African-American dance is a community journey

What is black dance? Is it African folk dancing? Or the jazz and swing dances that developed in the African-American community in 1920s and '30s Harlem? Maybe it's the fusion of African cultural dance with more traditional and contemporary styles of concert dance — the kind that has been the focus of companies such as Alvin Ailey and Garth Fagan Dance.

With more opportunities today than ever for black dancers to study and perform all dance forms, especially those that depart from their own cultural background, defining black dance is no longer easy. In observance of Black History Month, the Democrat and Chronicle invited Guy Thorne, artistic director of the newly created troupe Futurpointe Dance, and Darwin Prioleau, dean of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the State University College at Brockport, to discuss the past, present and future of African-Americans in dance — and to try to define what, exactly, black dance is today.

Both see progress in the inclusion of black dancers and the broad dance forms African-American dancers are now dancing professionally. But their experiences reveal a generation gap: The acceptance of black dance has been a recent and continuing phenomenon.

"There's been an ongoing conflict since I began dancing about what is black dance," Prioleau says. Prioleau danced in major companies around New York City for 15 years before transitioning to teaching and administration. For her, black dance is no longer just about being black.

Her perspective comes from a foundation in traditional ballet, as the first ever African-American to dance in the Greensboro Ballet Company during the 1970s.

"Let's just say it wasn't the happiest time of my life," says Prioleau.

"I think it was very difficult for people to accept a black person in classical ballet. I still think that's an issue. If you look at some of the ballet companies, there are few blacks who are involved."

The emergence of Alvin Ailey — a predominantly African-American dance company based in New York City — spurred an awareness that has been central to the acceptance of black dancers, she says.

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