Hemsley Winfield; first African American modern dancer & founder of “Negro concert dancing.” (1907-1934)
Osborne Hemsley Winfield is regarded as the first African American modern dancer and the founder of “Negro concert dancing.” Winfield, the founder of the New Negro Art Theatre Dance Group, was a Harlem Renaissance dancer who worked alongside Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman.
He was born on April 20, 1907 in Yonkers, New York, to general contractor Osborne D. Winfield and playwright Jeroline Hemsley Winfield. He directed theater companies, taught dance, directed his modern dance company, and choreographed and danced in and around New York during his career. He was the director of the Mariarden Playhouse by the age of 17. Before launching his own dance company, he directed three other small theater companies.
Prior to establishing his modern dance company, Hemsley Winfield choreographed and performed dances for plays in which he directed or acted. On October 24, 1927, he directed the Sekondi Players in his first play, Congo. When his lead actress was ill, he danced the lead role in Salome on April 9, 1928. In April 1928, he choreographed and danced a cake walk in e. e. cummings’ play Him. Winfield choreographed dances for his mother’s plays, Wade in de Water (1929) and De Promis’ Lan’ (1930), both of which were performed at Carnegie Hall.
On March 6, 1931, Winfield debuted his company, the Bronze Ballet Plastique, in Yonkers for the Colored Citizens Unemployment Relief Committee. He renamed the company the New Negro Art Theatre Dance Group on April 29. That performance was billed as America’s first Negro dance recital.
In 1931, Winfield choreographed and danced in the Negro revue Fast and Furious. The following year, he and his dance company performed a concert at New York City’s Roerich Hall, as well as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln at the Roxy Theater with the Hall Johnson Choir and the Roxyettes, the forerunners of the Rockettes. He danced Gamobi as a prologue to the film Wonders of the Congo in 1932.
Winfield and his dancers performed two pieces in a benefit dance concert at the Mecca Temple Theater, now the New York City Center, in December 1932. Over 50 dance companies and individuals representing various dance styles performed at that concert. He was also the first to choreograph dances to Duke Ellington’s jazz music.
During 1933, he performed and lectured, taught at his dance school, and played the Congo Witch Doctor in The Emperor Jones. Perhaps his greatest achievement was being the first African American to be cast in a major role by the Metropolitan Opera, and his dance company was the first black company to perform at the Met.
Hemsley Winfield died of pneumonia on January 15, 1934, in New York City, at the age of 26. He never married.