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Born in 1906 to an impoverished family in St Louis, and dropping out of school at 12 to dance on street corners for money, when Josephine Baker died in 1975 she received full military honours at her funeral in Paris. Her journey was eventful, filled with scandals and successes.


From dancing on street corners she worked her way into vaudeville, via the clothing department, and performed as the “last girl” in the chorus line, a comedy role which involved dancing poorly until the encore when she outshone the other chorus dancers. She caught the eye of New York socialite Nancy Cunard, who invited her to Paris. To capitalise on France’s current rage for ‘negrophilie’ Cunard was putting together  a show of ‘real’ negro music and dance. Baker accepted. She arrived in Paris in 1925 and premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (a theatre which in 1913 has seen the scandalous debut of the Ballets Russes) later that year as the star of the show.

Although chorus girls of the era were often scantily clad, stars never were, so Baker’s semi-nude appearance unsettled the Paris audiences at first. Amongst other acts she danced a pas de deux “Danse Sauvage”, wearing nothing but a flamingo feather. Her unique dancing and her vibrant personality soon won audiences over and she became a success. Her choreography was different from the European tradition. Baker’s improvised style was grounded where European dance reached upwards. Body parts moved independently where European dance sought a unified line. Baker sought to express the rhythm of the music rather than harmony of movement. Critics didn’t know what to make of her. One admiringly called her “the exact opposite of the Ballets Russes”, which says as much about the vagaries of fashion as about Baker. Some compared her freedom of movement to Isadora Duncan, who was horrified at the comparison. Duncan, whose dancing emphasised the solar plexus rather than the hips, as Baker did, insisted that any dance representative of America could not contain the “sensual convulsion of the South African negro”.  Many critics wrote of the dancing in terms of its exoticness. Andre Levinson wrote “the undeniable rhythmic superiority of these negro dancers is nothing less than an adjunct of their irrepressible animality.”

Racist though these views were, Josephine Baker knew to play up to the stereotypes in order to find acceptance and success. From her near-naked stage appearances, clad in a feather or string of bananas, to her pet leopard, she fed the public’s appetite for the exotic, the ‘savage’. Arnold Haskell, dance critic, noted that she ‘always seemed to be playing up to what the public wants the negro to be’. Playing up to those assumptions made her one of the best paid performers in Europe. Over the years her dance style progressed from leaps and stunts to more sophisticated works, as well as singing on stage. This was interpreted by some as “an example of the perfecting of the black race by its intellectual contact with European civilisation.” Cunard, for her part, lamented the loss of the “authentic Baker”.

Baker had leapt at the chance to move to France, away from the USA and its oppressive Jim Crow laws. Despite stereotypes and prejudices she was at least in France an equal citizen, free to sit, eat and socialise with anyone. But while she found fame and acceptance in France, her adoptive country from 1937, the USA was more reluctant. In 1936 she returned to America to star in the famous Ziegfield Follies, but despite being one of the most successful stars in Europe, US audiences refused to accept a strong black female star. Critics were vicious in their disdain for her. Baker returned to France.

Paris society also loved to see their “little savage” off stage, at fashionable cafes and parties. During World War 2 she was banned from performing publicly, but she remained a fixture of Paris high society. She also worked for the Red Cross, the French resistance, performed for troops abroad, performed in other countries, and volunteered as a spy. Her position enabled her to overhear information at parties and other events and pass it on to the Resistance or other European countries. She would write messages in invisible ink on her sheet music. Her efforts earned her the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette, and she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.

Baker did not return to the USA until the 1950’s, by which time she found things had not changed much. Theatre audiences, for one, were still segregated. The Stork Club, the most fashionable spot in New York City, reluctantly admitted her in 1951 but once inside she was refused service. Walter Winchell, the gossip commentator, was apparently also in the room at the time but refused to help Baker. Winchell denied this and the argument escalated into a media battle, in which Baker spoke against segregation and Winchell accused Baker of being a communist, “an enemy of her own race and a fraud”. This escalated into a libel against Winchell, and the communist accusation resulted in the FBI keeping a file on Baker for 17 years.

From then on Baker refused to perform anywhere whites and blacks were not permitted to sit together. She spoke publicly and regularly against injustice in the USA. She spoke in the 1963 March on Washington, in which more than 200,000 people demonstrated for civil and economic rights. She was the only female speaker that day. There were few successful black women in that era so she was, she hoped, an inspiring figure. She wanted to pass on to the younger generation spread out before her, the “fire burning within me”. She said of the assembled crowd “you look like salt and pepper. As you should be.” When in 1973 she performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall, it was to an integrated audience. They gave her a standing ovation before the performance had even begun. Seeing before her at last a “salt and pepper” audience, she cried on stage.

Dance was Josephine Baker’s route out of poverty, her body her instrument. Though poorly educated she was smart. Combined with her talents, the image she cultivated brought her success and wealth. She did more than merely escape poverty and racism; she became the toast of Paris, an international superstar, a mother to 12 adopted children, a civil rights advocate, and, eventually, returned to the USA as an equal.

100 years ago in 1913 The Rite of Spring premiered in Paris, choreographed by Nijinsky and composed by Stravinsky. The link above leads to an interesting article by Tom Service looks into the story behind the scandal.