Spectacularly Black on Black—1940s–1950s

  • Brenda Dixon Gottschild


What makes a person decide to become a dancer? What are the drives, ambitions, and inspirations that lead people to choose this difficult, short-lived, poorly paid profession over others? My intention is not to attempt a psychological assessment and resolution; in fact, I am not seeking answers but pose the questions rhetorically so as to bring us into the rich dance world that existed in the Philadelphia black Community in the post—World War II era. For many, the calling was fortified by a peak experience, as Arthur Hall and Gene Hill Sagan attest. The clincher for Marion Cuyjet was a windfall from Essie Marie Dorsey. The renowned community artist offered Cuyjet a scholarship and allowed the fourteen-year-old to work at the school, an arrangement that, in Cuyjet’s words, was as though she’d

died and had gone to heaven ! The only thing I could think of was that I would be there all the time, seeing all the classes, seeing everybody—never thinking I would [even] be in the classes. But that’s how I really got in. Of course, I covered three years’ worth of work in less than a year, because I went right from high school [to the studio].


Black Community Ballet Dancer Private Collection Black Middle Class Dance Teacher 
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  1. 2.
    Lawrence Otis Graham, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999, p.378. According Graham, “a study funded by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1995 concluded that whites feel more comfortable around light-skinned blacks than they do around dark-skinned blacks, and hence light-skinned blacks receive better job opportunities from white employers.” Although this study postdates the period in question, we have every reason to assume, based on circumstantial evidence, that this policy was even more widespread in the earlier decades of the twentieth century.Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York, NY: Random House, 2010, p. 234. For example, and in another context, Wilkerson cites the following information, culled from Octavia B. Vivian, The Story of the Negro in Los Angeles County. Washington, DC: Federal Writers’ Project, Works Progress Administration, 1936, p. 31: “In certain plants, Mexicans and whites worked together…. In others, white workers accepted Negroes and objected to Mexicans…. White women worked with Mexican and Italian women, but refused to work with Negroes…. In the General Hospital, Negro nurses attended white patients, but were segregated from white nurses in dining halls: in a manufacturing plant white workers refused to work with Negroes, but worked under a Negro foreman.”Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    For example, see Bliss Broyard, One Drop: My Fathers Hidden Life, A Story of Race & Family Secrets. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007, Broyard is the daughter of the late writer and New York Times book reviewer Anatole Broyard. Not until he died did she and her brother learn that their father was a black man.Google Scholar
  4. 26.
    For information on echt cotillions and debutante balls, see Lawrence Otis Graham, Our Kind of People: Inside American Black Upper Class. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1999, chapter 3, “The Black Child Experience: The Right Cotillions, Camps, and Private Schools,” pp. 46–62.Google Scholar

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© Brenda Dixon Gottschild 2012

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  • Brenda Dixon Gottschild

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