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The late Syvilla Fort was the dance instructor to the stars, and was destined to perform the task from a young age. Today is Ms. Fort’s birthday and we look back at her life.

Fort was born in Seattle on this day in 1917, and began receiving instruction in dance at three years old. Because of her race, she was barred from instruction at more elite institutions. At nine years old, Fort began teaching neighborhood children who couldn’t afford private lessons.

She then entered the Cornish School of Allied Arts, now the Cornish College of the Arts, and was its first Black student. Fort headed to Los Angeles to pursue dance as a career, eventually meeting dance instructor Katherine Dunham by way of her neighbor, composer William Grant Still. This meeting eventually led to Fort being named the lead instructor of Dunham’s school in New York City.

When Dunham’s school failed because of money troubles, Fort and her husband, dancer Buddy Phillips, opened a school in Manhattan in 1955. For over 20 years, Fort oversaw the instruction of Alvin Ailey, Harry Belafonte, James Earl Jones, Eartha Kitt, Marlon Brando and many others.

As a widow in 1975, Fort was contending with breast cancer and struggling to keep her school open. She would pass away just days after the Black Theater Alliance honored her in an event hosted by Ailey and Belafonte on November 8, 1975.

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