Lydster: Dancing Many Drums


My daughter worked on two papers about people portrayed in the book  Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance, edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz.

The first was about Kyundor, or the Witch Woman: An African Opera in America, 1934. Maureen Needham writes: “Versatile, multitalented as an opera and concert singer, dancer and choreographer, and teacher of African culture, the great but virtually forgotten Asadata Dafora made a huge contribution to the birth of African dance and musical drama in the United States.”

John Perpener wrote several dance biographies for Jacob’s Pillow. Of Dafora, he notes the performer was born in  Sierra Leone in 1890 and moved to NYC in 1929.

His breakthrough was  Kykunkor or the Witch Woman, “which opened in May 1934… Sparked by a positive review by John Martin of the New York Times, impressive audiences began to attend the dance-opera at the Unity Theater, a small performance space on East Twenty-Third Street in New York City.  Martin effusively described  Kykunkor as ‘“one of the most exciting dance performances of the season’ Not only did his critical imprimatur stimulate interest in Dafora’s work, it also forwarded the artist’s objective—to prove that the art and culture of Africa was equal in importance to that of the world’s other cultures.”

On YouTube, you can find videos of others honoring Dafora’s works, such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater showing the dance of Awassa Astrige or the Ostrich, Dafora’s 1932 work.

Check out the Wikipedia page for this innovator who died in 1965. I was unaware of this man.


My daughter’s other topic was Katherine Dunham (1909-2006). From the   Institute for Dunham Technique Certification page: she “was a world-famous dancer, choreographer, author, anthropologist, social activist, and humanitarian.

“She translated her vision of dance in the African diaspora, including the United States, into vivid works of choreography that show a people’s culture. During her ‘World Tours’ period (1938-1965), her company was one of the few major internationally recognized American dance companies that toured six continents. The success of the dance company was also due to her artistic collaboration with her brilliant designer husband, Canadian John Pratt, who was the costume and set designer for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company.

“However, during this period in her own country, she also encountered many instances of racial discrimination, both in accommodations for her company and in segregated theaters where blacks were either relegated to the back row balcony or not allowed in at all. Dunham always fought against this racial discrimination, bringing several lawsuits and using her celebrity to bring attention to the African American plight. During this period, she created a repertoire of over 100 ballets for concert, Broadway, nightclubs and opera.”

The book features a chapter by Constance Valis Hill: Katherine Durham’s Southland: Protest in the Face of Repression. Read about this production in the LOC and Dance Magazine. The piece was performed in 1951 abroad, but not in the United States until 2012.

Check out a page in the LOC page, which shows videos of her work, as well as Wikipedia and the IBDb. I knew about her from the 1983 Kennedy Center Honors she received.


Nadine A. George wrote about “Dance and Identity Politics in American Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters, 1900-1935.” She’s also written the book The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville. She’s quoted here that “these four Black women manipulated their race, gender, and class to resist hegemonic forces while achieving success. By maintaining a high-class image, they were able to challenge the fictions of racial and gender identity.”

The LOC notes that the sisters, ” Mabel Whitman (1880-1942), Essie Whitman (1882-1903), Alberta Whitman (ca. 1887-1963) and ‘Baby’ Alice Whitman (ca. 1900-1969), comprise the family of black female entertainers who owned and produced their own performing company, which traveled across the United States.. to play in all the major cities, becoming the longest running and highest-paid act on the T.O.B.A. circuit and a crucible of dance talent in black vaudeville.”

Besides Wikipedia, there’s a lot about these siblings here. Here’s a brief audio essay.

While my daughter did not write about them, they were fascinating performers and entrepreneurs who influenced many. I did not know of them.

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