Trail Blazers and Trail Keepers: Dance Noir and Winter Dance Company

THROUGHOUT FEBRUARY, THE NATION PAYS HOMAGE to the great legends of Black history and reflects on the hardships these pioneers endured in order to blaze a trail through the thorny and violent jungle of American racism. There are lessons on Black pioneers in politics, science, medicine, entertainment, and sports. For the trails that they individually blazed, America has become a different society and many Blacks hold to a responsibility to extend the trail forward. In opera, there was Marian Anderson. In dance, there was Alvin Ailey and Katherine Dunham. And in comedy, there was Redd Foxx and Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Five exceptionally gifted Louisianans are keeping the trails blazed by these pioneers. In New Orleans, there’s OperaCréole founder Givonna Joseph and in Monroe, comedian Robert Powell III. In Baton Rouge, there’s businessman Cleve Dunn Jr.,  stand-up comedienne Tiffany Dickerson, and choreographer Winter McCray. They are our modern day keepers of the trail. Here are their stories.

Dance Trailblazer Alvin Ailey and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre 

Dance Trail:keeper Cleve Dunn Jr. and Danse Noir

Alvin Ailey is known internationally for ushering Black performers into concert dance and forever changing America’s perception of dance. History books record that Ailey’s experiences in Southern Baptist churches and juke joints instilled in him a fi erce sense of Black pride that would later become the signature of his most prominent work. Ailey and his dance company performed worldwide with valor that he was dubbed the “Cultural Ambassador to the World”.  He took his passion for dance, sense of pride, and insight for management into establishing the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and later establishing a nonprofi t foundation and performing arts school as gateways to continue Black performing arts.

With much of the same insight and pride, Baton Rouge businessman Cleve Dunn Jr., 37, saw an opportunity to stabilize a fledgling dance program in the city by establishing Danse Noir Studios. “There were some dance companies and organizations in place but we wanted to provide a stable fi xture in the community to express the culture of dance. We wanted to provide an environment where children of color can show their creativity. I know that Alvin Ailey was passionate about that.”

Dunn said the idea for the studio followed the paths of the exceptional talents of local dance program founders including Avery Wilson of MOKA Dance, Conya Pinkie Windsor with Excel Dance Company, and Richard Covington with Belfair Dance Team. Today, Danse Noir Studio is the largest Black dance studio in Baton Rouge with more than 150 student dancers annually and six, highly trained teachers who are professional performers. Danse Noir Studios offers ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop classes to young dancers age 3 – 18, and for the last three years the studio has maintained in-school dance programs in four West Baton Rouge parish schools. “We are exposing art to students all over the metropolitan area,” he said.

Much like the vision of Ailey, Dunn has amassed a team of young dance instructors—from New York, Baker, Alabama, and Baton Rouge—who possess years of training and work with students on technique, presence, and delivery using original choreography, great appeal, and focus, he said. The students and instructors close out every year with a Spring recital at LSU displaying their work using varied dance styles and musical selections across different genres.

This allows Danse Noir Studios to establish a professional culture for collegiate performers who want to perfect their craft and take their skills outside of Louisiana. “We have created an environment for artists like Alvin Ailey to thrive, grow, and expand. We have been able to help and place our instructors with career opportunities to earn dollars through the performing arts. This was something very unheard of seven to ten years ago,” he said.

“Now, there are other Black-owned dance studios in Baton Rouge market place that our community can give exposure to and can support,” said Dunn. “Some (of the owners and instructors) have come through our doors as instructors to learn the craft, not of dance, but the craft of creating and sustaining a business.” Through Dunn’s vision, Danse Noir has been part of a creating a growing culture of Black artistic expression in the city.

Dunn said he believes Ailey and other performers like Sammy Davis Jr and Debbie Allen would be proud that “now throughout the country  there are art institutes, theatre studios, and dance studios that are owned and operated by Blacks and are expanding exposure to the arts to our community.”

For that, Danse Noir is a modern day Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

Dance Trailblazer: Katherine Dunham Comapany 

Dance Trail: Winter Dance Company 

Katherine Dunham started dancing in her late teens but moved on to the University of Chicago to study social anthropology where her mentors stressed the survival of African culture. While in college, she taught youth dance classes and gave recitals. In 1931, she started Ballet Negre , a student dance company. At the age of 28, she started the Negro Dance Group where she became known for being the fi rst to give modern dance a “lexicon of African and Caribbean styles of movement–a fl exible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving” which she integrated with techniques of ballet and modern dance, according to the Ruth Beckford, author 0f Katherine Dunham: A Biography.

Dunham choreographed more than 90 individual dances and produced five reviews; four of which played on Broadway and tour worldwide. As an ac- tivist in the 1940s, Dunham fought segregation in theaters, hotels, and restaurants by aggressively filing lawsuits. She even refused a lucrative studio contract when the producer said she would have to replace darker-skinned com- pany members. Dunham’s studies of dance and worldwide performance paved the way for modern day choreographers like Baton Rouge’s Winter McCray.

A certi- fied dance instructor with Dance & Gym USA, McCray has brought jazz, ballet, hip hop, lyrical, and liturgical dance to the students of Winter Dance Company. McCray, 29, said God has given her “a gift and a ministry of dance and I live to pass it on to others.  Many of my students have talents beyond their years and someday (this company) may be looked upon as a stepping stone that helped pave the way for their career choices and their dreams.”  In 2007, while an undergraduate student studying psychology at Southern University A&M College , McCray established Anointed 2 Dance while continuing to host free dance workshops and perform at local community-based events.

“I want my students to understand that the sky really is the limit to what they can have and where they can go in life.  The color of their skin, where they live, and what they have been through- -and even been told–should never hinder them from being their very best self.  To my audience, I want them to appreciate just how far we have come, where we are today and if we expose our children to the arts, they will embrace it and run with it.”

Acknowledging the challenges of owning a dance studio, McCray said, she and other owners in the area share a collective purpose. “We are few, but we are headed in the right direction. Today we are well on our way to balancing the performing arts scale.”

McCray said she embraces every student with love, teaching them the art and technique of dance, and “ultimately, inspiring them to develop a deeper appreciation for the art.”  For that Winter Dance Company is a modern-day Katherine Dunham Company.