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Alvin Ailey Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1955. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-92018).

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Alvin Ailey Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1955. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114552).

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Ailey, Alvin (05 January 1931–01 December 1989), actor, dancer, and choreographer, was born in Rogers, Texas, the son of Alvin Ailey, a laborer, and Lula Elizabeth Cliff, a cotton picker and domestic. Before Ailey was a year old, his father abandoned the family, leaving them homeless for close to six years. During that time Ailey and his mother made their way, often by foot, across the unforgiving terrain of the impoverished and bitterly racist Brazos Valley in southeastern Texas to seek shelter with relatives and find work in nearby fields....

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Albertieri, Luigi (1860–25 August 1930), dancer, choreographer, and teacher, was born in Rome, Italy. Little is known of Albertieri’s parents, aside from the fact that his mother was widowed when he was very young. He was adopted at the age of eight by the Italian dancer and ballet master Enrico Cecchetti and Cecchetti’s wife, Giuseppina. Cecchetti had noticed Albertieri in a juvenile opera company’s performance of ...

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Alexander, Dorothy (22 April 1904–17 November 1986), dancer, teacher, and artistic director, was born Dorothea Moses in Atlanta, Georgia, the daughter of Frank Moses, a sales executive, and Cora Mina Thibadeau. Illness first introduced Dorothy to dance. At the age of six she was forced to spend a year immobilized by osteomyelitis. Dance was recommended to accelerate her recuperation, and the remainder of her life was devoted to the art. Every summer during her early adulthood she left Atlanta in search of the best teachers. Her choices were eclectic; they included ...

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Maud Allan Photograph by Arnold Genthe, 1910. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G399-4135-A).

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Allan, Maud (27 August 1873–07 October 1956), dancer, choreographer, and actress, was born Ula Maude Durrant in Toronto, Canada, the daughter of William Allan Durrant, a shoemaker, and Isa Matilda Hutchinson. In the late 1870s the family migrated from Ontario to San Francisco, where Allan grew up and, from an early age, studied piano with several teachers. San Francisco’s thriving theatrical and musical environment in the late 1880s and early 1890s enabled her to see fine performances, including those by some of the best women artists, among them Adele aus der Ohe and Sarah Bernhardt. Allan’s discipline, however, was piano. At age twenty-two, already musically accomplished and very beautiful, she went to Berlin for advanced piano study at the Royal High School for Music then under the direction of Joseph Joachim....

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Astaire, Adele (10 September 1898–25 January 1981), musical theater dancer, was born Adele Marie Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, the daughter of Frederick Austerlitz, a brewer from Vienna, and Ann Gelius. As children, Adele and her younger brother, Fred Astaire, showed promise as entertainers, performing in local amateur theatricals. Around 1904 their parents took them to New York where they studied at the the Metropolitan Ballet School and the Claude Alvienne School of Dance. They also trained with ...

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Fred Astaire. Gelatin silver print, 1936, by unidentified artist. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

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Astaire, Fred (10 May 1899–22 June 1987), dancer, film star, and choreographer, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Frederick Austerlitz, an immigrant Austrian brewery employee, and Ann Geilus. Astaire’s sister, Adele Astaire, showed unusual talent in early dancing school recitals and was taken to New York in 1904 by her mother for professional training. Her brother, younger by a year and a half, was enrolled in dancing school with her. In 1906, when Fred was only seven, the two children began performing successfully in vaudeville....

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Baby Laurence (24 February 1921–02 April 1974), African-American jazz tap dancer, was born Laurence Donald Jackson in Baltimore, Maryland. His parents’ names and occupations are unknown. He was a boy soprano at age twelve, singing with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. When the bandleader Don Redman...

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Josephine Baker Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1949. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-93000).

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Baker, Josephine (03 June 1906–12 April 1975), dancer, singer, and civil rights activist, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Eddie Carson, a musician, and Carrie Macdonald. Her parents parted when Josephine was still an infant, and her mother married Arthur Martin, which has led to some confusion about her maiden name. Very little is known about her childhood, except that she was a witness to the East St. Louis riot in 1917. This event was often a feature of her talks in the 1950s and 1960s about racism and the fight for equality, which fostered the oft-repeated assertion that the family was resident in East St. Louis. Before the age of eighteen Josephine had been married twice, first to Willie Wells and then to William Baker, to whom she was married in Camden, New Jersey, in September 1921....

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Bales, William (27 June 1910–08 September 1990), dancer and teacher, was born in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, the son of Sam Bialystotsky and Dora (maiden name unknown), the owners of a fruit and vegetable store. Bales’s older stepsisters, Anne and Gertrude, started the family’s interest in theatrical performance. They studied dance in nearby Pittsburgh, then Gertrude started offering classes in their home. Bales began lessons at age fourteen in tap, acrobatics, and ballroom, but he considered the movies to be equally influential on his dancing, especially the films of ...

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Constance Valis Hill

Bates, Peg Leg (11 October 1907–08 December 1998), tap dancer, was born Clayton Bates in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, the son of Rufus Bates, a laborer, and Emma Stewart Bates, a sharecropper and housecleaner. He began dancing when he was five. At twelve, while working in a cotton-seed gin mill, he caught and mangled his left leg in a conveyor belt. The leg was amputated on the kitchen table at his home. Although he was left with only one leg and a wooden peg leg his uncle carved for him, Bates resolved to continue dancing. “It somehow grew in my mind that I wanted to be as good a dancer as any two-legged dancer,” he recalled. “It hurt me that the boys pitied me. I was pretty popular before, and I still wanted to be popular. I told them not to feel sorry for me.” He meant it. He began imitating the latest rhythm steps of metal tap shoe dancers, adding his own novelty and acrobatic steps. He worked his way from minstrel shows and carnivals to the vaudeville circuits. At fifteen, after becoming the undisputed king of one-legged dancers, able to execute acrobatic, graceful soft shoe and powerful rhythm-tapping all with one leg and a peg, he established a professional career as a ....

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Beatty, Talley (1919–29 April 1995), choreographer, dancer, and teacher, was born in Cedar Grove, Louisiana, the son of a house painter. His parents’ names are unknown. In the small town of Cedar Grove, right outside Shreveport, Beatty’s earliest dance influence was the legendary Katherine Dunham. When he was eleven years old, she invited him to “watch dances in progress,” according to historian Joe Nash, a close friend and colleague of Beatty. Dunham was in rehearsal for ...

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Judith Brin Ingber

Berk, Fred (25 January 1911–26 February 1980), dancer, was born Fritz Berger in Vienna, Austria, the son of Jacob Berger, a dairy owner, and Henrietta Blau. Berk was born into a Viennese Orthodox Jewish family to a stern father who apprenticed him at age fourteen to a goldsmith. Hunching over his metalwork led to back problems and the medical suggestion to study dance. This began a career that spanned continents and decades....

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Rusty E. Frank

Berry Brothers, dancers, , consisted of Ananias “Nyas” Berry (18 Aug. 1913–5 Oct. 1951) and James Berry (c. 1915–28 Jan. 1969), both born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Warren Berry (25 Dec. 1922–10 Aug. 1996), born in Denver, Colorado, the sons of Ananias Berry and Redna Berry, whose occupations are unknown....

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See Berry Brothers

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See Berry Brothers