Free to Dance

By Clark, Susan | Humanities, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview

Free to Dance


Clark, Susan, Humanities


"The stage is the place where I feel free I can just open myself out; I can't do that on the subway. I can't do it walking down the street. But I can do it on the stage.

Jawole Joe Willa Zollar, director, Urban Bush Women

In much of the twentieth century, African American dancers were turned away from schools and dance companies, and some audiences questioned their right to appear in ballet or modern dance at all. In spite of that, the contribution-of African American dancers to modern dance has been considerable-- and the documentary film Free to Dance tells their story.

Edna Guy was fifteen when she first saw Ruth St. Denis dance in Greenwich Village. St. Denis, with her husband and dance partner Ted Shawn, founded the Denishawn school and dance company, which became the training ground for dance pioneers Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, and Doris Humphrey. Guy sent a note backstage, asking to meet St. Denis, and a long friendship between the two began.

At St. Denis's urging, Guy tried to enroll in schools of modern dance. One school accepted her, but then asked her to leave because "some of the other girls didn't like a colored girl in their class." Edna wrote to her friend "Miss Ruth," who wrote back:

"Dear Girlie, Yes, I know you have this race problem with you constantly, and a big problem it is. But, you see, dear, you are a very ignorant little girl in relation to the conditions in this big city. Some things cannot be forced or hurried."

Although St. Denis's reply sounds disturbing and patronizing now, Free to Dance producer Madison Davis Lacy points out that St. Denis was also confined and trapped by her times. In the 1920's blacks and whites simply did not appear on a concert stage together in the United States, even as members of a band. Edna Guy could not get a job as a chorus girl in Harlem in spite of her abilities as a dancer because her skin was too dark. St. Denis admitted Guy to Denishawn, where she grew as an artist and was a great favorite with the teachers. Yet she was only permitted to dance in school performances, not public ones. Even Ruth St. Denis, a pioneer in a revolutionary art form, would not risk putting a black dancer on the stage.

Edna Guy's role is not only poignant, but pivotal. She persisted as a dancer after leaving Denishawn and put together an evening of dance in New York City in 1937. The performance was significant in that it featured African American dancers-and because it helped launch the career of Katherine Dunham. Dunham would go on to help develop the look of modern dance into forms that still resonate today.

Some dancers nicknamed Dunham "Anthropological Katie" because of her extensive background in anthropology which informed her company's dance. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, she spent a year in the Caribbean filming and documenting Afro-Caribbean dance, and some of her original footage is featured in Free to Dance. Dunham's technical mastery and high-voltage stage presence might have helped make her a star, but it was the didactic component of her dance that made it acceptable to a wide American audience. Context was important in her performances; the ballets often reflected a mixture of regional dancing, drumming, costuming, and speech, and she insisted that her dancers understand the social and religious underpinnings of each dance.

Dunham, now in her nineties, is the recipient of many national and international honors for her contributions to modern dance. She says it is "foolish" to present any cultural phenomenon as growing in total isolation, even classical ballet. Some of Dunham's contributions are clearly delineated. It is impossible to think of modern dance without the articulation of the shoulders or the pelvis-but these seemed revolutionary when first introduced as part of the Dunham method. Her influence, and that of African and Afro-Caribbean dance, are traced in Free to Dance, and so is the influx of other influences fresh from Africa. …

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