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Dancing James Berry (US 1958)

00:00 Introduction by William J. Ferguson II, Acting Executive Director, Garth Fagan Dance
03:47 Dancing James Berry

Dancing James Berry (Artists in Jazz #1: Dancing James Berry) (US 1958)
Writers: Leo Hurwitz, Mura Dehn 
Directors: Mura Dehn, Leo Hurwitz, Herbert Matter
Cinematographer: Herbert Matter 
Editor: Herbert Matter 
Producer: Herbert Matter 
Musicians: Wilbur DeParis, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, and Moe Wechsler 
Voices: James Berry and Warren Berry 

Release date: unknown 

Sound: sound 

Color: b/w 

Length (in feet): 593 ft. (16mm) 

Length (in reels): 1 

Running time: 17 min. 

Frame rate: 24 fps 

Preserved from a 16mm composite print at Cinema Arts Laboratory 
Digitized by Eastman Museum Film Preservation Services 
Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts; additional funding by the Rohauer Collection Foundation 

We would like to thank the estate of Leo Hurwitz for the permission to put this film online. 

Leo Hurwitz’s interests in film subjects came to embrace many of the arts—dance, painting, sculpture, and literature. In Dancing James Berry, Hurwitz collaborated with Herbert Matter, a photographer and graphic designer, and Mura Dehn, a dancer and filmmaker who documented African American social jazz dancing, to bring to the screen four short jazz dances by James Berry. 

William Ferguson, former dancer with and current executive director of Garth Fagan Dance, writes: “I am particularly excited at this opportunity to introduce this amazing film, exemplifying and honoring the depth, breadth, and quality of African American contributions to the fabric of American culture. I am heartened that Leo Hurwitz had the foresight and wherewithal to document this thread of American history.”

James Berry (1915–1969) was known largely through his work with his siblings, Nyas (1913–1951) and Warren (1922–1996), performing together as the Berry Brothers. Their careers included both stage and film. They were the only successful tap dance group to rival the Nicholas Brothers in talent, flash, and success. Working sometimes as a trio, sometimes as a duo, the Berry Brothers performed with Duke Ellington in Rhythmania at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club in 1929; became the first black performers at New York City’s Copacabana nightclub, also in 1929; and, in 1931, appeared in the musical Rhapsody in Black. In 1938, they returned to the Cotton Club for what became known as a legendary dance-off with their principal rivals, the Nicholas Brothers. Some say that while the Nicholas Brothers were better all-around performers and acrobatic dancers, they were not as accomplished in the flashy acrobatic style for which the Berry Brothers had no equal and won the day.

Nyas and James were both born in New Orleans; the family moved to Denver, where Warren was born, before settling in Los Angeles in 1924. James had a successful run as a child actor playing Bubbles in a series of short films from Universal Studios that centered on a ragtag group of children (not unlike those in the more famous Our Gang series). Though he was age nine, the studio passed him off as a five-year-old. His last performance as Bubbles came in 1926 when he was eleven. James returned to films again in Lady Be Good (1941), and the following year in Panama Hattie, in which he appeared as a member of the Berry Brothers. In the early 1950s, Berry helped Mura Dehn produce a number of documentary films on dance (photographed by Herbert Matter). In 1954, they established the Traditional Jazz Company, which lasted until Berry’s death and beyond.  

The Berry Brothers’ dancing style was high-energy acrobatic moves blended with traditional soft shoe dance. Their masterful precision, clarity, and concentration—combined with astounding musicality—is on full display in these four segments, all jazz themed and shot in high-contrast black-and-white dance lighting: Papa Dee, Poses, My Walking Stick, and finally, the vibrant Gonna Live till I Die, in which Berry dances different roles using split camera images. He is joined in that number by his younger brother, Warren, as they sing the title song. Berry had great style, energy, and presence and his work is showcased here to its maximum.