"They called it exotic. They said we should be in the nightclubs. I said, 'I think this is concert dancing.'"
So Darlene Blackburn took her art--African and Afro-Caribbean dance--to the schools: to public schools through Urban Gateways and to Columbia College, where she gave master classes and lectures. That was back in the late 60s and early 70s, when even African Americans were not quite ready for what she was doing. "They didn't want to know that the movements [of the popular dances they were doing] came from Africa. They didn't want to hear it," she says. But they loved it when her lead male dancer, Alyo Tolbert (who became Muntu Dance Theatre's first artistic director), did his James Brown imitation at the end of the show.
"We weren't always received well at first," says Blackburn of her trips to city and suburban schools at a time when even Afros were considered strange. "But they were all just kids. Once we opened our hearts to them, we never had any problems." She believes that African dance is accepted now because of that period: the people who were kids in the 60s bring their own children to concerts today.
Blackburn--who these days teaches PE at a Chicago public school and choreographs and dances occasionally--has been dancing all her life. When she was growing up in Morgan Park, "We had a lot of parties at my house--on Sundays we got together and sang spirituals--they'd be doin' the jitterbug and I'd be tryin' to dance with 'em." She started studying dance in the early 60s, taking Afro-Cuban with Jimmy Payne, taking jazz and tap, taking ballet at the Stone-Camryn school. "All of 'em were right downtown," she says, so she used to go to the library to read in between dance classes. That's where she learned about Katherine Dunham, the woman who first put African dance on the concert stage, in the 40s; later Blackburn studied Dunham technique with Lucille Ellis in New York (and will teach Dunham technique at the Bryant Ballet School of Dance in Lincoln Park this summer).
In 1969, after a performance Blackburn did at DuSable High School, a woman asked her what parts of Africa she'd been to. None, Blackburn said. This was just her impression of African dance. The woman--Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of the Du Sable Museum--said, well, then, Blackburn would have to go. She made her first trip, to Ghana, that year; in 1971 she traveled with seven dancers and three drummers to Nigeria. From 1977 to 1980 she lived in Nigeria, teaching dancers there to choreograph and theatricalize the folk and ritual dances of their culture. She made the first of her several trips to the Caribbean in 1967.
So for the last 30 years Blackburn has been essentially an ambassador of dance, both here and abroad. Years ago, when she was at Northeastern Illinois University taking flamenco with Dame Libby Komaiko, the attitude, she says, was "you show me yours and I'll show you mine." It's an attitude she still has.
On Sunday at 1 at Puszh Studios, 3829 N. Broadway, Blackburn will talk as part of the "Telling Lives: The Changing Social Climate for Choreography" series organized by Reader contributor Effie Mihopoulos, who will also moderate. It's free. Other interviewees in this oral-history project are Hema Rajagopalan (July 11), Jimmy Payne (July 18), Gus Giordano (July 25), and Lucille Ellis (at a date to be announced). All happen at Puszh Studios; call 327-0231 for information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.