Black British Dance

Evolving the artform: from ancestral traces to modern moves

Phoenix Dance Company's programmeBlack Cultural Archives

Black British Dance

Dance in Britain has evolved through the successive interactions of people from around the world, building on ancient and new social dance forms. Identifying ‘British’ styles of choreography becomes a slippery task: our choreographers and dancers have such a wide pool to develop. Black British Dance is a label that many steer away from as it too contains too many styles, and too many subjective layers of meaning in the word ‘Black’, to be truly meaningful. Looking into the history of dance through the lens of Black British history gives new visions of the past and the future. Because of the possibility of these new visions this journey through the archives will accept the idea of ‘Black British Dance’.

"Desert Crossings" A4 poster "Desert Crossings" A4 poster (2011) by State of EmergencyBlack Cultural Archives

Dance is memory in bodies, memory in movement. As much as storytelling, or the oral tradition, is important for African heritage dance is a way that culture is carried through generations and across oceans.

The history of people of African descent in the UK goes back at least 2000 years. White English Morris dancers in Horace Ove’s & Colin Luke’s made for TV mock-umentary The Black Safari (1972) think that the roots of Morris dancing come from Africans in Britain. If this is true then Morris dancing becomes the first documentation of cultural exchange between the British Isles and the African continent.

Ignatius Sancho (1802) by Francesco Bartolozzi|Thomas Gainsborough|William Sancho|Ignatius SanchoThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ignatius Sancho (1729 – 1780) led an uncommon life. He was the first Black Briton known to have voted in British elections. He was charismatic, well educated and well connected. Arriving in Britain at the age of two, he liberated himself from slavery in 1749 aged around 20. He went to live and work for his patrons, the landed Montague family.

Sancho is best known as a composer, actor and writer. He’s especially well known for the edition of his letters, published after his death, in which he gives an early account of what it was like to be a slave, from an enslaved African’s perspective. Less well known, and less well documented, is his work in dance. Alongside his music compositions he created accompanying dance works. He was working in the medium of minuets, cotillions and country dances. Forms of dance common in Georgian society, pre-dating the development of British ballet by some 200 years.

The survival of Sancho’s dance works lies in the tantalising evidence of a few collections published in London in the 1770s. More research is needed to uncover early dances by him that lie in private collections, or deep within larger archives. For now there are 24 dance works available in public collections. These works are occasionally revived by modern day dancers, thanks to Sancho’s detailed notes on each step.

LIFE Photo Collection

The horror of the transatlantic slave trade brought Africans to the Caribbean, along with the indentured labour of people from China, India and beyond. The dance forms developed in the Caribbean include movements and gestures from the indigenous Caribbean peoples, the Europeans, the Africans and their global counterparts. Berto Pasuka (c.1920 – 1959), a dancer and choreographer from Jamaica, learned movement directly from Maroons – Maroons were African people who had rebelled by escaping from slave owners in the Caribbean.

Ballet Negre (1946)Black Cultural Archives

In 1939 Berto Pasuka came to Britain. With his earnings from appearing in early films he formed a company called Les Ballet Negres (1946 – 1952), with fellow Jamaican dancer Richie Riley. Their dancers and staff were from Jamaica, Trinidad, England, British Guiana, Ghana, Nigeria, and Germany. Their first season was a sold out 8 week run in the Twentieth Century Theatre at Westbourne Grove, London. Despite their box office success across Europe, the main funders in Britain did not support them. No dance company in the UK at that time could survive on ticket sales alone, and with Berto Pasuka unable to continue supporting the company from his own money, Les Ballet Negres had to close in 1952. The enduring influence of Les Ballet Negres – the first Black European dance company – is still felt.

Katherine Dunham-Negro Dancer (1943) by Gjon MiliLIFE Photo Collection

Even earlier than Les Ballet Negres, African American dance was part of the cultural exchange in London. Buddy Bradley was a West End director and choreographer who presented American vernacular dance into the nightlife of London. He ran a dance studio from 1933 to 1967 teaching jazz and tap techniques.

Another African America influence on the dance in Britain came via Katherine Dunham, who toured her company in England for months in 1948.

Creating her own clear genre of movement, the Dunham technique fuses African, Caribbean and ballet styles allowing for classical lines to move alongside isolations and undulations of the body.

Kompany Malakhi: 'For One Night Only' programme folder Kompany Malakhi: 'For One Night Only' programme folder (1984) by Kompany MalakhiBlack Cultural Archives

Later Hip Hop forms of dance became important in the development of the British dance communities. Kompany Malakhi and Jonzi D are fusing their embodied experience of Hip Hop with their British experience to create and tour new dance.

Ballet Black (1986) - extractBlack Cultural Archives

Stephen Dwoskin's 1986 Arts Council film, from the BFI, tells the story of Ballet Negres, exploring the company through archive film and photographs, as well as a reunion of the original members after 35 years.

In 1965 the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, a dance company only 3 years old, performed at the Commonwealth Festival in London. The founders of Jamaican National Dance Theatre had been trained in Martha Graham’s technique, as well as in Central European Expressive Dance. This they fused with Jamaican dance forms, traditional themes and storytelling, to create their distinctive style.

Phoenix Dance Company's programmeBlack Cultural Archives

1970s - 1990s

 It was during the 1970s that more companies were started that offered opportunities for Black British dancers and often (but not always) drew on forms of dancing derived from African diasporic traditions. The publication of ‘The Art Britain Ignores: The Arts of Ethnic Minorities in Britain’ (Naseem Khan, 1976), highlighted the lack of funding and opportunities for Black dancers in Britain, something that the Minority Arts Advisory Service (MAAS), established in 1976, strove to address. 

Shango 'The God of Thunder'Black Cultural Archives

Dance of African descent in Britain includes Classical African dance. One of the leading companies performing Classical African dance to emerge in the 1980s was Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble. At their height Adzido were the largest Black dance company in Europe, with over 30 dancers and musicians.

Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble June 2003Black Cultural Archives

Adzido is an Ewe word, evoking ‘an oak tree around which no single person can reach’. Adzido is a metaphor for the wide reach of its dancers, from many parts of the African continent and diaspora. Adzido was formed by Ghanaian George Dzikunu, who had already had a career of training in the African Theatre Troupe, had brought his dance company Sankofa to Britain in the 1970s, and had worked with British -based companies Steel n Skin and Ekome Dance Company to reach school children around the UK. He was well connected by the time Adzido was formed to take the European dance world by a storm.

The Association of Dance of the African Diaspora Hotfoot Magazine: Issue 1Black Cultural Archives

Appearing in the culture around the same time as Adzido, Irie! Dance Theatre pushed
Black dance further into the British mainstream consciousness with their bold use of
Caribbean cultural references as well as dance forms.

Irie! used reggae as well as Caribbean
choreography to create Orfeo ina Night Town (1988), a production based on the Orpheus story. The ancient story of Orpheus mixed with ancient movement traditions translated across oceans and time into a box office hit.

The Association of Dance of the African Diaspora Hotfoot Magazine: Issue 4Black Cultural Archives

The Association for Dance of African Descent (ADAD) was formed in 1994, following a meeting of dance practitioners who could see their work being marginalised and misunderstood. Eventually ADAD became part of the main professional body for UK Dance, One Dance UK. Its work included providing platforms, forums and career progression opportunities for Black dance practitioners working in the UK. Its quarterly newsletter, Hotfoot, became an essential source of information for Black dance artists, as well as making sure that topics important to the development of dance of African descent were being debated.

Kompany Malakhi: The Magazine for Community Dance Issue 4Black Cultural Archives

Next generation steps

Alongside the pioneering choreography of Black dance companies, they are also pro-active in the development and cause of Black dance and Black dancers. State of Emergency’s founder Deborah Badoo, founded the Black Dance Archives project to try to locate, collect and preserve the archival traces of the story of Black British dance. Ballet Black scored a victory by championing ballet pointe shoes in different skin tones than only pink.

Kompany Malakhi: The Magazine for Community Dance Issue 4Black Cultural Archives

Carl Campbell Dance Company: information packsBlack Cultural Archives

Black dancers themselves continue to influence and push forward Britain’s cultural landscape, including dancer Kenneth Tharp OBE who was the CEO of seminal Contemporary dance house, The Place, and went on to lead the Africa Centre, and Hilary Carty, who went from dancer to leading dance historian, to leading the UK’s Clore Leadership Programme. Although dance practitioners resist their work and careers being labelled ‘Black Dance’, seen through the lens of the development of Black history in Britain, their contributions and evolution can be understood as vital parts of the story of the development of dance, both in the UK and globally.

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