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The Color Line Is Always Moving: Aida Overton Walker

by Jeanne Scheper

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Aida Overton Walker (b. Ada Wilmore Overton, 1880–1914), African-American vaudeville singer, dancer, and choreographer was a celebrated star of the early twentieth-century transatlantic popular stage and a central figure in what James Weldon Johnson calls the “middle period” for African American theater in the United States, a time of resistance to minstrel forms and a period of growth and development of African American cultural production, writing, black theater management, and performance. Overton Walker was an innovator in this scene, an originator of the American genre of art-dance, a developer of modern dance, and a teacher-mentor who sought to better working conditions and expand roles for black women on the stage. Photographs of Walker show a self-possessed international star seated at the threshold between the Victorian and the modern. She was renowned in her day as a singer, dancer, choreographer, musical comedienne, and teacher, her name was a “household word” in the United States, and she became internationally recognized for her renditions of the cakewalk. When she died at the age of thirty-four in New York City in 1914, her funeral was considered “the largest ever held for a woman of the race,” and obituaries proclaimed her “the Dancer That Dignified the Profession.”

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