These drawings encapsulate a history of individual and collective opportunity and excellence, as well as disenfranchisement and marginalization. The exhibit contains a mix of well and lesser-known artists, and nameless groups of dancers, who have contributed to the history of dance in America. To be rendered by Hirschfeld is to be immortalized in the fraternity of American popular art. The volume of images in his archive demonstrates a great reverence for the people and art of New York, especially during the Harlem Renaissance era. Ultimately, my intent is to place these dancers at the center of the cannon, not on the margins. A rightful place, as the foundation and evolution of dance in America, on stage and in social settings, is intertwined and indebted to innovation and performances by Black people in America.
In accepting the invitation to curate the images for this exhibit, I am purposefully engaging with the complexities of caricature and race before and during the twentieth century. To draw a caricature is to exaggerate, often to comic or grotesque affect. The same can be said of the damaging, racist images associated with minstrel stereotypes, images that continue to wound centuries after their first appearance. Given the role of racial stereotypes in this particular visual art form, every caricature depiction comes loaded with the weight and implications of history. How does one render exaggerations of physical characteristics as homage or reverence? And how will we recognize it? In her book, The Content of Our Caricature, Rebecca Wanzo notes an important distinction, “Caricatures can be about individuals and thus are not the exact same as stereotypes, even as they can also circulate ideas about groups through stereotyping.” She goes on to assert that while stereotype simplifies and objectifies, caricature is about excess of subject. This is the context though which I have assembled these images.
Melanie George, Guest Curator
The cakewalk is a curious piece of American history, emblematic of the complexities of race relations resulting from the transatlantic slave trade. The story of the cakewalk is simultaneously a tale of cultural appropriation and exchange. A dance of mockery and celebration, it originates from enslaved African Americans impressions of the mannerisms of their white owners. Oblivious to the origin of the dance, slave masters became so enthralled by it they arranged contests for their own entertainment. The best of the enslaved dancers received a cake as a prize. White dancers eventually began performing the dance too. St Louis Woman is a 1946 musical, set in the early twentieth century, created by Harlem Renaissance writers Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen (based on Bontemps’ book, God Sends Sunday), with music by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. It ran for 113 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre (now named the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) in New York.
Imagery of Josephine Baker (1906-1975) often depicts her sensual and risqué stage persona. Her performances pushed boundaries in ways necessary to the advancement of art in contemporary society, and central to the achievements of Black performers in America and abroad in the early to mid-twentieth century. This Hirschfeld drawing is remarkable because it does not present her as wild and sexy. Baker lived a multifaceted life, her performance persona captures just one side of her identity, which also includes humanitarian, activist, mother, wife, and spy. Her 1936 performance in a revival of the Ziegfeld Follies at the Winter Garden Theatre, captured in this Hirschfeld drawing, was met with a scornful review from Time Magazine, invoking racist and misogynist language to describe her performance. Shortly after she returned to France disappointed by the response to her work and became a French citizen a year later.
Located in Harlem on Lennox Avenue between 140th and 141st streets, the block-long Savoy ballroom was a cultural hub for all that was hip and hot in jazz and Black life from the 1920s to the 1950s. With white owners and Black management, the Savoy was one of the few venues that did not segregate Black and white patrons. A cavernous and luxurious space with capacity for 4,000 people, it was home to the best big bands of the era, including Chick Webb and his Orchestra featuring a young Ella Fitzgerald on vocals. The dancers were equal in caliber to the bands. Among them were Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, featuring master innovators Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Al Minns, Willa Mae Ricker, and Leon James. In 1934, Webb’s band recorded Edgar Sampson’s Stompin’ at the Savoy, a swinging ode to the ballroom’s vitality.
The Nicholas Brothers are unmatched among the Flash Acts in tap dance. At once acrobatic rhythmic, elegant, and virtuosic, their performances are heavily studied by the dancers who came after them, but rarely duplicated. Said to be Fred Astaire’s favorite tap dancers, they appeared on stage and screen as supportive and specialty acts in Hollywood movie musicals, and on stage and television. One wonders about the careers they might have had if they had been afforded the opportunities to star in features as Astaire and Gene Kelly did. Given the universal acknowledgement of their talent, their stardom and success were only eclipsed by barriers to access due to racism. Hirschfeld captured the dynamism of Fayard (1914-2006) and Harold (1921-2000) on the ground and in the air, in the 1937 Broadway production of Babes in Arms, choreographed by George Balanchine.
Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) was a pioneer of Black concert and theatrical dance. A performer, choreographer, anthropologist, and activist, Dunham’s innovations as pedagogue and scholar, and her boundary breaking choreography, had tangible and significant effect on the visibility of Black dancers on stage and screen, and in the academy. This Hirschfeld drawing was featured on the poster for Tropical Review, a 1943 performance by her company that debuted at the Martin Beck Theatre (now named the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) in New York City. The production ran for three months followed by tours throughout the United States and Canada. Billed as “a musical heatwave … voodoo! Boogie! Shimmy! jazz and jive! primitive rites!," Tropical Review featured thoroughly researched dances of the Caribbean and Latin America, mixed with African-American vernacular and plantation dances.
With Muriel Smith and Cosy Cole
Carmen Jones is Oscar Hammerstein’s adaptation of Georges Bizet’s Carmen with an all-Black cast. Though Dorothy Dandridge would come to be forever associated as “the” Carmen Jones on film, the role was originated by Muriel Smith (1923-1985). An opera-trained singer, Smith also played the role of Carmen in the opera production at London’s Covent Garden. A favorite of Richard Rogers, she originated roles in South Pacific and The King and I, and her vocals were dubbed over film performances by Zsa Zsa Gabor in Moulin Rouge and Juanita Hall in The King and I. Hirschfeld depicts her with chorus performers alongside jazz drummer William “Cozy” Cole. A versatile and dynamic drummer, Cole’s standout solo in the production “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum” certainly inspired Hirschfeld to capture is his image alongside Smith.
Bunny Briggs (1922-2014) decided he wanted to be a tap dance at three years old, after seeing Bill “Bojangles” Robinson perform. He was performing professionally by age five. In his adult career, he had a long running affiliation with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Known as “Duke’s Dancer,” Briggs’ tap dancing style was known for musicality, stamina, and character work that complimented the many textures of Ellington’s compositions. His career spanned eight decades, traversing the robust and lean periods for tap dancers. In his later years, he was featured in George Nierenberg’s seminal tap documentary No Maps on My Taps. In the 1989 Broadway production Black and Blue, depicted here, Briggs performs a memorable solo to Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood, demonstrating his flawless dexterity, and giving a masterclass in how a tap dancer’s interpretation and improvisation can completely recalibrate the mood and meaning of a song.
The blues can encompass a whole host of feelings and embody a range of tempos. It is essential to expressive movement and music in the African American lexicon. This slow blues, as captured by Hirschfeld in 1941 is a lithograph from his Harlem As Seen By Hirschfeld series. It could have been danced to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” or “How Long Blues” by Count Basie or Louis Armstrong’s “I Used to Love You.” All are blues tunes, but each with a different mood, cadence, and tempo. Hirschfeld captures the varied responses to this slow blues in the expressions on the dancers faces and the proximity of their bodies. Responding to the blues is instinctive and visceral. Billie Holiday once said “The blues to me is like being very sad, very sick, going to church, being very happy… The blues is sort of a mixed-up thing. You just gotta feel it.”
Originally choreographed by George Balanchine for the Broadway musical On Your Toes in 1936, Slaughter on 10th Avenue was reworked for the New York City Ballet in 1968 with Suzanne Farrell and Arthur Mitchell in the lead roles. Slaughter reflects Balanchine’s interest in jazz music and dance, and the influence Black vernacular movement and style on his work. This iteration of the work premiered on May 2, 1968, during Mitchell’s final year with the company. He founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem the following year, in response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As the first Black male principal dancer with NYCB, Mitchell broke racial barriers and mores, originating roles in some of Balanchine’s most acclaimed ballets, including Agon (1957) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962), and by partnering white women on stage, as he does here with Farrell.
New Orleans born Vernel Bagneris’ (b. 1949) Further Mo is a sequel production to his runaway hit, One Mo Time (1979). Both productions are set in New Orleans’ Lyric Theater, known as “America’s Largest and Finest Colored Theater.” A home for Black vaudeville artists in the 1920s, the Lyric was a part of the white-owned TOBA, the Theater Owners Booking Agency, alternately referred to as “Tough On Black Asses” by the performers. In Hirschfeld’s rendering of Bagneris, we see the influence of jazz choreographer Pepsi Bethel. Bethel, a repository of authentic jazz dance of Black America, was the choreographer for both productions. Given Hirschfeld’s long history chronicling authentic jazz dance in its heyday, one can easily see the attraction to Bagneris’ work, which pays to tribute to community and the roots of jazz in African American art.
Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-1990) was an extraordinary “every man” performer. Affable and charming, while also a world-class singer, dancer, actor, comedian, mimic, and drummer. He began his professional career at age three, touring with his father as member of the Will Mastin Trio. Davis’ decades long career continued until cancer prevented performing in the final year of his life. This image depicts the many guises of Davis in the Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse production Stop the World, I Want Get Off. Davis was enamored with the production after seeing it in London in 1961, recording three songs from the show as chart topping pop hits. In spring 1978, the musical’s book was adapted for an American revival. Opening August 3, 1978 at the New York State Theatre, it ran for thirty performances, and was captured on film for a theatrical release, retitled Sammy Stops the World (see clips here)
Judith Jamison (b. 1943) is the grand dame of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Standing just two inches shy of six feet tall, she presents a regal, lithe presence on stage and off. Jamison joined the company in 1965 and rose to fame as a featured performer and muse of Mr. Ailey, most notably in the solo he created for her in 1971, Cry. Following a hiatus in which she performed on Broadway, guest starred with ballet companies, and choreographed her own works, she returned to the Ailey fold in 1989 as Artistic Director, following Ailey’s death. Echo: Far From Home is semi-autobiographical piece created by Jamison in 1998. Set to the music of Robert Ruggieri, she explores her experiences as a Black woman in dance through lineage and personal narrative. Hirschfeld captures that sense of lineage by depicting the proximity and reflective relationship between Jamison and her dancers.
Hinton Battle’s (b. 1956) performance resumé is legendary, having starred in roles in The Wiz, Dancin’, Dreamgirls, Ragtime, Miss Saigon, and The Tap Dance Kid. In Sophisticated Ladies, Battle performed alongside Gregory Hines, Phyllis Hyman, Gregg Burge, and Judith Jamison. A musical revue conceived by Donald McKayle from the music of Duke Ellington, Battle’s vocal performance is only outdone by the soaring leaps and turns he executes in the choreography. Battle won the first of his three Tony Awards for his performance in Sophisticated Ladies.
Lena Horne once remarked about the dancing of Charles “Honi’ Coles (1911-1992) that he made “butterflies look clumsy.” Coles was one half of the tap dance duo, Coles and Atkins, with his partner Charles “Cholly” Atkins (1913-2003). Coles and Atkins were a “class act,” a term used to describe not only the elegance and precision of their dancing and dress, but also a sign of the respectability politics of classifying Black artists in pre-civil rights America. During the mid-twentieth century, when opportunities for tap dancers dwindled, Coles was the production manager at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Atkins became the in-house choreographer for the Motown record label. The 1970s brought about a tap revival, and a return of Coles to the stage. Among his many late career successes as was his role as Mr. Magix in My One and Only.
Though it’s run was short—closing on Broadway after only 24 performances—Uptown… It’s Hot earned Maurice Hines a Tony nomination for Leading Actor in a Musical. Conceived, directed, choreographed, and starring Hines, the musical revue chronicled the “history of 20th-century African-American pop music, from jazz to Motown to rap,” with songs by Duke Ellington, Frankie Lymon, Stevie Wonder, and Prince. This drawing by Hirschfeld suggests Hines, Ramsey and Gyse are in a playful, mood, perhaps performing the production’s tribute to comedian Pigmeat Markham, Good Mornin’ Judge, or the swing-era medley of A-Tisket A Tasket and Jumpin at the Woodside.
The role of Bernardo, the Puerto Rican gang leader of the Sharks in West Side Story, is defined by machismo and a charismatic nature. He is equal parts patriarchal family man, romantic partner, and commanding chief. He is also an exceptional dancer, as one must be to have a role in this production. Though some of the politics have not aged well, West Side Story stands out as one of the few American musical productions to center Latino men in the narrative, predating Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work by several decades. This Hirschfeld image depicts Hector Jaime Mercado (b.1949) as Bernardo to Debbie Allen’s Anita in the 1980 Broadway revival. The line he strikes in this image is a clear nod to the iconic Jerome Robbins choreography of the mambo in the “Dance at the Gym.”
This lithograph from 1970 feels timeless. It could be “shake dancer” from the chorus lines of the 1930s. It could be a lady hoofer in 1950s. Perhaps Hirschfeld is depicting a dancer on Soul Train in ‘70s. One can easily see a dancer in the Black, queer, ballroom scene in New York, vogueing in a battle. From a certain angle, it resembles hip-hop star Missy Elliot dancing in one of her music videos from the early 2000s. That is the beauty of the ubiquity of rhythm. It is essential to dance rooted in Black American culture. It is tangible and identifiable. In this image, Hirschfeld captures body and rhythm as a series of scalloping lines. This rhythm is buoyant and swirls, both in and out of time.