16 Shiny Stockings – Muriel – Lavisha – June 11 1995 pt1

©Dawn Reneé Jones

The Dyer Legacy

Sammy Dyer, a chestnut colored black man, began his professional career in black face. Born in Washington, DC in 1896, the talented dancer/choreographer was a member of the chorus in the first all-black Broadway show Runnin’ Wild in 1923. Although modest reference is made of him in a few books on tap, Dyer’s influence as a dance master and choreographer extended far and beyond racial lines.

A back injury ended his career and in the late 1920s he moved to Chicago where he was a dance instructor, fine tuning the acts all-white chorus groups that performed at prestigious venues like the Palmer House and Chicago Theater. Within no time he became much in demand, both choreographing and training chorus lines at the Regal Theater and the Club De Lisa, Chicago’s equivalents to New York’s Apollo and Cotton Club, respectively. At its prime the De Lisa presented only the best in popular Negro entertainment: Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine’s Orchestra, Dinah Washington. Fletcher Henderson led the club’s orchestra.

In 1933 Dyer opened the Sammy Dyer School of Dance in what is currently known as Bronzeville, and was the only dance school in the black community. Dyer used the school as a training ground to develop young dancers he could later employ at the De Lisa. His most ambitious and successful endeavor was when he brought together six black teenaged girls, each one tall, with long legs and hair and enormous talent and energy. Each had been students since they were eight and nine years old and by their mid-teens they were superb acrobats, and ballet and tap dancers. He named the group The Dyerettes and began featuring them regularly at the De Lisa where they had to be chaperoned by their less than enthusiastic parents.

When the youngest Dyerette graduated high school in 1950, the group moved to New York. From there they enjoyed an amazingly successful career touring with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, Mel Tormé, Rosemary Clooney, the Will Mattson Trio, Johnny Mathis, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie Orchestra.

Through interviews with current students, parents and alumni, interviews with five of the six original Dyerettes, and Frank Foster of the Basie Orchestra, The Dyer Legacy pays tribute to an early albeit unknown black dance progenitor whose influence continues to resonate. The documentary also includes archival film of the teenaged Dyerettes at the De Lisa, and photographs from Ms. Foster and Mrs. Bass’s personal archives.

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