Carmen and Geoffrey: Stunning and formidable American dance icons

If you have read anything about 20th Century American dance, I hope that you learned about Carmen and Geoffrey.

A powerhouse couple in the world of modern dance, Geoffrey Holder and Carmen De Lavallade created incredible pieces, worked with some of the greatest dancers and choreographers of their time, and received numerous awards and accolades over the course of their careers – separate and together – which each spanned more than 50 years. 

Born in Trinidad and Tobago and standing at 6’6”, Geoffrey was a "dancer, choreographer, actor, composer, designer and painter who used his manifold talents to infuse the arts with the flavor of his native West Indies and to put a singular stamp on the American cultural scene." (NY Times

Over the course of his career, he directed a dance troupe, danced on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera, and won two Tony Awards in 1975 for his roles as Director and Costume Designer for the Broadway production of 'The Wiz.” His choreography was performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theater of Harlem. He acted onstage and in films (he played Punjab in Annie!) and was also an accomplished painter, photographer and sculptor. 

Performer, dancer, actress, director, writer, teacher, choreographer, coach, mentor, and style iconCarmen De Lavallade was born in Los Angeles in 1931 to Creole parents from New Orleans. A cousin of Janet Collins – the first African American prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera and one of Carmen’s greatest inspirations – Carmen was raised by her aunt, who owned one of the first African-American history bookshops on Central Avenue in LA. 

Carmen began studying dance at 16 and was close friends with a young Alvin Ailey, who she encouraged to switch from gymnastics to dance (THANK GOD). After graduation, she was awarded a scholarship to study dance with Lester Horton and it was while working with Horton that she met Geoffrey.

Her career includes having had ballets created for her by Lester Horton, Alvin Ailey, Glen Tetley, John Butler and Agnes de Mille. She has choreographed for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Philadanco, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, as well as productions of Porgy and Bess and Die Meistersinger at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. Today she continues to present, dance, teach and offer words of wisdom to young dancers and artists

For a glimpse at their earliest work together, below is an excerpt of Banda, which was choreographed by Geoffrey and first debuted in the 1954 Truman Capote/Harold Arlen musical House Of Flowers. In this film clip from 1957, Geoffrey dances the role of the Baron of The Cemetery (based on the Haitian Loa of Death, Baron Samedi) and the scene is set in the West Indies during Mardi Gras. 

Thankfully, before Geoffrey's passing in the fall of 2014, their work and personal lives were documented in the inspiring and quirky documentary Carmen & Geoffrey (2005, First Run Films)

Directed by Linda Atkinson (a student of De Lavallade) and Nick Dobb, the film follows the lives of this fascinating, wise, and eccentric couple and is complimented with rare dance footage from the 50’s/60’s, as well as numerous interviews with friends and dance colleagues. The film looks at their lives – both as individuals and a couple – including childhood dreams and aspirations, their separate paths to stardom, and their partnership and romance that spanned nearly 60 years. 

While the film was previously streaming on Netflix, it's now a bit harder to get your hands on. For now, enjoy the trailer below.  

Pantsula and "The African Cypher"

Pantsula dance emerged in South Africa in the 1950s/1960s as a response to the forced removals implemented by the Apartheid government. It began as groups of older men engaged in informal street dance competitions and gradually the dance form spread throughout the country. By the 1980s, pantsula was practiced by black South Africans of all ages and it was no longer limited just to men. The dance also began to develop more political overtones and was used as an expression of resistance during the political struggle then occurring against the Apartheid government, as well as being used to spread awareness about social issues such as AIDS.

The African Cypher (trailer below) is a beautiful film about pantsula today in South Africa. Here are a few notes from the filmmaker: 

"We shot all over the country, spending months in Soweto, Orange Farm, Mohlakeng and the Cape Flats. We really tried to integrate ourselves into the lives of the dancers and the communities from a place of respect. ... We were very careful about how we approached the situation – as filmmakers we have the power of the camera and that is easily abused. People want to be on TV, want to be famous and it is easy to go in and exploit a culture with your camera and pull away with superficial footage. We wanted something deeper, we wanted to find out what fuels their passion and their fear, so we spent a lot of time at first just meeting people and hanging out in the communities, drinking with people, meeting their friends, their mom’s and elders and family. I only wanted our camera to go in when it could be followed by our hearts. It sounds cheesy but I believe that you have to care about the people you are filming or nothing special will come of it no matter how beautiful the shots."  - Bryan Little 

Read more about the film on OkayAfrica and watch the trailer below to see it for yourself. 

UPDATE: We've received news that Prince Mofokeng, the poet and hero of this film is battling blood cancer while living in a shack in Soweto. Below is footage of Prince from the film, here is the Facebook page where you can stay up to date on his recovery process, and here is a link to donate and help directly. 

Turf Dancing: distinctively Oakland

Turf Dancing has its earliest origins in the Oakland Boogaloo movement of California in the 1960s, developing into a separate genre of dance in the 1990s. Along with hyphy music, it came to be seen as distinctively representative of Oakland. 

Here is a second video featuring a few of the same dancers, however this one is an homage to their friend, Kenneth "211" Ross, who was killed by Oakland police in December 2009, just a few months after his 18th birthday. 

A big thank you to Yak Films for producing and sharing this footage. If you've never heard of them, "YAK is a production team of young filmmakers dedicated to youth-led multimedia production which provides a voice for resistance and an alternative to played-out mainstream media." 

Little steps: Dança do Passinho

Back in 2013, major news organizations caught wind of a new dance craze coming out of Rio de Janeiro, called the dança do passinho (translates into little steps). So far it seems to have had a positive impact on the youth in some of Rio's most notorious favelas (slums). As a mixture of hip hop/break dance, samba and frevo, the style is animated and energetic, like so many other dances from Brazil. 

Learn more and watch additional videos here:

The Guardian (May 2014)

BBC News (May 2013)

RTP Portugal (June 2014) (in Portuguese)