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Born in Seattle, Syvilla Fort began dancing at the tender age of three, and by just nine years old, bolstered by private lessons, she started sharing her love for dance with those in her immediate surroundings by teaching modern, tap, and ballet to neighborhood kids. In 1932, Syvilla entered Cornish College of the Arts, having been the first person of color to enroll there, and after having been denied admission to several Seattle ballet programs because of her race.

Black female dancer in a dark color-block print dress poses in an elegant manner, eyes looking away from the camera
Syvilla Fort, 1940, photo by Ernst Kassowitz, Courtesy Cornish College of Arts.

Fort was the innovator of the Afro-modern dance technique, combining modern styles learned at the Katherine Dunham School with techniques she learned at Cornish. In her New York studio, Fort was very popular among famous actors including Marlon Brando, James Earl Jones, Jane Fonda, and James Dean.

Actor James Dean, dressed in all black poses along a ballet barre while instructor Syvilla Fort, a light-skinned Black woman in a light shirt and skirt, corrects his form
Syvilla Fort correcting James Dean, most likely taken by Dennis Stock of Magnum photos.

A recent program at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) showcased the impact of Syvilla Fort’s life and career, which is now being memorialized through the Syvilla Fort Scholarship at Cornish College.

Cornish President Raymond Tymus-Jones announced the new scholarship fund that will support the next generation of artists of color interested in pursuing a Bachelor of Arts at Cornish.

Fort’s impact on dance has traversed generations even though her name does not often appear alongside those considered to be the greats. Perhaps the Cornish College scholarship will help bring more notice to a woman who defied the odds, eclipsed rejection, and inspired innovation in dance.

Learn more about the Syvilla Fort scholarship here.

Four dancers pose, one woman standing in a white sheith while a white male, Black woman and white woman kneel with one elbow on knee and fist against their cheeks slightly behind.
Bonnie Bird, Merce Cunningham, Syvilla Fort, and Dorothy Herrmann, in Three Inventories for Casey Jones, photo by Phyllis Dearborn, Courtesy the Cornish College of the Arts Archives.


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