Joe Nash Biography
Trained Self to Dance on Broadway, Became Prominent Historian of Dance, Left Archive in Peril
Joe Nash's obsession with dance spanned half a century. A self-taught dancer, he whirled his way across stages on Broadway and in London. He danced with, collaborated with, or coached some of the most important African-American dancers and choreographers in the world. However, Nash's most significant contribution to dance was created off-stage, in the cramped apartment he owned in Harlem. He obsessively collected black dance memorabilia and over the decades became an expert on the role that African Americans played in the development of modern dance. "Dance history, like most history, marginalizes the African experience from beginning to end," Nash's longtime friend Rashidah Ismaili AkuBakr told the New York Times. "What Joe was trying to do was to show how from the very onset of dance, African people are integrally involved in the creation of an art form."
Trained Self to Dance on Broadway
Joseph Vincent Nash was born on October 5, 1919, in New York City. His father was a butler and his mother was a stay-at-home mom who raised Nash and his brothers, Francis and Shelby. As Nash was growing up, the Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom. An artistic movement that celebrated African-American art, music, and literature, the Harlem Renaissance gave rise to some of America's most important cultural figures including writer Langston Hughes, scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, and bandleader Duke Ellington. Dancers were part of the mix, noted Nash. "Joining the throng of writers, musicians, singers, painters, and artists flocking to the mecca on the Hudson, triggering cultural critical mass were dancers and choreographers … anxious to wrestle with the negative images popularized by decades of minstrelsy to create a New Negro dance," he wrote in "Pioneers in Negro Concert Dance: 1931–1937," an essay for the PBS documentary Free to Dance.
The Harlem Renaissance gave rise not only to popular dance crazes like the Lindy Hop and the Charleston, but to a whole school of modern dance and choreography that drew inspiration from African dancing and traditional black spiritual music. This "New Negro dance" captured Nash's imagination. A natural acrobatic with a compact, muscular body, Nash longed to get on stage; however, World War II called first and Nash was sent to serve in occupied Germany. When he returned to New York in the mid-1940s, he immersed himself in dance. Rather than attend formal classes, Nash learned to dance by reading about it. The New York Times wrote that Nash "liked to say that he had taught himself ballet by studying photographs in Dance Magazine."
Nash performed with some of the most influential African-American choreographers of the time, including Pearl Primus, who was famed for her energetic "primitive" dances. She often based her performances on literary works from the Harlem Renaissance. From 1946 to 1947 Nash performed all over the country as a principal dancer with Primus's dance company. Nash made his Broadway debut in a 1946 revival of Showboat. A year later he made his London debut in Finian's Rainbow, a satirical look at racism. He later joined the company of Donald McKayle, another important African-American choreographer. In the early 1950s, Nash appeared in three original Broadway productions: My Darlin' Aida, Flahooley, and Bless You All. In 1954 he danced with famed entertainer Pearl Bailey in House of Flowers. The show also featured a young Alvin Ailey, whose name would later become synonymous with modern dance.
Became Prominent Historian of Dance
In 1948 Nash began teaching at Marion Cuyjet's Judimar School of Dance in Philadelphia. His classes became famous in the Philly dance scene and often went overtime as the students did not want to leave. One of Nash's brightest students was Judith Jamison, who began studying with him at the age of six. She went on to become a world-famous dancer and, later, the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Dancer Delores Brown summed up the feelings that many students had towards Nash when she was quoted by the New York Amsterdam News saying, "[Nash] loved us into the movements." He also taught dancer and archivist Arthur Hall. In the Joe Nash Files of the on-line Arthur Hall Collection, Hall is quoted as saying that Nash impressed his students with his "beauty and strength, his background in gymnastics, his 'New York style.'" Hall added that "[students] couldn't get enough of [Nash's] classes."
Back in New York, Nash began working for the education department of the National Council of Churches in the 1970s, helping to develop the field of multicultural Christian education. However, his passion remained dance and he became a fastidious collector of African-American dance memorabilia. The New York Times noted that his collection included "playbills from the 1930s, books, articles, slides, cassette recordings of interviews with dancers and of conference proceedings, rare issues of dance magazines, newspaper clippings and a vast number of books." AbuBakr told the New York Times of Nash's Harlem apartment, "Every single room was storage—his bathroom, his bedroom."
A familiar figure at New York dance events, often dressed in flowing African robes, Nash became sought-after for his knowledge. "If you had questions about [African-American dance history] Joe was the man," wrote Dance Magazine. Nash contributed photos and commentary to The Black Tradition in American Dance, widely considered the definitive book on the subject. He also became a dance historian for the American Dance Festival, giving lectures nationwide on dance history. In 2001, he was a consultant for the PBS documentary Free to Dance, chronicling the contributions African Americans have made to modern dance.
Left Archive in Peril
Ironically, Nash's commitment to African-American dance and choreography may have contributed to his death. On Thanksgiving Day in 2004, he was walking through his crowded apartment when he tripped and fell. He grabbed onto a stack of books in an attempt to break his fall. The books tumbled over, pinning him to the floor. He lay trapped for several days before neighbors heard him calling for help. After a brief hospitalization Nash returned home, but his health was never quite the same. On April 13, 2005, he died of cardiovascular problems. He was 85.
Nash's death left a hole in African-American dance. Several weeks after his death, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., held a program called Masters of African-American Choreography. It became an impromptu homage to Nash. His death also left the history of African-American dance on shaky ground. Never married and with no children, Nash had no heirs. As he did not leave a formalized will, his apartment—including his extensive archives—was seized by the city for auction. During his life, Nash had donated materials to the dance archives of the New York Public Library, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, The Arthur Hall Collection in Philadelphia, Florida A&M University, the American Dance Festival, and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Ohio. "He wanted people to be able to study his materials," curator Madeleine Nichols told the New York Times.
At the time of his death, Nash was in the process of donating a large portion of his archives to the Library of Congress. With the library's help, as well as that of Nash's vast network of friends in the dance world, two long-lost nephews were found. By the fall of 2005, they were looking into options to retrieve Nash's estate from the city. Hopes across the dance world were high for the release of the archives. As close friend and director of the American Dance Festival told the New York Times of Nash's collection, "This is our heritage. We need to treat it that way." Nash most certainly did.
Dance Magazine, March 1994; August 2005.
Guardian (London, England), May 13, 2005.
New York Amsterdam News, May 4, 2005.
New York Times, April 19, 2005; May 18, 2005; May 28, 2005.
"Joe Nash," Arthur Hall Collection, http://sqlblue2.cul.columbia.edu/Ileife/ahc/jnash.html (September 10, 2005).
"Joe Nash, Dance Archivist and Historian," Making the Spirit, www.stanford.edu/group/Spirit/participants/joenash.html (September 10, 2005).