In further celebration of the Black heritage of dance, music, and theatre, we have picked out a few names we think you should know.
Marie Bryant’s legacy is felt by dancers the world over. If you’ve ever sought to ‘dance like yourself’ instead of a carbon copy of your teachers or idols, Bryant was a pioneer of that concept almost 100 years ago!!
Mentored by Josephine Baker and taught in part by Katherine Dunham, Marie went on to become a highly sought after teacher in her own right.
She worked with a long list of famous names of her time, and left a legacy of dance technique called ‘controlled release’, – finding the natural lines in the body, the ways it likes to move best, and learning how to control those elements.
This approach allowed her to unlock the potential of her movements and that of her students, and lead to her being in high demand as a performer and a teacher. She objected to being labelled as doing the kind of dance that ‘only black people can do’, and rightly so, we think. Bryant taught, amongst others, famous names such as Marlon Brando, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, Betty Grable, and Ava Gardner.
As well as being a dancer, instructor, and activist, we also love that Dunham knew enough of herself to take care of her mental health, taking a year off in the late 1950s. Can you imagine how hard a decision that must have been, living in a segregated world, in the arts, and needing to step back? That’s some serious self care.
Founder of the first self-supported American black dance troupe, Dunham was so much more than ‘just’ an incredible teacher. She was one of the first African American women with a degree in philosophy, she also focused on anthropology and became a leader in the new field of ethnochoreology.
Dunham was also a social activist. She once refused to hold a show in a theater after learning the city’s black residents had been barred from buying tickets for the performance. Right on.
Dunham’s wiki page is rather thorough, which is refreshing. A lot of black women in history don’t have much information available about them. We encourage you to go and have a look at it.
The godmother, nay, inventor of rock’n’roll was a black queer woman who played the guitar in a way that most other folks of the the time hadn’t even conceived of. And due to segregation, she couldn’t even play in most venues across the USA, although it didn’t stop her name getting out. Legitimately the Godmother of Rock and Roll, Tharpe’s music influenced a huge sphere of guitarists including Johnny Cash, Keith Richards and of course, Elvis,
Among the first gospel musicians to appeal to rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll audiences, Tharpe was better than her contemporary male guitar players yet the best compliment many could give at the time was that she played like a man.
Tharpe recorded her first records in 1938 to huge success, and kept recording for the rest of her life. She was born to gospel loving parents, and was declared a musical prodigy at a young age, and throughout her life she helped lift other musicians up. She literally gave Little Richard his first gig outside of his church. What a legend.
Kool Herc, a 16 year old kid experimenting with funk beats on James Brown vinyls, literally invented the breakbeat style DJing that is the backbone of hip-hop today.
Unable to find music events in the Bronx that were playing what he wanted, he decided to start playing it instead. Heavily into the funky beats from icons like James Brown, Jimmy Casto, and Booker T & the MGs, Kool Herc focussed on the short, heavily percussive parts in records called the break. He looped them together into what he called a ‘5 minute loop of fury’. And the rest, they say, is history.
Named by Grandmaster Flash as his hero, this master DJ is still alive and still going, having opted out of going super-star main-stream famous in favour of something a little more low key in the Bronx.
He’s on instagram, go find him 🙂
Lorraine Hansberry was the first black female author, and first gay black female author, to have a play performed on Broadway in 1959. She was also the first African-American dramatist, the fifth woman, and the youngest playwright to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in the same year.
An activist and involved in some of the fierce dialogues around race in the USA in the late 1960s, Lorraine Hansberry was pro- civil disobedience. Even before then, in school in the 1950s she had been politically active, remembered by a school mate as “the only girl I knew who could whip together a fresh picket sign with her own hands, at a moment’s notice, for any cause or occasion”
She wrote articles that got her investigated by the FBI, who later flagged the themes in her celebrated play as ‘dangerous’.
A dedicated writer up until her early death from Pancreatic cancer, what you may not realise is that she was the inspiration behind Nina Simone’s song ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’.
August Wilson helped to propel and cement the careers of a legion of actors and directors. His work has roots in his experiences as a biracial child in the 1950s, a boy with a foot in two worlds yet rejected by both. He secretly quit school and spent hours at the library instead, a testament to his resolve that nobility was not defined by skin colour and circumstance. Wilson’s plays gave voice to both the mundane and extraordinary aspects of black life.
He is best known for his Pittsburgh Cycle or Century Cycle- 10 plays set in 10 different decades, describing the Black experience. He always had strong women in his work
Wilson won many awards for his work including Tonys and Pulitzers. After his death in 2005, the Virginia Theatre in NYC’s Theater District was renamed the August Wilson Theatre. It is the first Broadway theatre to bear the name of an African-American.
Written by Sarah Spenser