Essay on Dance During the Harlem Renaissance

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During the 1920s and 1930s Harlem, New York became the capital for African Americans, attracting talented artists from across the country. Musicians, dancers, and poets were among those in search of a newfound life. In an era that produced bootleggers, speakeasies, and bathtub gin, Harlem was also home to some of the most notable nightclubs of all time. These nightclubs included the Cotton Club, the Plantation Club, the Lenox Lounge, and the Savoy Ballroom. Harlem’s nightlife was the birthplace of fame for many African American artists during the Harlem Renaissance. Many of these artists performed in the prominent nightclub known as the Cotton Club and became well-known musicians, dancers, and poets. Figure 1: The Cotton Club.

“Born on April 29th,1899 Duke Ellington was raised by two talented, musical parents in a middle-class neighborhood of Washington, D.C. At the age of seven, he began studying piano where he earned the nickname “Duke'' for his gentlemanly ways” ( “He became engrossed in studying art during his high school years, and he was awarded, but did not accept a scholarship to Pratt Institute. Inspired by ragtime performers, he began to perform professionally at age 17” ( “In 1923 he moved to New York, and the following year formed his own band, the Washingtonians. By 1927, Ellington’s band had formed a small base of fans and secured engagement at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club” (Pbs.Org). “It was his sense of musical drama that made him stand out. His blend of melodies, rhythms, and subtle sonic movements gave audiences a new experience-complex yet accessible jazz that made the heart swing. (

Another pioneer musician and Cotton Club veteran was Ella Fitzgerald. “Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born in Newport News, Virginia on April 25, 1917. Her father, William, and mother Temperance, parted ways shortly after her birth” ( “With her mother, they moved to Yonkers, New York to live with her mother’s boyfriend” ( ``. By 1934, Fitzgerald was trying to make it on her own living in the streets. Still having dreams of becoming an entertainer, she entered a contest at a Harlem theater where she won first place prize for $25 ( The following year she joined the Chick Webb orchestra. “She made her first recording “Love and Kisses in 1935 and her first hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket in 1938” ( “Fitzgerald’s clear tone and wide vocal range were complemented by her mastery of rhythm.

“Billie Holiday was born on April 7, 1915, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Holiday spent much of her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland” ( “Her mother, Sadie, was only a teenager when she had her. Her father is believed to be Clarence Holiday, a famous jazz musician” ( “In her difficult early life, Holiday found solace in music, singing along to the records of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong” ( In 1930, she began singing in local clubs and that’s where her love for music started. “Two years later a series of recordings with Teddy Wilson and his band bought her worldwide fame and popularity” ( Holiday had recorded a song called “Strange Fruit “in 1939 and when she performed this at the Cotton Club the crowd got chills.

“Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana, in a neighborhood so poor that it was nicknamed “The Battlefield '' ( “Armstrong had a difficult childhood: his father was a factory worker and abandoned his family after Louis’s birth”. “One night Armstrong had fired his stepdad’s gun for New years and was arrested on the spot” ( “He was sent to the Colored Waifs Home for boys, and it was there when he fell in love with music” (” Armstrong was a famous Musician, and by 1929, when he moved from Chicago to New York and performed in the theater review Hot Chocolates” ( “More than a great Trumpeter, Armstrong was a bandleader, singer, soloist, film star and comedian” (” Armstrong not only ensured the survival of jazz but led in its development into fine art” (

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During the Harlem Renaissance, dancers were also a huge part of the Harlem nightlife scene. Two of the most noted dancers were Josephine Baker and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. They both danced and gained recognition for their talents while performing in the nightclubs of Harlem.

Josephine Baker, born Freda Josephine MacDonald, was a talented dancer during the Harlem Renaissance era. Her passion for entertainment developed from her mother aspiring to be a dancer and her father who was a musician that played the drums. Over the years she became more interested in musical shows and theatre. In 1919, she toured with the Jones Family band and later toured with the Dixie Steppers where she danced and performed comedic skits. In 1921, she auditioned for the ‘Shuffle Along’ show in New York but was declined because of her young age. She then worked in the road company to create costumes for dancers. She continued to observe other dancers and learned their routines and was also given the opportunity to substitute for regular dancers when they were not available. In 1926, she moved to New York and performed with Ethel Waters at the Plantation Club, as well as solo performances at the Cotton Club. During this time, she was at the peak of her career. Baker performed in a set called ‘La Folie du Jour’ at the ‘Folies Bergere’ music hall where she danced topless wearing a skirt constructed of artificial bananas. This performance was successful, and Baker became one of the most popular and highest-paid performers. She frequently traveled to Paris between 1925 and 1930 to perform in ‘La Revue Nègre’ at the ‘Theater des Champs-Elysèes’. The French audience became drawn to her performances. “To increase the audience’s interest, Baker was persuaded to perform one dance semi-nude, which became known as the Danse Sauvage, creating a sensation with the audience and considerable notice, both positive and negative, in newspaper reviews.” (Bracks, Smith).

Another famous dancer during the Harlem Renaissance era was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In 1932, Bojangles moved to Harlem where he established a lasting association with the Cotton Club. He is best remembered for his jazz dance style of tap dancing. He is also known for his duet performances with Shirley Temple in films such as ‘The Littlest One’, ‘The Littlest Colonel’, and the musical ‘Stormy Weather’. He was one of the first African American entertainers to gain commercial success. His signature performance was the “stair dance” which he performed on the vaudeville stage. “Robinson is generally credited with popularizing a more upright, erect style of tap dancing, executed on the toes or the balls of the feet…” (Petty). His style of dancing rarely consisted of upper-body movements. Instead, Robinson focused on the syncopation and tones he created with his dancing shoes. Poet Langston Hughes once remarked Bojangles’ tap dancing talents as one of the “finest sounds in jazz music” (Wintz, Finkleman).

As music and dancing legends continued to thrive, so did the prominence of African American poets. Langston Hughes was one of the most influential and respected poets of the 20th century. He was a poet, playwright, novelist, and lecturer (Schill). Langston Hughes’ first poem was known as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (Schill). After his first poem 5 years later, he published an actual book of poems called, “The Weary Blues” (Schill). Hughes not only loved writing and reading poetry, but he also loved music. Throughout his writing career, his love for music started to come out in his poetry. The idea included jazz-blue music in his poetry, Hughes thought that this could be something unique and different for the African American race (Gross).

Hughes' poetry often included syncopated beats and rhythms, and jive language, and he used less tight phrasing to help his poems sound jazzier (Gross). When people read some of Hughes' poems, sometimes it sounded like someone was listening to a blues song because of his unique way of writing. Langston Hughes was a big part of the Harlem Renaissance because his poetry stood up for African Americans and gave the African American race their own type of writing that not only included words but included a jazz and blues feel to it. Hughes performed at multiple nightclubs during the Harlem Renaissance, reading his poetry where he became a well-known and respected poet. Although written years after the Harlem Renaissance ended, “Dream Boogie” captured jazzy bebop themes from the nightlife scene of Harlem. This is evident in the words, “You’ll hear their feet beating out”, as he refers to the dancing in the nightclubs.

In conclusion, Harlem’s nightlife was the birthplace of fame for many African American artists during the Harlem Renaissance. Many of these artists performed in the prominent nightclub known as the Cotton Club and became well-known musicians, dancers, and poets. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Josephine Baker, and Langston Hughes, were only a few among the many talented men and women, who paved the way for generations that followed.

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Essay on Dance During the Harlem Renaissance. (2023, October 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from
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