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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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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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Angelou, Maya (4 Apr. 1928–28 May 2014), writer, performer, and activist, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, the second child of Bailey Johnson, Sr., a doorman and Navy dietitian, and Vivian Baxter, a registered nurse, cocktail hostess, and Merchant Marine. Her brother, Bailey, Jr., nicknamed her Maya, and the name stuck. After their parents’ divorce, the two young children were sent alone on a train from San Francisco to Stamps, Arkansas, to be met and raised by their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, and their father’s brother, Uncle Willie, who was disabled. Grandmother Henderson had managed to build and own a general store with living quarters in the back, and it was also a safe black community gathering place in the segregated town. Uncle Willie provided a steady stream of good reading and high scholastic expectations, and their grandmother, “Momma,” taught them no-nonsense life skills, took them to church, and loved them....

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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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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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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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Bubbles, John (19 February 1902–18 May 1986), tap dancer and vaudevillian, was born John William Sublett in Louisville, Kentucky, where he attended grammar and high school. His parents’ names are unknown. He began entertaining in his neighborhood as a singer beginning when he was about seven. For a time, he worked in vaudeville in Louisville and on the road. While working as a pin setter at a local bowling alley, Sublett met Ford Lee Washington. They formed a vaudeville act called “Buck and Bubbles” in 1915, with Sublett taking the name of “Bubbles” while Washington became “Buck.” Until Washington’s death on 31 January 1955, they worked together to become one of vaudeville’s legendary acts....

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Castle, Irene (07 April 1893–25 January 1969), and Vernon Castle (02 May 1887–15 February 1918), ballroom dancers, were born, respectively, Irene Foote in New Rochelle, New York, and Vernon Blythe in Norwich, England. Irene was the daughter of Hubert Townsend Foote, a physician, and Annie Elroy Thomas. Vernon was the son of William Blythe, a tavern owner, and Jane (maiden name unknown). Vernon immigrated with his father and sister to the United States in 1906; the next year he took the name Castle. Although he had trained as an engineer at the University of Birmingham, Castle established himself as a promising musical comedy soloist soon after his arrival in the United States. His specialty was comedic dance; however, he was a highly versatile and talented performer, adept in several styles of popular dance. In productions such as ...

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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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Danilova, Alexandra (20 November 1903–13 July 1997), dancer, was born Aleksandra Dionisievna Danilova in Peterhof, Russia, near St. Petersburg; her parents, Dionis Danilov and Clavdia Danilova, died when she was three. Because of her love of dancing she was placed by her wealthy foster parents at the age of eight in the Imperial Ballet School attached to the Maryinsky Theatre, in the same class as ...

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Davis, Sammy, Jr. (08 December 1925–16 May 1990), variety performer and entertainer, was born in Harlem, New York, the son of Sammy Davis, Sr., an African-American dancer, and Elvera “Baby” Sanchez, a Puerto Rican chorus girl, both in Will Mastin’s Holiday in Dixieland...

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de Mille, Agnes (18 September 1905–06 October 1993), dancer, choreographer, and writer, was born Agnes George de Mille in New York City, the daughter of William Churchill de Mille, a playwright, and Anna George, the daughter of American single-tax economist Henry George. De Mille was born into one of the entertainment world’s most powerful families and was determined to make her own career independent of her father and her uncle, the movie director ...

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Dickson, Dorothy (25 July 1893–25 September 1995), dancer and musical actress, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to William Dickson, a journalist, and his wife Clara Barrett Dickson. She was educated in Chicago schools. Her career as a ballroom dancer effectively began there when she partnered Carl Constantine Helson in a charity dance after Helson's father's business speculations went awry....

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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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Duncan, Irma (26 February 1897–20 September 1977), dancer and teacher of dance, was born in Schleswig-Holstein, near Hamburg, Germany, the daughter of Ernst August Grimme, a food retailer, and Christiane (maiden name unknown). Christiane Grimme had seven-year-old Irma audition for the dancer Isadora Duncan...

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Duncan, Isadora (26 May 1877–14 September 1927), dancer, was born in San Francisco, California, the daughter of Joseph C. Duncan, a journalist, auction house owner, and banker, and Mary Dora Gray, a piano teacher. In 1869 Joseph Duncan opened the Pioneer Land and Loan Bank, which closed in scandal several months after Isadora’s birth. The Duncans were divorced soon thereafter, and Dora and her four children began a destitute existence in Oakland. Mrs. Duncan supplied her children with a life filled with Schubert and Shakespeare and the writings of the agnostic orator ...

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Fuller, Loie (15 January 1862–01 January 1928), dancer and choreographer, was born Marie Louise Fuller in Fullersburg, Illinois, the daughter of Reuben Fuller, a fiddler, farmer, and tavernkeeper, and Delilah (maiden name unknown). Little is known of her education, though she claimed to have given a recitation to a “freethinking” Sunday school class at age two-and-a-half....

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Graham, Martha (11 May 1894–01 April 1991), dancer, choreographer, and teacher, was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, the daughter of George Greenfield Graham, a physician who specialized in mental disorders, and Jane (Jennie) Beers. Her father was of Irish descent and her mother proudly claimed to be a descendant of ...

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Gray, Gilda (24 October 1899–22 December 1959), silent film and stage dancer, was born Marianna Michalska in Cracow, Poland, the daughter of Maximilian Michalski and Wanda (maiden name unknown). The family emigrated to Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1907 and then moved to Cudahy, Wisconsin, where Marianna was educated at a parochial school. In 1912 she married bartender John Gorecki with whom she had one son, Martin....