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2023 Black History Month: 8 Pioneers of Dance and the Artists Carrying Legacy You Need to Know!

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Welcome to another More Than Movement Dance Education spotlight! These spotlights are dedicated to sharing the history and culture of various Black dance forms. We specifically aim to spotlight dance forms that are historically appropriated and set the record straight about where so many of these beautiful dance forms originated!


In honor of Black History Month, we're honoring 8 (out of many!) dance pioneers and the artists carrying the legacy today! We'll release two new artists every Wednesday throughout the month of February, so be sure to check back each week!


Have a dance form you would like to see spotlighted next? Let us know at morethanmovement@raeagency.com!


 
Whacking/Waacking

Tyrone Proctor and Billy Goodson

Tyrone "The Bone" Proctor is one of the most notable pioneers of Whacking/Waacking. He was one of the original Soul Train dancers, where he popularized Waacking. Notable Highlights: He and his dance partner, Sharon Hill, won American Band Stand in 1975. His work with New Kids on the Block earned him an MTV Awards nomination for Best Choreographer in 1989. Read more about Tyrone Proctor's legacy on our blog!

Tyrone "The Bone" Proctor is one of the most notable pioneers of Whacking/Waacking. He was one of the original Soul Train dancers, where he popularized Waacking.

  • He was personally chosen by Don Cornelius to perform in Soul Train's stadium tour in 1973 (Out.com, 2020).

  • Tyrone and his dance partner, Sharon Hill, won American Band Stand in 1975

  • In the late 1970s, Tyrone performed in the Outrageous Waack Dancers.

  • In the early 1980s, Tyrone moved to New York City to help form the group Breed of Motion, with other dance legends including Archie Burnett and Willi Ninja.

  • Tyrone choreographed for television and musical acts such as New Kids on the Block, the Isley Brothers, and Johnny Kemp. For his work with New Kids on the Block, he was nominated for Best Choreographer at the MTV Awards in 1989 (Society Dance Academy, n.d.)


Billy Goodson is an OG Waacker and is credited for being part of history from the very beginning. He's also credited as one of the main dancers who brought Street Jazz to Waacking. Notable Highlights: He choreographed several shows along the Las Vegas Strip, notably Diana Ross' show at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Billy has also worked extensively in Italy's film industry, working on titles including Hairspray, La Cage Aux Folles, Full Monty, and Roman Holiday. Read more about Billy Goodson's legacy on our blog!

Billy Goodson is an OG Waacker and is credited for being part of history from the very beginning. He's also credited as one of the main dancers who brought Street Jazz to Waacking.

  • Billy was 19 when he started dancing in the clubs and "the DJ changed [his] life" (Asymmetry Creations, 2022)

  • In the mid-1970s, he was discovered by Toni Basil and as he studied dance more seriously, his career quickly picked up momentum (Society Dance Academy, n.d.), and soon became the lead dancer and choreographer for Diana Ross at age 20.

  • Billy also worked with artists such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Paula Abdul, and Gloria Estefan.

  • He choreographed several shows along the Las Vegas Strip, notably Diana Ross' show at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas

  • Billy has also worked extensively in Italy's film industry, working on titles including Hairspray, La Cage Aux Folles, Full Monty, and Roman Holiday

 
Ballet

Arthur Mitchell and Ashton Edwards

Arthur Mitchell was the first African American dancer with the New York City Ballet and founder of the first African American classical ballet company, Dance Theatre of Harlem.

  • After graduating from the High School of Performing Arts in the early 1950s, Mitchell won a dance award and a scholarship to study at the School of American Ballet (NYT, 2018).

  • Mitchell joined the New York City Ballet in 1955 and was promoted to principal dancer the following year, dancing in major roles until 1966. He danced in major ballets such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Nutcracker.

  • George Balanchine created a pas de deux in Agon specifically for Mitchell and Diana Adams, a white ballet dancer. Despite audience members complaining about the biracial pairing, Balanchine refused to change the pairing. While Mitchell danced the role with several white partners around the world, he was not allowed to perform on commercial television in the United States until 1968 when the performance aired on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show (The Ballet Encyclopedia n.d.)

  • After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, Mitchell returned to Harlem, where he was determined to provide opportunities in dance for the children in that community. A year later, he and his teacher, Karel Shook, inaugurated a classical ballet school. The Dance Theatre of Harlem opened in 1969 with 30 children enrolled (Dance Theatre of Harlem, n.d.)

  • Over the span of his career, Mitchell was recognized as a MacArthur Fellow, received the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 1995, was awarded a Fletcher Foundation fellowship in 2005, and received several honorary doctorates from universities including Juilliard School, Harvard University, Yale University, and Columbia University (The History Makers, 2016).


Ashton Edwards (they/them) is a non-binary apprentice at Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) in Seattle and is part of the movement of gender nonconforming dancers challenging ballet’s rigid gender roles.

  • Originally from Flint, Michigan, Edwards started training at the Flint School of Performing Arts and attended summer ballet intensives at Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago, Houston Ballet School, and Pacific Northwest Ballet (Dance Spirit, 2021).

  • In 2018, Edwards competed in the NACCP National ACT-SO competition in the Ballet dance category, receiving 3rd place (PGF, n.d.).

  • In 2020, Edwards received approval to study pointe at the PNB, which led to the removal of gender designations from some classes and students being allowed to train in classes that align with their identity and preference (NYT, 2022)

  • Edwards officially joined the Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2021 where they continue to break barriers for gender non-conforming and Black ballet dancers.

  • You can follow Ashton on Instagram!

 
House

Marjory Smarth and Rama Mahesh Hall

Marjory Smarth was a pivotal House dance pioneer and cultural leader who helped build and share Hip-Hop and House dance culture around the world.

  • Marjory was born in Haiti and grew up on the upper west side of New York City. She attended Notre Dame High School and the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC (5Mag.net, 2015).

  • In the late 1980s, Marjory began dancing professionally in music videos and performances for artists including Diana Ross, Heavy D, and CeCe Peniston. Her first music video was with Super C & Cassanova Rud" (Peridance, n.d.)

  • She’s been featured in several films and documentaries, including “New Jack City” and “Check Your Body at the Door.”

  • Her focus is helping people find their freedom of expression and living life to the fullest, with one of her notable quotes being “Live True, Dance Free.”


Rama Mahesh Hall is a core member of the Embodiment Project Theater company and one of the leaders and organizers of many House events in the Bay Area, working to bring the community together and help dancers grow in their journey.

  • Rama has taught House dance in the Bay Area and internationally for 10 years, and has also taught Hip-Hop to youth for 10 years.

  • Rama studied dance at a Street Dance Academy in Sweden for 2 years.

  • Along with his dance career, Rama has also worked for a non-profit that brought meditation to public schools in San Francisco for 13 years.

  • Rama has made a name for himself in the battle/competitive scene in the US and Europe, winning many competitions in places such as the Bay Area, NYC, DC, Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, and London. One of Rama’s biggest highlights is competing at the Juste Debout Finals in Paris in front of 16,000 people, and placing Top 4 in House Dance Forever in August 2022

  • Rama has performed across the U.S.A., including the Joyce Theater in NYC, the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.

  • Rama is a worldwide dance culture bearer, educator, and practitioner of street dance. Each year Rama travels to different parts of the world to gain inspiration in dance, connect with different cultures, and bring his experience back to teach his students in the Bay Area.

  • In 2023 Rama continues to develop with the dance company Embodiment Project, on the organizational side, and as a dancer, with many exciting projects in the works for this year and beyond.


 
Hip-Hop

Rennie Harris and Stephen "tWitch" Boss

Rennie Harris revolutionized contemporary concert dance by bringing hip-hop to the theatrical stage and is the founder of the first and longest-running hip-hop dance touring group Rennie Harris Puremovement.

  • Rennie Harris was born and raised in North Philadelphia, with one of his earliest dance memories being watching Don Campbell’s “The Campbell Lockers” on TV.

  • In 1992, Rennie founded Rennie Harris Puremovement, a hip-hop dance touring group that has since expanded to other street dance forms, including House, Popping, and Breaking. Along with their performances, they are dedicated to preserving and disseminating hip-hop culture through workshops, hip-hop history lectures, mentoring programs, and more (Colorado.edu, n.d.)

  • One of his most notable works is Rome & Jewels, based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and reimagined in the streets of Philadelphia (RHPM, n.d.)

  • In 1998, Rennie started Illadelph Legends of Hip-Hop Festival to bring together pioneers of various street dance forms.

  • In 2007, Rennie founded RHAW, or Rennie Harris Awe-Inspiring Works, a youth organization driven by community outreach, education, and mentorship (RHAW, n.d.)

  • Rennie has received honorary doctorates from Bates College and Columbia College (AlvinAiley.org, n.d.)


Stephen “tWitch” Boss was a beloved Hip-Hop dancer, choreographer, DJ, and television producer. He continues to be an inspiration to dancers around the world.

  • Twitch was born in Montgomery, Alabama. As a child, he got his nickname “Twitch” from popping and ticking when he couldn’t sit still (apostate.edu, 2019)

  • He studied Dance Performance at Southern Union State Community College and Chapman University

  • He was a semifinalist on MTV’s The Wade Robson Project in 2003, runner-up on Star Search in 2003, and has competed in two seasons of So You Think You Can Dance (CNN, 2022).

  • He has been in several films, including Stomp the Yard: Homecoming, three Step Up films, Magic Mike XXL, and most recently, The Hip Hop Nutcracker (People, 2023)

  • Starting in 2014, he was featured as a guest DJ on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and later became a co-executive of the show in 2020.

  • tWitch’s family launched The Move with Kindness Foundation to carry on his legacy by spreading love and mental health awareness (every.org, n.d.)

 
Uplifting Black Leaders In the Tech Industry

Check out Allconnect's article highlighting 10 Black men and women whose brilliance and dedication have been instrumental in pushing the telecommunications industry forward!

 

Resource List

Interested to learn more about Hip-Hop Dance? Visit our living resource document which we are continuously updating with more resources on different dance forms!

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Learn More About More Than Movement

If you have any questions or comments regarding our More Than Movement program or have any resources you’d like to share, please email our More Than Movement Committee leads, Lexi and Kristie at morethanmovement@raeagency.com.


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