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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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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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George Balanchine In make-up and costume for Don Quixote, with Suzanne Farrell, 1965. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-120878).

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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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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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Belcher, Ernest (08 June 1882–24 February 1973), ballet teacher and movie dance director, was born in London, England, the son of Mark Belcher, a butcher, and Emily (maiden name unknown). Belcher attended high school, apprenticed in an architect’s office, and studied piano and painting. Belcher had no exposure to dance or theater until he was sixteen, when attendance at orchestral concerts made him realize that “expression of myself in gesture and movement was to be the great dominating force in my life.” Against the wishes of his parents he began to study dance, first with the music-hall star Ethel Payne, then with Francesca Zanfretta, a well-known ballet teacher in London, and finally with Alexandre Genée, uncle and teacher of the Danish ballerina Adeline Genée. He also studied period and national folk dances with Louis d’Egville and Cormani, Spanish dances under Caroline Otero, Lopes and Tortola Valencia, and Malaganita, and Indian and oriental dances under Roshanara....

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Bennett, Michael (08 April 1943–02 July 1987), musical theater director and choreographer, was born Michael Bennett Di Figlia in Buffalo, New York, the son of Salvatore Di Figlia, a machinist, and Helen Turnoff, a secretary. Bennett took weekly dance classes, studying ballet, tap, jazz and modern technique. He attended Hutchinson Central Technical High School for Boys, where he studied architectural design, but at seventeen he dropped out of school to go on a year-long European tour in a production of ...

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Berkeley, Busby (29 November 1895–14 March 1976), stage and film choreographer and director, was born Busby Berkeley William Enos in Los Angeles, California, the son of Francis Enos, a stage director, and Gertrude Berkeley, a character actress. Berkeley’s mother and father were associated with the Tim Frawley Repertory Company. Although they wanted to spare him the life of the theater, he soon joined them on stage. After his father’s death in 1902, Berkeley became devoted to his mother, who, until her own death in 1948, remained a strong influence on him. While his mother performed with ...

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Bolm, Adolph (25 September 1884–15 April 1951), dancer, teacher, and choreographer, was born Adol’f Rudol’fovich Bolm in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the son of Rudolf Bolm, a concertmaster and assistant conductor of the Mikhailovsky Imperial Theater Orchestra. His mother’s name is unknown. Among his four brothers, he was called “little bear” because of his ungainliness. Their home was filled with music and their father’s artist friends. By all accounts, these years formed Bolm’s love of all the arts as well as his inordinate vigor and sense of adventure....

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Borde, Percival (31 December 1922–31 August 1979), Afro-Caribbean dancer and choreographer, was born Percival Sebastian Borde in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the son of George Paul Borde, a veterinarian, and Augustine Francis Lambie. Borde grew up in Trinidad, where he finished secondary schooling at the Queens Royal College and took an appointment with the Trinidad Railway Company. Around 1942 he began formal research on Afro-Caribbean dance and performed with the Little Carib Dance Theatre. In 1949 he married Joyce Guppy, with whom he had one child. The year of their divorce is unknown....

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Bradley, Buddy (1908–1972), African-American choreographer and jazz tap dancer, was born Clarence Bradley, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His parents’ names and occupations are unknown. His father died when he was quite young and his religious mother brought him up strictly. After seeing the tap dancers Jack Wiggins and Clarence “Dancing” Dotson at a local theater, Bradley learned to do the time step on one foot by the time he was eight. He taught himself the Charleston, strut, drag, shuffle, and a vast assortment of African-American vernacular dances from the deep South....

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Camryn, Walter (22 July 1903–29 February 1984), dancer, choreographer, and teacher, was born Walter Cameron in Helena, Montana, the son of Angus Cameron, a cattle rancher, and Rose Ann Hodge. Camryn’s early years in Montana among pioneer homesteaders influenced the style and themes of his dancing and choreography. From the age of six he witnessed and participated in the rural dances of the community. The early twentieth century was the heyday of vaudeville, and young Camryn saw much popular dance of that genre, also an influence on his distinctive choreography....

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Champion, Gower (22 June 1921–25 August 1980), dancer, director, and choreographer, was born in Geneva, Illinois, the son of John W. Champion, an advertising executive, and Beatrice Carlisle. Following his parents’ divorce, Champion was raised in Los Angeles by his mother. At the age of twelve he began studying dance with ...

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Christensen, Lew (06 May 1909–09 October 1984), ballet dancer, choreographer, and company director, was born Lewellyn Farr Christensen in Brigham City, Utah, the son of Christian Bjerregaard Christensen, a musician and teacher of social dances, and Mary Isabell Farr. Lew Christensen was raised in a family that emphasized developing one’s talents in music and dance. One uncle, Moses Christensen, was active in the American National Association, Masters of Dancing and served as that organization’s president in 1916–1917. Lew studied the cello under his father and began ballet training under another uncle, Lars Peter Christensen, who forwarded the talented nephew to the Italian maestro Stefano Mascagno in New York....

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Jack Cole Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOT 12735, no. 237 P&P).

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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....