelled her toward that magic moment when the dance, dancers, and cultural story became one. Soon after the success, and offer came to the Dunham’s Dance Company to take part in an all-Negro musical entitled Cabin in the Sky. The salary offered of three thousand dollars a week was an amount this company never dreamed of making. Dunham’s role was Georgia Brown, and for the first time she had the opportunity not only to dance, but also, to sing and act as well.
Martha Graham was born in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa. She became a leading dancer and choreographer, and she also pioneered a movement called Modern Dance. Martha Graham defined dance as “making the interior landscape,” and she used the entire body in dance movement to reveal the inner, true feeling of the characters she portrayed. Her movements were not always “pretty,” because the feelings she tried to express included fear, jealousy, anger, and hatred. Early in her career she sometimes shocked audiences with her sharp angular poses and her abrupt, jerky actions. Martha Graham also danced with the Denishawn Company from 1916 to 1923.
During the 1930’s Graham began to choreograph dances for her own company based on primitive rituals and on American life. In the 1940’s, she began interpreting the feelings of women. Her dances were inspired by the lives of Emily Dickinson, the Bronte sisters, and the great features of Greek mythology as interpreted be the psychoanalytic theories of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Perhaps the greatest of the Greek dances was Clytemnestra 1958, and study of guilt and redemption. But along with such stark tragedies, she also created her joyous Appalachian Spring 1944 and the sparkling comment on dancers and their discipline, Acrobat of God 1960.
Bill “Bo jangles” Robinson was born in Virginia as Luther Robinson in 1878. He became one of the most popular and beloved performers of his day. His combination of tap dancing, song, telling jokes, and imitating natural sounds proved a popular one for audiences for many years. It is claimed that some of his contemporaries were superior in dancing ability and had a wider rang of steps, but he was the acknowledged master in appealing to the public. Robinson had his first break through in film in 1935 when he appeared in The Little Colonel with Shirley Temple. For this performance the taught a child star a version of the step dance.
Because of his great dance performance “Bo jangles” was offered to be in more films. Such as Hooray for Love, The Big Broadcast of 1937, and he also played Will Rogers servant in The Old Kentucky. Robinson became on of the major stars of his age. His career lasted long enough to be documented on film and on recordings of radio broadcasts. Despite the bright smile he featured in his act and his public benefactions, Robinson had a violent darker side. Although they may not be well known, their efforts helped pave the way for African-American entertainers.