Arts and Entertainment

Black Dance

Why was Florence Mills important?

In 1925 the first black woman to headline at a Broadway venue was Florence Mills (1896–1927). She became the preeminent woman jazz dancer during the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Washington, D.C., she demonstrated her talent as a singer and dancer early and was called a child prodigy. By age eight, she was a stage phenomenon, having been guided by the accomplished performer Aida Overton Walker, who sang “Miss Hannah from Savannah” in the musical comedy Sons of Ham. That led to her work with a vaudeville company beginning in 1905. In 1921 Mills joined Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s production of Shuffle Along. Her success in the musical led Lew Leslie to hire her to perform at the Plantation Club on Broadway. When the musical comedy Dixie to Broadway opened in New York in October 1924, Mills sang “I’m a Little Blackbird Looking for a Bluebird” and was a showstopper. The revue, along with the work of Mills and other black performers, helped eradicate the racial stereotypes that up to this time characterized blacks. Mills’ heavy workload contributed to her declining health and eventual death on November 1, 1927. During her grand funeral in Harlem, it has been said that a flock of blackbirds flew over her funeral procession as it made its way up Seventh Avenue to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

The athletic and daring form of modern dance called break dancing originated in the gritty urban streets of the American East Coast, where gang members created it in the 1970s.


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