Theses Doctoral

The Movements of Black Modern Dance: Choreography, Education, and Community Engagement, 1960-1976

Hawk, Emily

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a trailblazing cohort of African American choreographers, dancers, and teachers innovated the aesthetics of their art while also using dance performance as a tool for civic education and community engagement. This group, which included figures like Alvin Ailey, Eleo Pomare, Rod Rodgers, Carole Johnson, and Mozel Spriggs, harnessed the creative potential of the ongoing “dance boom” to intervene in cultural, political, and social debates in American life. They advanced a multistylistic definition of “Black dance,” embracing both Western and Africanist artistic elements. By translating their ideas about pressing sociopolitical topics into the embodied language of movement, they used their choreography to offer explicit commentary on the world around them. Placing a particular emphasis on community engagement, they brought this work to new spaces and contexts, performing in public parks, city streets, college auditoriums, and on broadcast television. Supported by an institutional infrastructure of publications and administrative alliances dedicated to Black dance, they built a national, multiracial audience for their art. Together, these dancemakers functioned as a cohort of public intellectuals, contributing to broader discourse on race, cultural identity, citizenship, and activism within the context of the ongoing Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements.

This dissertation marks the first comprehensive study of this innovative generation of Black dance artists. Combining methods from intellectual history, cultural history, and dance studies, it examines their intervention in American life during a period of urban unrest, cultural revolution, and political transformation. Drawing on a wide range of archival materials, including government and foundation records, lesson plans, choreographic notes, personal papers, critical reviews, programs, correspondence, oral histories, video, and photography, this analysis reconstructs choreographers’ embodied ideas and contextualizes audience reception. In their choreography, creative practice, and pedagogy, these dancemakers elevated the beauty and strength of the Black body in motion and emphasized the universality of African American stories. This dissertation likewise argues that Black modern dance offers a new way of thinking about art and its real-world implications, advancing our understanding of the body’s capacity to communicate ideas, educate audiences, and intervene in public life.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Blake, Casey N.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 26, 2024