Icons: African American Trailblazers In The Dance Industry

Hello From The Top Family and happy Black History Month! Today in honor of this month of celebration of black history and black culture, we wanted to take a moment and shine a light on just some of the African American trailblazers in the dance industry. Throughout the centuries, black people have changed the game in the art of dance, innovating new styles and creating some of the very dance elements that we know and love today. With all of the contributions the dancers down below, as well as many others, have made, we are so happy to share a bit of a back story on these legends, some of their accomplishments and how they have changed the art of dance forever. Let’s get into it.

Misty Copeland

photo credit: atlantaballet.com

Born in Kansas City, MO, Misty Copeland started dancing at age 13 (an age that is stereotyped as “late” in the ballet industry), attending Lauredison Ballet Center. In 1999, at age 17, she was invited to join the American Ballet Theatre’s secondary studio company after attending an Intensive there that summer and joined their primary company’s Corps de Ballet in 2001. Despite experiences of past body image issues and racial pressures as the only black woman in the companies corps at the time, both of which she has been very open in discussing, Misty has persevered, perfecting her craft with a style and grace that is truly her own, yet to be duplicated by anyone. After years of expressing her career dreams of becoming ABT’s first African American woman Principal Dancer , Copeland achieved this goal in June of 2015, a groundbreaking achievement in ballet history. In addition to her work with ABT, Misty’s gift of dance has also taken her into film, television and even working with the one and only Prince. Throughout her career, Misty Copeland has shown many black ballerinas like myself, that there is a spot for us in this industry. Whether you are a “late starter” or a woman of color, ballet is for everyone who has the passion to pursue it and with hard work and vision, we can become innovators to this art, leaving our mark on this genre of dance. And for that Misty, we can’t thank you enough.

Arthur Mitchell 

photo credit: the guardian

Born In Harlem, New York, Arthur Mitchell first began his dance training after being accepted into the High School of Performing Arts, where he began to pursue a career in classical ballet. Upon graduation, Arthur was offered a scholarship with The School of American Ballet, also known as the educational division of the New York City Ballet. In 1955, Mitchel made his very first debut in the New York City Ballet primary company in a performance of “Western Symphony. He rose to the position of the Principal Dancer in NYCB in 1956, just a year after joining the company. His list of work with the company stretches far and wide, performing in ballet productions such as The Nutcracker, Midnight Summers Dream, Agon and more before leaving NYCB in 1966. Though Mr. Mitchel is a dancer recognized for many accomplishments, perhaps his most well known accomplishment is being the founder of the legendary Dance Theater Of Harlem, which he established in 1969. He was passionate and determined to create a place that could effectively provide classical ballet training to the children of Harlem. Starting out in a church basement with only 30 children, Dance Theater Of Harlem grew to be the legendary place of dance that we all know, love and look to for constant inspiration. It will forever go down in history as the first African American Ballet Company in the world and for these achievements, and many, many more, Arthur Mitchel is established as a dance legend that will always serve as a source of inspiration for generations past, present and future.

Debbie Allen

photo credit: elle

Now this woman right here, I like to call the “One and Only”. Born in Houston, TX, Debbie Allen First began her training at the Houston Ballet Academy at the age of twelve under the training of Suzelle Poole. Despite her shining talent, the undeniable Debbie Allen “It Factor” that we all know, love and admire, Mrs. Allen experienced prejudice along her journey, causing her to have to audition for the Houston Ballet Academy, not once, but twice before being accepted. In the midst of, however, Allen’s talent was undeniable. Debbie Allen made her Broadway debut in 1970 starring in many roles, such as Anita from the legendary musical “West Side Story”. But perhaps one of the most notable works Debbie Allen was a part of was her portrayal of Lydia in the 1980’s TV hit “Fame”. Since then Debbie Allen has gone on to become a 3 time Emmy winning choreographer, as well as the owner of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, affectionately known as DADA, based in Los Angeles, California. Debbie Allen will always be a pillar of strength and guidance in the dance community, as well as a constant source of inspiration for dancers of color around the world.

The Nicholas Brothers

photo credit: imdb

Perhaps there is no tap duo more iconic than The Nicholas Brothers. Born in Mobile, Alabama, Fayard and Harold Nicholas are the founders of the legendary dance style “Flash Dancing”, a dance fusion of ballet, tap and acrobatic dance. While the Nicholas Brothers have an extensive list of work that covered a seven decade long career, their most popular is their work in the 1943 movie “Stormy Weather”. Their “Jumpin’ Live” number in the film has been considered one of the most virtuosic dance movie numbers of all time. Amongst their numerous accomplishments, The Nicholas Brothers have also been a source of knowledge amongst the dance world, having taught many other performers such as Debbie Allen, Janet Jackson and more. To sum up the impact, unique style and dynamic aura that these brothers have had on the industry,  Gregory Hines once said that if they were ever to do a biopic on The Nicholas Brothers, their dance numbers would have to be computer generated, because no one has ever been able to duplicate them. And that right there, is the ultimate mic drop.

Gregory Hines

photo credit: biography

Born in New York City, New York, Gregory Hines began tap dancing at age 2 and started dancing semi professionally at age 5. He made his Broadway debut in 1954 and gained numerous Tony Award Nominations for his work. In 1992, he brought home the Tony Award for his role in “Jelly’s Last Jam”. In addition to his work on stage, Gregory Hines also contributed his talents to film and starred in blockbusters such as “White Nights” alongside legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1985. Always a strong advocate for the art of tap, Gregory Hines successfully petitioned for the passing and establishment of National Tap Dance Day in May 1989, a day of recognition that is still proudly celebrated in the dance world and is acknowledged in over 40 countries. Hines is cited as an inspiration for tap dancers all over the world, including dancers Savion Glover, Dianne Walker and countless others. Words will never accurately describe the impact Gregory Hines made on this art of dance, and words will never describe how thankful we are for his numerous works in this industry.

Alvin Ailey 

photo credit: alvinailey.org

And last on this list, but certainly not least. Ladies and Gentlemen, we present to you, the G.O.A.T.  Alvin Ailey Jr was born in Rogers, TX. His love for dance was awakened when he saw the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in 1946, though he did not dive into it seriously right away. In 1949, He began taking classes with his friend at Lester Horton’s dance studio, who would later become his dance mentor. Alvin Ailey joined Horton’s dance company in 1953 and made his debut in the company’s production of Revue Le Bal Caribe. Later that same year, Lester Horton died of a heart attack, which led to Ailey being appointed  as the company’s artistic director and choreographer following Horton’s death. 

In 1958, Alvin Ailey founded The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater with the mission of  bringing to fruition his vision of honoring black culture through dance. The company’s most widely known production is none other than the iconic “Revelations”. With it’s stage life spanning the course of decades, “Revelations” is one the most popular and most performed ballets of all time. In 1969, Ailey went on to open the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. In his 36 long career,  Alvin Ailey choreographed a whopping number of 80 ballets! Though he may no longer be with us, his presence is still felt to this day. Mr. Ailey, we will forever salute you!

From Josephine Baker and Katherine Dunham, to Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers, the list of African American dancers who have impacted the industry is numerous! However, we hope you enjoyed reading this compiled list that we curated today! Though it is currently Black History Month, we love to show our gratefulness and appreciation to these amazing dancers every chance that we get throughout every month of the year. We thank them for their inspiration and we look forward to continuing the work that they started. As always, we wish you a marvelous weekend and remember…

Keep dancing!


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