Sydney King and Marion Cuyjet, founded the Sydney-Marion School of Dance in the mid-1900s. The two became tributaries in a lineage of Philadelphia’s dancers, some who changed or are changing the course of race in dance in America, and are pioneers in Ballet. To fully understand history of Black Philadelphians in Ballet we must examine the intimate relationship the city has with the form going back as far as the 1800’s when Paul H. Hazard and his wife who were members of Paris Opera settled in Philadelphia where they opened the first ballet School in 1835.
The Hazard School produced three American dancers who became famous: George Washington Smith, Mary Ann Lee, and Augusta Maywood. Smith, rumored to have been Mulatto, was born around 1820. There is little record of him until 1932 when he is reported to have appeared onstage for the first time doing a form of tap dancing. Smith rose to popularity when he was asked to partner Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler. Later he and Lee danced the principal roles in the American premiere of Giselle. He would go on to choreograph for B.T. Barnum’s Roman Hippodrome and created ballets for the newly rebuilt Continental Theater which popularized ballet in Philadelphia, as the Continental was the place where everyone took in their entertainment. In 1881, Smith opened his own ballet school.
Essie Marie Dorsey opened her dancing school in Philadelphia in 1926 where she offered classes in Spanish dance, tap, and ballroom dance as well as acrobatics, though the emphasis was on ballet. Originally from Goldsboro, North Carolina, Dorsey moved to New York as a child. Dorsey was a fair-skinned Negro who often passed as white or Latina to circumvent racial boundaries. This is how she was able to study dance with the likes of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn at the Billy Pierce Studio. She took private ballet classes with Mikhail Fokine and William Dollar and studied Spanish dance with Angel Cansino. She truly desired a career in ballet, though it was not to be. She eventually performed Mikhail Mordkin’s first American-based company in the mid-1920s, though she was never considered a full company member nor did she perform in the ballet works.
In an interesting turn of events, when William Dollar fell into hard times, Dorsey invited him to stay with her and her husband. Out of gratitude, he repaid her by giving her private ballet classes every morning. This illustrates how complex racial relations were at the time. Clearly when Dollar stayed with Dorsey, he was aware of her race. They were friends. He could live with her and train her (privately), yet out in the world, he could not allow her— a Negro woman— in his regular classes.
Dorsey employed Thomas Cannon (of the Littlefield Ballet Company and director of Philadelphia Academy) to teach ballet with her in her studio. Although Negroes were not allowed to take classes at white schools, there were some white teachers who were willing to teach at Negro schools, or privately. This segregation, combined with the lack of performance opportunities, contributed to the invisibility of black ballet dancers of this era, giving rise to the misconception that blacks were not active in the world of ballet. The reality was that, they were essentially forced to train in the shadows.
Some of Dorsey’s most successful students were Sydney King and Marion Cuyjet, as well as John Hines. King immigrated to Philadelphia from Jamaica with her family when she was six years old. At seven, King was a member of the inaugural class at the Essie Marie School of Dance where, even at that tender age, she took classes every day. King excelled at ballet and would advance to become the lead ballerina of the school. But being Negro and too brown to pass for white, there was no higher level to which she could ascend. She danced until she married in 1936 at 19 years old.
Marion Cuyjet did not begin to train with Dorsey until 1933, when she was thirteen. Cuyjet’s people were Delaware Moors (a mixed community of African American, Native American and Welsh) and looked white although they chose as a family not to pass. Cuyjet was a green-eyed redhead, thus it was possible for Dorsey to send her off to train at the Philadelphia Ballet Academy. Passing was tricky business, a solitary existence. One had to avoid getting too close to anyone, and withhold information like where you resided, which might give one’s true identity away. Dorsey taught Cuyjet the ropes in order to get her access to better training, just as she had done herself as a teen.
Cuyjet was selected to perform in the Ladies’ Better Dresses Department of the Wanamaker Department Store with a group of teens with the Littlefield Ballet Company in the Caucasian Sketches. During this era, ballet and musical performances in department stores were common; the performances were used to draw people in and get them shopping. During one such performance, some of Cuyjet’s black friends from Sunday school at the First African Baptist Church spotted her and decided to say hello after the show. In doing so, they unintentionally outed her. She was asked not to return to the ballet company. This was not an unusual response when people were “found out”; in fact it was the most benign of reactions.
Though King was technically a better dancer, because of Cuyjet’s complexion she was the one who had the opportunity to perform professionally. This was a benefit of being lighter skinned — they were granted entry into areas of white society that the browner Negroes were not, including working at department stores where they were not even allowed to shop. Cuyjet however had no interest in passing as a long-term solution and was very clear about her limitations as a dancer. Her daughter Judy says:
My mother was not a great dancer. She was a student of dance who could demonstrate some things. She was mental dancer, she could straighten your ass out.
In the early ‘40s, Cuyjet married and started a family. In 1944, she began to expand her training by taking up folk dance, and began a small school in her home a year later. During World War II, Dorsey closed her school. She was on the verge of reopening, when Cuyjet and King told her of their plans to join forces and start their own studio. Dorsey fully endorsed them and even offered her space and contacts to her young protégées. In 1946, the Sydney-Marion School of Dance opened in the former Dorsey school on 711 South Broad Street.
The two followed closely in their mentor’s footsteps, with curriculum offering various techniques to their students including Dunham Technique. Their old classmate John Hines had been studying with Katherine Dunham in New York and encouraged the two to travel to the city to study at the Dunham School. Hines introduced them to new teachers and studios around the City and joined the faculty of their studio.
The partnership between Cuyjet and King was short lived and after less than two years they split. King retained the space on Broad street an Cuyjet found another. Little is known about the actual reasons for the break, however there are some speculations. Whatever the case may be, they went their separate ways and the students were divided. Joan Myers Brown, the director and founder of Philadelphia School Dance Arts and Philadelphia Dance Company was a student at the Sydney-Marion School and has her opinions. Myers Brown says:
I don’t know if it was about color, or if it was about the two ladies disagreeing. I know that all of us little brown girls stayed with Sydney and all the little light skin [daughters of] doctors and lawyers and all the so-called society girls went with Miss Cuyjet. That’s why I was surprised that she ended up with Delores [Browne]. She found them already trained in South Philadelphia at that Barrett Junior High School. Billy Wilson, Betsy Ann Dickerson, Barbara Harper, all of us stayed with Sydney.
Perhaps the split was due to their opposite teaching styles. While they had come out of the same schools, their methodology was vastly different. Myers Brown says:
Sydney is a nurturer, she is warm. She holds people close to her. Sydney still didn’t want us to leave. Even after I left and Billy Wilson and Betsy Ann—who was the first black woman to dance in the ballet at the Radio City Ballet (because she was fair)— when she left we were still “hers”. We wanted to go. We wanted to do more. I think that was the difference with Marion. She wanted to push her people, she was an adventurer.
Like Dorsey, Cuyjet tested the boundaries. She was fearless and her students were the beneficiaries. After the split, Cuyjet sought space downtown, using her appearance to thwart racial boundaries. She called her new school Judimar combining her daughter Judy’s name with her own. Judith Jamison (who began her training at the Judimar School when she was six years old) recalls their transient existence:
This was the first black woman to be able to rent space in downtown Philadelphia, because she had green eyes, white skin and red hair. And she was black. And we would get kicked out of different schools because all these little black children would come running after this white women in these studios that were being rented. Then they would figure out, no, no, that’s not going to happen. So we moved several times.
Jamison also recalls the strictness that was a hallmark of Cuyjet’s teaching methods:
She put the seriousness of dance, the discipline of it, and how you have to be more than 100 percent doing what you’re doing in class… she put that in your heart, and in your spirit and in your soul. She also walked around with a stick, which she would never hit you with or anything like that, but it was the threat of the stick. And also, Marion cursed like a sailor. She really would let you know in certain terms that you were doing something not quite right. You knew that you had to be 200 percent for her.
Cuyjet wanted to continue to expand her learning and there were doors she could sneak through that were not open to King, and this might have been a factor in the split. Cuyjet regularly traveled to New York (alone and with her students) to study at studios like Dunham and Ballet Arts in Carnegie Hall. In New York, she forged a great friendship with William Chaffee. Chaffee, a notable teacher, had been a leading star of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet in the late 1930’s, and headed his own chamber ballet company. He allowed Cuyjet, her daughter, and her student Donna Lowe to take his class in New York because all three could pass for white. He taught both Cuyjet and her other students privately. Ironically this dancing in the shadows forced an intimacy and a focus that in the end made Cuyjet a master teacher. Chaffee was an ally, and supported her in every way he could. However there were few platforms for black ballet dancers to perform.
Cuyjet began to build her enrollment. One of her first classes was for older teens, some of whom had never danced before but were interested and dedicated. She scouted ballet clubs in junior high and high schools, this is where she found Delores Browne, Alice Mayes, and Juanita Jones, at the Barrett Junior High School’s recital of Cinderella (with Browne in the title role). She offered the three young women scholarships.
It was Cuyjet’s hope that she could mold one of these three (then later Donna Lowe, Melva China White, and Judith Jamison) into the first Black American Ballerina, as was once her dream. This is why she worked so vociferously to push and expose her dancers to everything possible. They integrated Ballet Arts at Carnegie Hall, she sent a 17 year old Delores Brown to study at the School of American Ballet and she sent Donna Lowe to Philadelphia Opera Ballet. Cuyjet’s daughter, Judy, says her mother’s dream was almost realized with Delores:
A lot of us did well. We could hold our own in NYC in the corps de ballet of a company. But Delores came born with it, her body and her temperament— she would come before [class] and get in the mirror and work herself. Delores was like a ballet encyclopedia. She knew within herself that she could do it, she had it, and she made good. It was just that at her peak, American was not ready for a black ballerina.
Cuyjet instilled her lion’s heart in her students. Browne had the grit too: at the tender age of 15, she entered Ballet Arts and endured being shunned by the white male dancers in her first partnering class. She continued with the classes and learned all she could to take back to their boys back home. Judy Cuyjet remembers:
In her first partnering class at Ballet Arts, no boys wanted to partner Dolores so my mother partnered her. She would come back, would teach our guys and gals. Delores had guts. She wanted this badly because without them realizing it they had the bodies and they knew they could do it.
Unlike Cuyjet, King was less interested in branching out. The Sydney King School of Dance stayed in the original location of the Sydney-Marion School, which kept her in the Black community. The less adventurous King relied heavily on teachers she had been trained with or students like Joan Myers Brown who graduated to join the faculty. King had been the star “Ballerina” of the Dorsey School and leaned heavily on her own knowledge to educate her students. Joan Myers Brown remembers:
I felt that Sydney was the better ballet dancer, the better ballet teacher. I know that I used to get to school early and Miss Sydney, as we called her, would teach Miss Marion what she had to teach in her class. In fact, she taught Miss Cuyjet’s daughter her first dance solo. Sydney was the ballerina. But she didn’t have as old people say the gumption, to move forward and push people and reach out and do more. I think she was satisfied with what she knew and what she could teach and what she could give. I think when they separated, then Marion pursued ballet more so than Sydney, ‘cause I think Sydney felt she had it.
At the time there were no ballet companies for Negro ballet performers and they were not granted entry into white ones. In Philadelphia advanced Negro ballet dancers existed in a sort of limbo, with little to no places to perform. They essentially became professional class takers, with allegiances to schools. Within the Black communities, there were small opportunities at churches and local events. However, the consistency and the level could never compete with professional companies. The one event that could stand toe-to-toe in scale and prestige were the Black Society Christmas Cotillions. Produced by Dr. Eugene Wayman Jones, founder of the Philadelphia Cotillion Society and the North City Congress, and producer of the gala event held at the Convention Hall, these were lavish events with high profile honorees including Marion Anderson (1949), Ralph Bunche (1950), Eleanor Roosevelt (1952), Pearl Buck (1956), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1957). Jones enlisted prominent dance schools to provide entertainment, accompanied by the Philadelphia orchestra. Judy Cuyjet remembers:
Because it was black society, doctors, lawyers, principal, and the Philadelphia Orchestra the city might have given it [the convention hall] to Dr. Wayman Jones. He was an extremely artistic man, a musician, taught at Temple University. He was sort of a Barnum and Bailey of ballet at Christmas time when we did a cotillion. This building [Convention Hall] is this long floor, stage, orchestra that went up and down. Black society in evening gowns and tuxedos are in the balcony looking down at the ballet on the convention hall floor. We did it for like six years.
The involvement of dance schools in these society events was part of the incentive for youngsters and adults alike to participate in dance. For those who were not a part of the Jack and Jill black society realm, this was the closest they could come to it. It was also the largest local platform for black dancers to perform at the time. The Sydney King School of Dance and the Judimar Schools collaborated in choreographing full-length story ballets: Frozen Fire (1950) Blue Venus (1954) The Prince and the Rose (1956). The students performed all of the roles. The productions were extravaganzas with sets, costumes, props, and even live animals courtesy of the Masonic Hall. Delores Browne says:
The Philadelphia Cotillions were a real extravaganza. I mean, they were produced! There were floats, and pageantry, and it was quite spectacular. I remember Mary Bethune once was an honored guest. Mrs. Roosevelt was one of the honorees. We had a full orchestra. It was the men of the Philadelphia orchestra plus other men. I said men, we didn’t have women in the orchestra. We had wonderful costumes and we normally had two schools did the ballet part of it. It was always a theme.
Judith Jamison remembers:
The Cotillions were the coming out parties for black society, so you’d get all these, debutantes and tails and the whole thing, and going up and down the Spectrum. Huge stadium where they played basketball and all that, and they put ballets on that floor. Huge space. I mean, huge. When I think of it, you couldn’t see who the person was all the way over on the other side. They would put the two schools together and create a ballet, and we’d dance for that one evening. I remember one year Joan Crawford was the honorary guest, and she was way back on the stage behind us. I think we got a chance to see her maybe once come from the stage to the floor. We’d learn these ballets. I don’t know how many hours of rehearsal we had, and then we were on. And we looked forward to it every year at Christmas. It was wonderful.
Cotillions were also coming out celebrations for dancers as well. When an advanced dancer reached their late teens, they were given a featured role or Pas de Deux— in effect presenting her to society. At 15, Jamison made her formal debut as Myrtha in Giselle. The visibility of the dancers was another reason people wanted to train at high levels: there were only certain avenues into society, dance and art were one. Myers Brown says:
I always felt like it was the Ice-capades because it was on the same floor, the Convention Center floor, and these big extravaganzas. He’d [Jones] have 50 couples doing a waltz. He was a genius. All we had to create was this ballet. Each school had a section. My section was always with Billy Wilson and and Betsy Ann Dickerson, we’d all run it together and trip up and down that hallway. I boureéd from one end of the Convention Center to the other! I was in competition with Delores, she was at Judimar, we would try to out ballet one another!
These events brought the two schools head-to-head in a not so subtle competition. Each production was a full-length ballet, based on a theme. The two schools would create their section separately and then integrate them with just a few hours of rehearsal. Everyone from most advanced to the beginners had a role. Although Cuyjet would study and take class with her students to improve her pedagogy, during these productions she would let them take the spotlight on the stage. King, on the other hand, would perform feature roles alongside her students in her school productions. Perhaps these extravagant productions ignited her unrequited dream of becoming a professional dancer, moving her to seize these moments to shine. Some felt as though she was in competition with them.
King was a motherly, nurturing teacher. Yet, like some parents, she had difficulty letting her students go. When it came time for the likes of Billy Wilson, Lola Falana, Betsy Ann Dickerson, and Myers Brown to move on, she she was not pleased. As nurturing as she was, she could be just as parsimonious. Myers Brown had been teaching at her studio from the time when she was a high school student. She viewed the dance studio as a second home, yet when she decided to open the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts in 1960, King was not supportive. Myers Brown recalls:
She wasn’t interested in me having a school of my own, so I went to Miss Cuyjet. She opened her books to me and told me the things that I should do to have a school of my own. That was surprising because I wasn’t her student. Marion was the only other person I knew that had a dance school in the black community. I ask her, “What do you do?” She did, she showed me how, she kept her books. I knew some things about production from working in show business, so I just used what I knew and what I could gather from them and keep moving.
Cuyjet would eventually teach for Myers Brown for many years, as did her daughter.
Those who came out of Cuyjet and King’s schools have gone on to form their own successes and make their own impact on the field:
Myers Brown followed the tradition of her foremothers offering a diverse curriculum, and epic recitals. Every year, her students performed at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Myers Brown believes it is important that children have the experience of performing in a real theater regardless of whether or not they will become professional dancers or not. Like her mentors, she is a pioneer, breaking down barriers. In 1970, Myers Brown founded The Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco) as a way to give the dancers she trained a performing outlet in concert dance (an opportunity that she was not afforded.) Both the school and company have been places where Myers Brown’s former classmates, as well as black dance teachers and choreographers have consistently had a place to share and practice their knowledge and artistry. Among those who taught or choreographed at Philadanco include: Billy Wilson, Delores Browne, Talley Beatty, Gene Hill Sagan, Louis Johnson, Milton Myers, Denise Jefferson, George Faison, Donald Byrd, Camille A. Brown, Christopher Huggins. Her organization has always been diverse, including the administration, faulty, company, choreographers, and students. She is adamant about opening doors and and providing opportunities for all.
Delores Browne helped Cuyjet fulfill her greatest dream: to help form the careers of black ballet dancers. Browne not only danced with Anthony Tudor’s Philadelphia Ballet Guild but was a soloist with New York Negro Ballet (formerly Ballet Americana). After a 3-year hiatus imposed by her frustration of not being able to get a dance contract in the U.S., she went on to dance in numerous projects with John Jones, Talley Beatty, Geoffrey Holder, Ballet Alonso in Cuba under the directorship of famed ballerina Alicia Alonso and more. Alvin Ailey tapped Browne to head the first scholarship program for the Ailey School. She became a master teacher and taught at Myers Brown’s Philadelphia School of Dance Arts for many years.
Judith Jamison’s career achievements are well documented and widely known. She went on to become an international star with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for 15 years. After leaving the company, she returned home the Philadelphia and started The Jamison Project until she was called on to take on the Artistic Directorship of the Ailey company after Mr. Ailey’s passing in 1989. There, she served as Artistic Director for 21 years. Following in her first teacher’s footsteps as is firm disciplinarian, she required a high level of technique and artistry from her dancers and helped make the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater the preeminent modern dance company in the world. Jamison is now Artistic Director Emerita of the company. Her artistic body of work earned her the highest honors in the land including Kennedy Center Honors for her contribution to American culture through dance (1999) and the National Medal of Arts (2001).
These three women— Joan Myers Brown, Delores Browne, and Judith Jamison— embody the elegance and audaciousness of their mentors. King and Cuyjet might not have had the opportunity to dance professionally as ballet dancers. However through their teaching they have produced many including: Billy Wilson, John Hines, John Jones, China Melva, White, Donna Lowe, Elmer Ball, are the first generation; hundreds of dancers have come through their lineage without even knowing the legacy that gave them the opportunity. Their lineage wraps the globe. Some of the Black Philadelphians in Ballet who have direct ties to the Cuyjet/King bloodline include: Robert Garland (Dance Theater of Harlem, resident choreographer and school director) Andrea Long Naidu (New York City Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem), Zane Booker (Les Ballets De Monte Carlo, Netherlands Dance Theater) Ramon Flowers (Pennsylvania Ballet, Bejart, Frankfurt Ballet, Compañía Nacional de España, Montreal`s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens) and Theresa Ruth Howard (Philadelphia Civic Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem).
King and Cuyjet are a part of American ballet history and they should be heralded for their contributions, and acknowledged for their accomplishments. They were faced with adversity…And Still They Rose.