Highlights from America's Black Broadway

By Brown, Tamara | Negro History Bulletin, January-September 1996 | Go to article overview

Highlights from America's Black Broadway


Brown, Tamara, Negro History Bulletin


Dance is an art form and cultural representation expressed through integrated body movement or movements linked together in a sequence in order to emote a certain feeling, desire, or idea. Dance, unfortunately, has not warranted much scholarly attention. If a field is not adequately studied, researched, and documented, then it is sure to suffer. In To Dance Is Human: A Theory of Nonverbal Communication, dance anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna explains that "[t]he comparatively lagging state of dance studies has several explanations. Scholars generally have a limited view of dance ... [and] often fail to distinguish dance from similar motor behavior." Not enough research is done by those familiar with this entity as both an art form and scholarly endeavor. (1)

Only in relatively recent years has dance been considered an important factor in human behavior and cultural practices and thus a serious field for study. The dance scholarship that is undertaken, though, is plagued by problems such as ethnocentrism and ignorance by supposedly erudite scholars of various disciplines who view dance as simply the use of the traditional anatomical limbs for entertainment purposes. Such primarily Western viewpoints definitely presents for non-Western dance and dancers.

More documentation of this performing art is necessary to discern why a people dance and what further implications dance has on their lives and environment. As more academic investigation is performed in this field, dance will be taken more seriously as a tool to measure all aspects of a people's social, cultural, political and economic formation. In Katherine Dunham: Reflections on the Social and Political Contexts of Afro-American Dance, renowned dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, and activist Katherine Dunham states that the "possibilities for absorption and understanding [through dance] by masses of untrained people is limitless ... [There is] a strong connection between the dance, music, and archaic ceremonies of a people and that people's social and economic history." She concludes that one "can learn more about people from their dances than from almost anything else about them." (2)

In addition, much entertainment history is written about New York or California. Nevertheless, other areas around the country also made important contributions to this realm. Black culture, particularly in the area of dance, flourished in Washington, D.C., from the early part of the twentieth century through the sixties and beyond. This paper highlights some of the District's early dance pioneers, many of whom continue to perform this art form today.

America's Black Broadway

A 1946 Newspic article noted that "Washington, D.C., has two streets known above all others: Constitution Avenue, down which all dignitaries parade en route to the White House, and U Street, a perpetual parade of sepia Washington en route anywhere and nowhere." This corridor, which ran roughly from the Scurlock Studio on 9th Street to 18th Street, was known as the "Black man's Connecticut Avenue." The blocks from the Lincoln Theatre at 13th and U to the Howard Theatre at 7th and T were referred to as "America's Black Broadway." (3)

During the twenties and throughout the early sixties, Washington was a thriving outlet for many performers on the "Chitlin' Circuit." Theaters such as the Howard, Lincoln, and Dunbar featured plays, musicals, movies, and singing and dancing acts. Theater historian Henry Whitehead maintains that these theaters prospered because they were among the few theaters that catered to Washington's black population before segregation. All the famous acts of the time performed at the arenas that are now part of an economically depressed Shaw community.

The Howard Theatre located at 620 T Street, NW, which likely was constructed and so named because Howard University did not have a campus theater, is now a national historic landmark. …

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