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Asadata Dafora Horton (1890-1965)

By John O. Perpener III

Every generation of dance artists has individuals who are considered to be the founders of a particular artistic movement in their field.  For example, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn are considered to be pioneers who contributed to the development of early twentieth-century concert dance in America.   A later generation might look to Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton as seminal forces behind the innovative postmodern dance movement that began in the early 1960s.  But for artists who have brought the cultural traditions of various West African ethnic groups to the American concert dance stage, one name is associated with the most important pioneering efforts in their field—Asadata Dafora.1 Dafora’s artistic contributions have been described as the “beginning of an entirely new and healthy adaptation of the pure African tradition of ritual dance, costume, and music.”2 A later assessment described his work as having “impact of such magnitude that it undoubtedly opened the door for the Afro-American in the field of concert dance.”3 

Asadata Dafora4 was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, West Africa on August 4, 1890.  In 1787, Freetown had been founded as a haven for freed and runaway slaves, and Dafora’s grandfather, James Horton, had returned there after living in Nova Scotia where he adopted his slave master’s surname, Horton.5 Because of their tradition of education and public service, Dafora’s family was held in high esteem in their community.  The father, John Moses Horton, was the town treasurer and had been educated in England; the stepmother was an accomplished pianist, trained in Vienna and Paris.6 Her musical training was reflected in the Horton children’s extensive exposure to music from an early age.

Shortly after Dafora graduated from the Wesleyan High School in Freetown, he began traveling throughout West Africa, visiting villages that were considerably different from the Western-influenced environment he had grown up in.  He alluded to his avid interest in traditional African cultures in a 1945 interview with dance critic Margaret Lloyd.  His description of running away from home as a child to follow the native festivals that lasted for days and nights suggests that this was something he had explored even before he graduated from high school.7 Through these wide-ranging experiences, he gained the firsthand knowledge of West African dance, music, folklore, and ritual art that would provide a rich source of material for his later work on the concert stage.

Following in the footsteps of several of his family members, Dafora lived in Europe between 1910 and 1912.  He studied opera at La Scala Opera House in Milan and toured England, France, and Germany with productions of Aida and L’Affricaine.8 His gravitation toward a career in opera was due, very likely, to his early exposure to European music at home.   On the other hand, the multicultural experiences of his youth also led him in another direction while he was in Europe.  He formed a group that performed West African dances in a Berlin nightclub, later recounting that he used white dancers “made up to look black.”9

Dafora came to the United States in 1929, and his first performance in New York was as a concert singer.   Billed as a lyric tenor—with his name appearing on the program as Austin Dafora Horton—he performed at Mother A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem on January 26, 1931.   The program included vocal selections by Madeline Graden, Dafora's cousin from Sierra Leone who had studied music in Europe. She was also known as Princess Musudee.  An article published around the same time in The Harlem Reporter explained that she was of royal lineage that dated back to her great grandfather, King Ben Buren, of the Temne people.10 With the help of the African Union—an organization comprised of Africans living in America—Dafora soon began to pursue his objective of bringing the beauty ofAfrican cultural expressions to the concert stage.  To achieve this end, he began rehearsing a group of drummers, singers, and dancers who performed in one of their earliest concerts on April 13, 1933 at the Little Theatre of the Harlem Y.M.C.A.  They performed excerpts from Zoonga, an African opera that Dafora was in the process of writing at the time. It is apparent that the performance format he was working on, which he eventually called “dance-opera,” developed out of his prior experiences with African forms of ritual celebration combined with the European forms of theatrical spectacle he had studied.  Harlem’s New York Age reported that on October 7 1933, Dafora’s group also performed parts of Zoonga at Madison Square Garden where they were billed as the “West African Jabawa male troupe.”11

The circumstances that led up to Dafora’s most celebrated dance-opera, Kykunkor or the Witch Woman, began to develop when Anne Kennedy, the business manager of the Unity Theater, saw his group at Madison Square Garden and invited them to perform at her small venue on March 4, 1934.  Afterward, she encouraged him to begin work on a larger scale production.12Kykunkor was based on a folktale of the Mende people, an ethnic group that neighbored Dafora’s own Temne people in Sierra Leone.  It told the story of Bokari, performed by Dafora, who has come to choose a bride at a “maidens” village where young women are initiated into womanhood.  After following the proper protocol, which includes several danced sequences, he chooses Musu Esami, performed by Frances Atkins, as his bride(Atkins was one of the African-American women whom Dafora had been training, while the men in the cast were from Nigeria and Liberia.)  The couple’s wedding dance is interrupted by the Witch Woman who casts a spell on the bridegroom at the behest of a jealous suitor who desires Musu Esami.  Bokari falls to the ground unconscious.  No one can revive him until the Witch Doctor arrives and draws out the evil spirit after tremendous effort.  Kykunkor concludes with a series of celebratory dances that reflect the joyous outcome. 

Drawing on material he had committed to memory during his travels in West Africa and combining it with his knowledge of European theater, he created a unique synthesis of contemporary performance art.   He adapted the ritual songs and dances to fit the requirements of a proscenium stage and meet the expectations of an audience coming to an evening of theater.  Kykunkor opened at the Unity Theater on May 5, 1934.  For the first few days, audiences were disappointingly small, until Anne Kennedy prevailed upon John Martin—dance critic for the New York Times—to come to a performance on May 8; he saw the show and wrote a glowing review that appeared the next day.  Martin commented, “The performance is eminently worth seeking out, not only by those who are interested in dancing, but by anyone who likes genuine and exciting theatre-art . . . . Here, by all means, is one of the most exciting dance performances of the season.”13 Attendance began to surpass all expectations, and the production had to be moved to the Chanin Theatre where it continued to attract noteworthy individuals from New York’s artistic and cultural establishment, including modern dancers Helen Tamiris and Charles Weidman.14 During the run of the production, critics and audiences responded enthusiastically to the vital energy of the dancing and drumming.  Most of them had never seen authentic West African dance before, and Dafora’s work was a revelation to them.  Cast member Abdul Assen received special praise from critics for his portrayal of the Witch Doctor in the scene where he became possessed while saving Bokari.

Around the time that Kykunkor was conceived, Dafora settled on the name Shologa Oloba (Dancers and Singers) for his group. They performed Kykunkor at several other theaters in New York City, and toured in Rhode Island and New Jersey. By the end of 1935, most members of the company were absorbed into to the Negro Theatre Project (also known as the Negro Unit) which was one of the arts projects of the Works Progress Administration. The W.P.A. was the U.S. government initiative to put Americans—including artists from all fields—back to work during the Great Depression.  Dafora and his dancers participated in one of the Negro Unit’s most ambitious and successful projects, a version of Macbeth that was directed by Orson Welles, a twenty-year old actor and emerging director at the time.

Welles set the play in nineteenth-century Haiti, replacing the three witches with voodoo priestesses and their celebrants; consequently, the production became popularly known as the “Voodoo” Macbeth.  Dafora choreographed the jungle scenes in the play, while Clarence Yates, an African-American dancer who had been recruited for the show, choreographed scenes that were set in a ballroom.  With their two different assignments, they created a stunning contrast between the studied elegance of the court and the tropical netherworld outside the castle walls.15Macbeth opened at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem on April 14, 1936, where it played for ten weeks before moving to the Adelphi Theatre for eight weeks.  The production also undertook a national tour that took it to Detroit, Cleveland, Dallas, Chicago, Hartford, and Bridgeport. 

One year later, on March 7, 1937, Dafora took part in the Negro Dance Evening, a groundbreaking concert at the Ninety-second Street YM-YWHA in New York. The event was organized by two African-American concert dancers, Alison Burroughs and Edna Guy, who invited Asadata Dafora and members of his company to perform.  They also invited Katherine Dunham, who had recently returned from her anthropological research in the West Indies, and she brought her company from Chicago for their first performance in New York City.  The concert was unique because it was structured to show the diversity of dance traditions among black people of the African diaspora.  Dafora and his dancers presented material from their repertory of West African dances; Dunham and her group performed dances she had researched in the Caribbean; Guy and Burroughs—along with Clarence Yates and Leonard Barros— performed a danced spiritual, Shout; and in the last section of the program, “Modern Trends,” Dunham, Guy, and Burroughs each performed solos.   J. A. Kaye of Dance magazine wrote a positive review of the concert, reserving his highest praise for Dafora:  “Of all the interpreters of the Negro dance, Asadata Dafora Horton is undoubtedly the best.”16 

During the early 1940s, Dafora allied himself with the African Academy of Arts and Research. Founded in 1943 by Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe, the organization shared Dafora’s goals of championing the importance of African cultures within the family of other world cultures, and presenting the vitality and beauty of African art to American audiences.   One of the Academy’s first projects was an African Dance Festival performed at Carnegie Hall on December 13 of that same year.  Edwin Denby, the dance critic of the New York Herald Tribune, wrote a favorable review and said, “What is however most striking about Dafora’s dancing is the sense of courtesy toward his partner and toward his audience, the warmth and sensitivity that the entire dance expresses.”17 In addition to performing material from his own repertory, Dafora included two solos performed by Pearl Primus, a young dancer just beginning to receive attention from New York dance critics who were calling her one of the most important emerging concert dancers of the time.  During the program’s intermission, Eleanor Roosevelt spoke in support of the African Academy’s mission, and she was joined by Mary McLeod Bethune, the African-American humanitarian and civil rights advocate who, in 1941, had founded Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona, Florida.

Mbadiwe’s organization sponsored a second African Dance Festival at Carnegie Hall on April 4, 1945.  The program opened with a new work from Dafora, Festival at Battalakor, that told thestory of a young African man wholeaves his village to study in the United States.  After he returns home, he is torn between his people’s traditional cultural practices and the new mores he has been exposed to abroad.  The story ends on a note of conciliation when the young man takes a bride and establishes peace between two warring tribes.

The balance of the evening unfolded with dancers and musicians performing material from throughout the African diaspora.  Princess Orelia and Pedro—who were known for their work in nightclubs—performed dances from Cuba and Brazil.  Hailing from Trinidad, the Duke of Iron sang calypso numbers.  Josephine Premice performed Haitian dances; and tap dancer Bill Robinson and jazz musicians Mary Lou Williams and Maurice Rocco represented America.18 In 1946, Dafora and the African Academy presented their third concert at Carnegie Hall, A Tale of Old Africa, and that same year Shologa Oloba undertook its most extensive tour.  From January 1946 to March 1947, the company toured extensively through the southern and mid-western regions of the United States, sponsored primarily by African-American fraternities and sororities, civic groups, andblack educational institutions such as Howard University, Hampton Institute, and Tuskegee Institute.19

The extensive tours of the 1940s were another high point in the company’s performance itinerary.  During the next two decades, however, Dafora’s work appears to have been received with less enthusiasm by critics and audiences, and his group’s performance opportunities slowly declined.  One can speculate about the reasons for this, including the possibility that his dance-operas were no longer viewed as “novelties”—a word often used to describe artistic innovation in the 1930s and 1940s—as they had been during the early part of his career in America.  During the 1950s and 1960s, his group appeared in settings that he had formerly eschewed, including nightclubs, exhibitions, and zoological gardens.

Dafora returned to Sierra Leone in 1960, the year before that country gained its independence from Great Britain.  His intent was to continue his career in his native country as it moved into a new era.   He pursued that objective for a time, but he had to return to the United States in 1962 because of health reasons.  During his final years, his artistic activities continued to decline, and he died on March 4, 1965 in Harlem Hospital.  Asadata Dafora Horton had achieved his goal of drawing attention tothe value and the vital beauty of West African cultures by setting their dances, music, folklore, and ritual art on the concert stage.  Particularly during his early decades in America, he presented his group in major New York theaters where critics and audiences could gain an alternative view to the denigrating images of Africa that circulated in the popular imagination.  His company’s exposure in the W.P.A production of Macbeth and the extensive tours of the 1940s continued his mission of validating West African cultural elements in the eyes of the world.  Of equal importance, his work laid the foundation for ensuing generations of black artists to teach and perform the dance expressions of Africa and its diaspora.

1. Most of the information in this article is adapted from my chapter on Asadata Dafora in the following book: John O. Perpener III, African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond (Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001), pp. 101-127. 

2. Margaret Just Butcher, The Negro in American Culture (New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1972), p. 94. 

3. Lynne Fauley Emery, Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970 (Palo Alto, CA: National Press Books, 1972), p. 249. 

4. For his performance work Dafora used his African name, Asadata Dafora. But he also had an English first name, Austin, and an English surname, Horton. 

5. In her Ph.D. dissertation, dance historian Marcia Heard makes a convincing case that Asadata Dafora’s relative who returned to Sierra Leone from Nova Scotia was his grandfather, not his greatgrandfather as stated by many authors, including Emery and myself. Heard points out that this mistake occurs because the biographical information Dafora used in his programs mentions his greatgrandfather as his enslaved relative. She bases her argument on the extensive genealogical research she conducted. Marcia Heard, Asadata Dafora: African Concert Dance Traditions in American Concert Dance, Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1999, p. 43. 

6. W. Kline and S. Davis, “Asadata Dafora (Horton),” biographical sketch, Apr. 17, 1980, p. 1, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York. This is another instance where Heard clarifies information about Dafora’s relatives, pointing out that the individual who is often spoken of as Dafora’s mother was actually his stepmother, Regina Horton. Marcia Heard, Asadata Dafora, p. 60.

7. Margaret Lloyd, “Dancer from the Gold Coast— Part II,” Christian Science Monitor, June 9, 1945, n.p., Dance Collection, New York Public Library. Return to essay.

8. Kline and Davis, “Asadata Dafora (Horton),” p. 1. Return to essay.

9. Margaret Lloyd, “Dancer from the Gold Coast,” Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 1945, n.p., Dance Collection, NYPL. Return to essay.

10. Official program, Joint Song Recital (Mother A.M.E. Zion Church, Jan. 26, 1931), Asadata Dafora (Horton) Papers, Schomburg Center; Chappy Gardner, "African Princess in First American Song Recital at Mother Zion: Horton, Lyric Tenor on Same Bill," The Harlem Reporter, n.d., n.p., Schomburg Center.

11. “African Dancers and Singers Appear in Recital in Harlem,” Age (New York), Oct. 21, 1933, n.p., Schomburg Center. 

12. Martha Dreiblatt, “The Story of the Dance Opera ‘Kykunkor,’” (souvenir program), n.p. Schomburg Center. 

13. John Martin, “Native Cast Gives African Opera,” New York Times, May 19, 1934, n.p. Schomburg Center. 

14. Martha Dreiblatt, “The Story of the Dance Opera ‘Kykunkur.’” 

15. Richard France, The Theatre of Orson Welles (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1977), p. 61. 

16. J.A. Kaye “Reviews—Negro Dance Evening,” Dance, May 1937, pp. 32-33. 

17. Edwin Denby, “The Dance: Brightest Africa,” New York Herald Tribune, Dec. 14, 1943, n.p., Schomburg Center. 

18. John Martin, “African Festival at Carnegie Hall,” New York Times, Apr. 5, 1945, n.p., Schomburg Center.

19. Marcia Heard gives a detailed account of the company’s tours between 1940 and 1947. Heard, Asadata Dafora, pp. 200-225.

John O. Perpener III is a dance historian and independent scholar who currently lives in Washington, D.C.  He received his Ph.D. in Performance Studies from New York University.  He has taught in the Department of Dance at Florida State University, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the University of Maryland, College Park, and at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  His book, African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond, was published in 2001.  He has received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (2012-13) for his research project on African-American concert dancers and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Emery, Lynne Fauley.  Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970.  Palo Alto, CA: National Press Books, 1972.

Heard, Marcia.  “Asadata Dafora: African Concert Dance Traditions in American Concert Dance.”  Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1999.

Manning, Susan.  Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Martin, K. K.  “America’s First African Dance Theatre.”  Caribe 7, nos. 1 and 2, 1983.

Needham, Maureen.  “Kykunkor, or the Witch Woman: An African Opera in America, 1934,” in Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance, ed. Thomas DeFrantz. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002. 

Perpener, John.  African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond.  Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2001.