Black History Month: Celebrating African American Choreographers and Dancers

Jazz Tangcay

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When you think of famous choreographers, one of the first people who probably comes to mind is Debbie Allen. Also a dancer, a director and an actress, she has done it all.

Allen made her Broadway debut in “Purlie,” but gained recognition as Lydia Grant in both the TV and film versions of “Fame.” She won three Emmy Awards for her work on “Fame” and the anniversary special “Motown 30: What’s Goin’ On!” She also choreographed the Academy Awards for 10 year, and most recently executive produced, directed and appeared on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”

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Josephine Baker, Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey are among the dance pioneers who paved the way for Allen and others. Ailey established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958 and combined Afro-Caribbean dance with modern and jazz dance techniques.

Donald McKayle, meanwhile, made his mark as the first African American to choreograph and direct a Broadway musical — “Raisin” (1973) and “Sophisticated Ladies” (1981).

Camille A. Brown is a dancer, choreographer and director. Her work on the 2012 play “Choir Boy” earned her a Tony Award for best choreography. Brown worked on Broadway’s “Once on This Island” and served as choreographer for NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” working with Sara Bareilles and John Legend.

Todrick Hall first came to attention during Season 9 of “American Idol” and has been dancing since he was nine years old. Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Ariana Grande have all worked with Hall, who can often be seen on the judging panel of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” when he’s not working as the show’s choreographer.

Ballet dancer Misty Copeland earned her place in history when she became in 2015 the first African American woman to be promoted to a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She began performing with them in 1999 and worked on numerous productions. Director Lasse Hallström created the role of the ballerina princess especially for her in the 2018 Disney film “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”

Countless others who have made a significant impact on the art form include John W. Bubbles, who started his career when he was a young child and fused jazz with tap dance. Brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas, who danced their way through 1943’s “Stormy Weather.” There’s also Gregory Hines, who acted, danced and choreographed, promoting the art form of tap. He appeared in “The Cotton Club” and “Running Scared,” and was a regular on “Will & Grace.”

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