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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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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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Balanchine, George (22 January 1904–30 April 1983), ballet choreographer, was born Georgii Melitonovich Balanchivadze in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the son of Meliton Balanchivadze, a composer, and Maria Nikolaevna Vasil’eva. Balanchine was of Georgian extraction on his father’s side; for this reason, he later insisted that his character owed more to Mediterranean culture than to Slav. He began piano lessons at the age of five, studying first with his mother, and was accepted into the ballet section of the Imperial Theater School, Saint Petersburg, in 1913. His financially straitened parents were motivated principally by the chance to secure him a free education. In addition to full board, the school offered a complete academic program as well as the finest dance instruction in the country; graduation guaranteed an income for life, first as a dancer, then as a teacher or coach, all subsidized by the tsar. As was customary for students, during his second year Balanchine performed with the Imperial Ballet troupe on the stage of the famed Maryinsky Theater; this crystallized his desire to dance. The ballet that so inspired him was ...

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Cole, Jack (27 April 1911–17 February 1974), dancer, choreographer, and director, was born John Ewing Richter in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the son of Charles F. Richter, a druggist, and Mae Ewing. Charles and Mae Richter separated, but his mother told the young Jack (falsely), that his father had died sometime before she married Cole, whose first name and occupation are unknown. In later years, Jack Cole, who took his stepfather’s name when he became a dancer, regaled colleagues with tales of his mother’s “rowdy Irish” family. Sent away to boarding schools such as the Academy of the Sisters of St. Dominic and Newton Academy in New Jersey, Cole remembered his childhood as unhappy. For a man who was to become an outstanding dancer and choreographer, apparent childhood injuries to his knee, which would trouble him all his career, and to his eyes, which were slightly crossed and caused him continual embarrassment, were handicaps to be overcome by sheer willpower. Graduating from Columbia High School in South Orange, New Jersey, Cole’s goal was college, but Dartmouth, which he claimed to have attended, has no record of him. He did briefly enroll at Columbia University, though only in the extension division. Coming to Manhattan, where he soon joined the Denishawn dance ensemble, proved the turning point in his life. Not trained as a dancer, he soon made up for his physical deficiencies by developing intensive training exercises—some derived from his new mentors, some devised by himself—in which he would, to the close of his career, drill his dancers....

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Cunningham, Merce (16 April 1919–26 July 2009), dancer and choreographer, was born Mercier Philip Cunningham in Centralia, Washington, the son of Clifford Cunningham, a lawyer, and Mayme Joach, a public schoolteacher. As a teenager Cunningham studied tap, soft shoe, and exhibition ballroom with a local dance instructor, Maude M. Barrett, and during his high school years, he performed regularly in her recitals as well as in other amateur venues. Even though he would eventually pursue a more rarefied, less popular form of dance, Cunningham always retained a deep affection for his earlier, more “vaudevillian” training....

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Dollar, William (20 April 1907–28 February 1986), dancer, choreographer, and teacher, was born in East St. Louis, Illinois, the son of Edward Dollar, a Hungarian grocer, and Catherine Hoffman. Because his mother was opposed to dance he did not inform her when, in his senior year of high school, he began taking classes in “acrobatic adages” with a local teacher, a Miss Clark, who did not charge him. There he was seen by Bob Alton, who immediately billed him and his partner into the vaudeville shows that were given between films at the Missouri Theatre. Alton’s wife then sent Dollar to New York to see Mikhail Mordkin, the Russian dancer and teacher, who got him a scholarship at the Murray Anderson school, where Mordkin taught. In 1930 Dollar went with the Mordkin company to Philadelphia, where that same year ...

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Hawkins, Erick (23 April 1909–23 November 1994), dancer and choreographer, was born Frederick Hawkins in Trinidad, Colorado, the only son of an inventor. During his childhood he moved briefly to Pomona, California, and then to Kansas City, Missouri, where he completed his schooling in public schools. Receiving a scholarship to Harvard College from the local alumni association, he matriculated in 1926 and graduated four years later with a major in ancient Greek language and civilization....

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Ito, Michio (13 April 1892–06 November 1961), choreographer, performer, and teacher, was born in Tokyo, the son of Tamekichi Ito, an architect, friend of Frank Lloyd Wright, and the first Japanese to graduate from the University of California, and Kimiye Iijima, the daughter of a zoologist. As a youth in Japan Michio had a close association with Noh, the traditional, stylized lyric drama of Japan, and also received training in the popular theatrical form, kabuki. In 1911 he traveled to Paris and Berlin where he saw ...

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Shawn, Ted (21 October 1891–09 January 1972), dancer, was born Edwin Meyers Shawn in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of Elmer Ellsworth Shawn, a newspaperman, and Mary Lee Booth, who was related to the Booth family of actors. As a youth, Shawn wanted to be both an actor and a preacher. He entered the University of Denver and studied for the Methodist ministry until, in his junior year, he contracted diphtheria. Experimental medication left his lower limbs temporarily paralyzed. To speed their recovery, he enrolled in a local ballet class. This conspicuous and courageous act shaped the eighteen-year-old Shawn’s future. Then in 1911 he saw for the first time ...

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Tudor, Antony (04 April 1908–19 April 1987), choreographer and dancer, was born William Cook in London, England, the son of Alfred Thomas Cook, a butcher, and Florence Summers. Brought up in a rough working-class neighborhood in the East End, Tudor learned at an early age how to fend for himself. Family life, however, was not bleak or devoid of culture. His parents encouraged him to learn music and to attend live theater. His father often took him to music hall variety shows and Christmas pantomimes while his mother sang songs and played piano on Sunday afternoons. Tudor attended a local school until he was sixteen and then continued at Alice Owens’s private school until, at the age of eighteen, he found a clerical job at the Smithfield meat markets, where his father worked. Ambitious but still unsure where his future lay, Tudor took courses in rhetoric and religion at night and joined several dramatic societies. He began taking dance lessons in order to enhance his stage work....

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Weidman, Charles Edward, Jr. (22 July 1901–15 July 1975), dancer, choreographer, and teacher, was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, the son of Charles Edward Weidman, a fire chief, and Vesta Hoffman, a Midwest roller skating champion. During the building of the Panama Canal, Weidman’s father served as head of the fire departments in the canal zone, so Weidman spent some of his youth in Panama. As a teenager he studied dance in Lincoln with Eleanor Frampton, performing in state pageants and in the chorus of local opera productions. Interested in ancient civilizations, archaeology, and history, he was enthralled by the Egyptian, Grecian, and East Indian dances performed by the Denishawn company on a visit to Lincoln in 1916. He determined then that dancing with this company was what he wanted to do....