Dafora, Asadata, 1890-1965

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1890-08-04
Death 1965-03-04

Biographical notes:

Dancer, choreographer, dance-dramatist. Born John Warner Dafora Horton in Sierra Leone, Dafora was the first dancer to bring African dance forms to American audiences.

From the description of Asadata Dafora papers, 1933-1963. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122570954

Cultural organization.

From the guide to the African Academy of Arts and Research records, 1944, (The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.)

Asadata Dafora (Horton)'s career as a dancer, choreographer, director and writer spanned the decades from 1930 to 1960. His significance in the history of modern dance is based largely on his creation and development of the “dance-drama” as an art form. The African dance troupe he established, the Shogolo Oloba, proved to unsophisticated American audiences that African dance was not only an exotic blend of magic, color and rhythm, but that it was also an undiscovered resource for complex dance techniques which demanded recognition and study.

The Dafora family history and the formation of the family name provide a rich foundation for the making of an artist. Asadata Dafora was born in 1890 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, British West Africa, to a family prominent in the arts and in government. His mother, an accomplished pianist, studied in Vienna and Paris. A great uncle, knighted by Queen Victoria, was the first black mayor in Sierra Leone. Asadata Dafora's great great grandfather was a slave in Nova Scotia who assumed the name of his master. When he was released, he returned to Sierra Leone and continued the European name. However, in most instances, Asadata is identified with the African rather than the European surname.

The Dafora-Horton name and the amalgam of the African-European influences added depth to his education and shaped his art. As a child, Dafora often ran away from home in order to observe the native dancing during African festivals. This interest in the dance and folk traditions initiated a life-long study of African culture, traditions and language. He knew English and seventeen distinct African dialects. In contrast to his knowledge of African life, he learned European history and culture by attending the Wesleyan School in Sierra Leone, and later by studying in Italy at the Milan and La Scala opera houses from 1910 and 1912. As a result of his operatic training and his singing debut in Sierra Leone, he toured England, France and Germany in “L'Africanne” and “Aida,” circa 1912. During this tour, he added French, German and Italian to his list of languaqes.

The European tour affected the direction of his life and career. While in a German nightclub one evening in 1910, he happened to hear the orchestra play a medley of African songs. Overwhelmed with emotion at the sound of his native music, he spontaneously began to dance. The audience, never having witnessed true African dancing, was fascinated and wildly enthusiastic at the performance. Consequently, the management asked that he remain there to assist in the training of a group of dancers to celebrate the opening of the Kiel Canal.

On this tour, Dafora had been amazed by the narrow and simplistic view of Africa held by most Europeans. The obligation to educate people about Africa gave him the impetus to abandon his singing career. Instead, he chose to pursue dancing in order to entertain audiences while educating them about his native continent.

When he first arrived in Harlem in 1929, he supported himself by singing while devoting his free time to the creation of authentic African dances. Four years after his arrival, he finished his first dance-drama, entitled “Kykunkor, or the Witch Woman,” which he wrote, choreographed and directed. He aimed for authenticity by selecting dancers native to Africa and instructing them in African dialects as part of their training. His childhood memories of the native dances were incorporated with detailed accuracy into performances which further refined the purity of the dance.

Dafora had difficulty in financing his first show because his dancing and his ideas about art were alien to American audiences. Harlem impresarios refused him funding on the grounds that his show was “highbrow.” However, a little theater on Twenty-third Street took a chance on it, and the play opened May 6, 1934. The critics praised the play and the audiences flooded into the small theater. The play's popularity forced it to move to the larger Chanin Theater on Broadway where it became the season's box office hit. With the success of the play Dafora had accomplished his primary objective: he introduced people to Africa through the beauty, the energy and the grace of African dancing.

His career now established, Dafora and his dancers continued their work with a second play, “Zunguru,” which opened March 23, 1940, followed by “Batanga” on November 2, 1941. In addition to numerous engagements in the New York City area, he and his group toured the United States, performing at civic clubs, black colleges and in cities in the Midwest and South. After the tours, Dafora founded the Academy of Jazz with Mura Dehn (circa 1950), and was the subject of a film by Kinsley Mbadiwe called “The Greater Tomorrow.” In 1960, nearly thirty years after his arrival in the United States, he returned to Sierra Leone to become the Cultural Director when the country received its independence.

Illness caused him to return to New York City for treatment. He died in Harlem Hospital on March 4, 1965. He was survived by his wife, the former Rosalia Thyfer.

From the guide to the Asadata Dafora papers, 1933-1963, (The New York Public Library. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division.)

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Subjects:

  • Dance--Africa
  • Dance--United States
  • African American dancers
  • Dancing
  • African Americans in the performing arts
  • African Americans--Societies, etc
  • African American arts
  • African Americans--Dancing
  • American drama--African American authors

Occupations:

  • Dancers
  • Choreographer

Places:

  • Sierra Leone (as recorded)
  • Africa (as recorded)
  • Africa (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Sierra Leone (as recorded)