Hemsley Winfield: First Black Modern Dancer

Article excerpt

Whether we speak of pioneers in modern dance or of early modern dancers, the name of Hemsley Winfield is rarely mentioned. Within the study of dance, most people are familiar with Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, and Ruth St. Denis, the three who are given credit for the birth of what was to be called modern dance. And, if one was asked to name some of the early modern dancers, the names of Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Honya Holm, and Katherine Dunham would certainly come to mind. However, many people don't know that Hemsley Winfield was a contemporary of this second group, who were to become the leading dancers and choreographers of their generation. Edna Guy wrote about pioneers in Negro dance stating, "three talented Negro dancers had already, by hard work and determination, started something of importance in the Negro dance. They were the late Hemsley Winfield, who studied with Mordkin, Edna Guy, a protege [sic] of Ruth St. Denis, and Katherine Dunham of Chicago, who was studying the ballet."2 It has been by others written that Hemsley Winfield was considered "the pioneer in Negro concert dancing. In that field he attained for his race an eminence comparable to that of Paul Robeson in the musical field. He achieved amazing results in such a short time."3

Thirty years after his death he was remembered for dancing the roll of the witch doctor in the Emperor Jones at the Metropolitan Opera House.4 One can only imagine that if Hemsley Winfield had not passed at the age of 26, he may well have been one of the artistic leaders during the Harlem Rennaisance and he may have been remembered along with the other leaders of modern dance.

Named after his mother's maiden name, Hemsley, he was Osborne Hemsley Winfield. He was born, lived, attended school, directed, taught and choreographed dance in Yonkers, New York. His home, where he lived with his parents, still stands at 24 Wolffe Street.

including a track event during a Field Day, in which he won a dash event while he was in the seventh grade.5 The earliest acting reference, found by this author, lists Winfield as one of the actors to perform in three one act plays with The National Ethiopian Art Theater at midnight on October 15, 1924.6 Previous references placed Winfield's acting career as starting in 1925.

From 1924 through 1930 there are numerous references about Winfield's acting, directing and teaching career. As part of the "Little Theater movement" Winfield started and directed the Sekondi Players of Yonkers in 1925.7 He used the name from the Ghanian city of Sekondi to reflect the connection to his African American heritage. In November of 1927 Winfield and the Sekondi Players performed the children's play, The Princess and the Cat, written by his mother, Jeroline Hemsley Winfield. This inaugural opening of children's plays was under his direction of The New Negro Art Theater. This is the first reference to the New Negro Art Theater group that Winfield directed during the rest of his acting and dance career. The company's name was most likely influenced by the title of Alain Locke's book, The New Negro that was published in 1925 and reflected the popular sentiments of racial pride evident in the United States at the time. The New Negro Art Theater group continued producing children's plays including Cinderella, Snow White, Re 'd Riding Hood, Water Babies, and Alladin. Winfield was already being touted as "making a name for himself in the dramatic world" when interviewed on radio station W.H.N, in 1926.8

Winfield was given credit for writing Oh, a play that was performed in 1927 by the Sekondi Players. He was a notable enough personality that he was written about in the local paper, even when it was for finding time to be with his family when they would entertain guests at their home.9

As part of the New Negro Art Theater, the Sekondi Players performed Salome on radio station WCGU on Sunday, February 1 1, 1928. …