While most of America is up in arms about Raven-Symoné not wanting to be labeled as an African-American, many have overlooked this week the lost of Geoffrey Holder, a legendary African-American who proudly celebrated his identity.
When I heard of Holder’s death at the age of 84 due to complications of pneumonia, I was deeply sadden. I then almost immediately became annoyed with my family and friends when no one seemed to know of Holder or his work. I couldn’t believe my own parents gave blank stares when asked if they knew Geoffrey Holder. You’d think I had asked them to come up with a solution for world peace. [Sigh….]
Does no one remember his 7-Up commercials from the 80’s? “Never had it, never will?” The uncola drink? Or what about his role as Baron Samedi in the James Bond film Live and Let Die?
It’s hard to pinpoint what Geoffrey Holder is best known for as he was a true renaissance man of our time. An actor, choreographer, director, painter, costume designer, author, and a singer, he clearly didn’t lack talent. Makes you question instead if there was anything Holder couldn’t do?
Some knew Holder best for his roles in Annie, Boomerang or his voice-over work in Tim Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Others knew him as the first African-American to be nominated and win Tony Awards for best direction of a musical and costume design for his work on “The Wiz,” an all black retelling of “The Wizard of Oz.” And then there are those who simply knew him as the 6’6″ Trinidad-born man with the regal personality and a hearty laugh.
As a lover of dance since I was a little girl, I admired Holder’s work as a dancer and choreographer the most. One of my favorite stories is how when he started his career as a dancer at age seven, he had to sneak out the house at night in a barrel of costumes to dance in his older brother’s dance troupe. I loved dancing, but I don’t think I was savvy or brave enough at age seven to sneak out the house for my passion. I’m glad he was because the world of dance and theater is a better place for it.
Holder was later discovered by by Agnes de Mille, the choreographer daughter of director-producer Cecil B. DeMille, and moved to the US in 1954. From there, he became a principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. He also had his own dance company, Geoffrey Holder and Company, and worked with well known dance troupes such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Note that this is only a small portion of his work as a choreographer and doesn’t even cover a quarter of his accomplishments.
One of the things I loved the most about Holder was his spirit. If you’ve never seen any of his work, I recommend watching Carmen and Geoffrey, a riveting documentary recounting the careers of Holder and his wife, Carmen De Lavallade who also is a famous dancer and choreographer. In this documentary, Holder discusses his work, racism, his relationship with his wife and gives insight into how he views the world and his role in it.
You have to bigger than life. And when you walk the streets, I don’t care who you are, it’s not about wearing Armani suits and expensive clothes, it’s having a straight back and walking with ‘BAM!’ (Geoffrey Holder)
Holder’s talents, spirit, and laugh will be missed, but never forgotten as his legacy lives on. There is so much more I can say about him, but instead here is what Holder had to say in his own words:
“I am in love, I am in love, I am in love, I am in love with all of you. I told you what to drink, and you drank it. When you drink 7-up, you drink it with rum! You have seen me dance. Some of you have seen me paint. Some of you have listened to my voice. All of you, have paid my rent. Thank you.” – Geoffrey Holder, excerpt from “The New Earl Jones”