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5 African Dance in New York City Marcia E. Heard and Mansa K. Mussa OVERVIEW: THE 1920 TO THE 1950 Although the first permanent community of Africans living in New York date from the early seventeenth century,1 the history of African dance as a concert art begins some three hundred years later. In the 1920s and 1930s, Efrom Odok, Asadata Dafora, and Momudu Johnson founded groups that taught dances from Nigeria and Sierra Leone.2 By 1938, their three companies had presented African dance in New York City: Efrom Odok’s Calabar Dancers, Momudu Johnson’s dance group, and Asadata Dafora’s company, Shogola Oloba. Odok, who had emigrated from Nigeria , claimed that his group had been in New York City since 1921, making him the first to present African dances as a concert art in the United States.3 Dafora’s long-lived company, which remained in operation from 1933 until 1960, had a profound influence on the form, and many important African dancers were named on its rosters.4 In the late 1930s, Ismay Andrews, a former student of Dafora, began to teach dances from East Africa in Harlem. Nana Yao Opare Dinizulu founded his dance company in 1948, based primarily on work of Dafora dancer Alice Dinizulu. In the early 1950s, Michael Olatunji left Dafora to form his own African dance company, where he reintegrated the dances of Nigeria. The dances of Guinea were brought to New York City in the late 1950s by the National Dance Theatre of Guinea, better known as Les Ballets Africains. When Les Ballets Africains continued on a tour of the United States, Ladji Camara, one of its drummers, stayed in New York City. He introduced African 143 144 /  2:  Americans to the dances of the Mali Empire and to the d’jembe family of drums. In this, Camara had a great impact on the direction of African dance in New York, and the United States, from 1970 to the present. Asadata Dafora Asadata Dafora (1890–1965) came to the United States from Sierra Leone in 1929 and presented his first dance concert in 1933. Following the success of the 1934 work Kykunkor, Dafora created several more dance operas that were performed on Broadway , at Carnegie Hall on five occasions, at the Ninety-second Street YM-YWHA, the New York Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, and the Bronx Zoo. He also toured throughout the southern and the western United States and served as choreographer for Orson Welles’s production of Voodoo Macbeth (1936). He taught many dance and drum artists, including Ismay Andrews, Alphonse Cimber, Norman Coker, Jean-Léon Destiné, Alice Dinizulu, Katherine Dunham, Charles Moore, Michael Olatunji, Josephine Premice, and Pearl Primus. Dafora founded his company, Shogola Oloba, in 1933, and it remained in existence until 1960, when he returned to Sierra Leone. Dafora died in New York City in March 1965. Ismay Andrews A former Dafora dancer, Ismay Andrews never traveled to Africa, yet she had the uncanny ability to successfully re-create dances and music from East Africa based upon research. She taught classes at the Harlem Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, one of New York’s major centers of African American religion and culture. Her most accomplished student was Chief Bey, who became a leading African dance figure in his own right. Andrews enjoyed tremendous community support for her dance operations from politicians and community leaders, including the minister and congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. She founded a dance company called the Swa-Hili Dancers that Ismay Andrews and her dance company participating in an American Theater Wing War Service event, ca. 1950 (Photographer unknown; Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library–Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations; reproduced with permission) 145 146 /  2:  presented re-creations of East African dances on stage, in cabarets , and for the USO. She died in poverty in New York City. Tonyea Masequoi In the early 1940s, Tonyea Masequoi came from Liberia to study at the Hampton Institute, a private school for black men and women on the seacoast of southeastern Virginia. He joined the Hampton Creative Dance Group, under the guidance of Charles H.Williams and Charlotte Moton Kennedy, and became instrumental in the introduction of African dance into college settings in the United States. Masequoi became known for his stunning use of stilts in his choreography. The Hampton Creative Dance Group toured...


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