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Dancers Over 40 ARTS Legacy

DO40 Arts Legacy Interview

Damon Evans | Loni Ackerman-Kennedy

Damon Evans

What inspired you to become a dancer?

I was four years old when my mother took me to see Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa. Upon returning home, I found a bed sheet, wrapped myself in it, and started dancing and parading all around the house before finally settling myself in front of our Black & White console television in the living room. It was at that instant that I immediately and instinctively knew that my destiny would always be onstage as a performer. I forgot to mention that at age 19, choreographer/director Billy Wilson taught me the importance of always giving 100% throughout the entire process of being a part of a production. And that included giving 100% at rehearsals as well.

Who were most influential in your career?

OMG!!!! I had so many positive influences in my youth that I can’t pin down one specific person. But there were definitely certain experiences and teachers/mentors who left a lasting impression

At age 11, I was enrolled in The Children’s Theater Association headed by Isabelle Berger who we affectionately called “Dearie.” The group included Howard Ashman and Broadway conductor Eddie Strauss. Howard and I did a production of The Fantasticks together while in high school. I played El Gallo, he played The Boy, Danny Lipman (creator of the TV show Queer As Folk) played The Father, and directed the entire production, and Michael Dansicker was our pianist and Musical Director.

Also, Debbie London had a dance studio which I attended in Junior High School and an after-school program called The Children’s Theater Workshop. I played Lun Tha in their production of The King and I with Broadway actor Steven Shochet when we were in High School. But it was my Music Director at Frederick Douglass High School, Mrs. Marion T. Smith, who without a doubt left the most lasting and influential impression upon me in my youth. Her reputation for mentoring and aspiring young Black students interested in the arts was legendary in Baltimore.

What were your most memorable dance performances?

I never really thought of myself as a dancer per se. But throughout my career I had the great fortune and privilege of working with the likes of Billy Wilson, Patricia Birch, Julie Arenal, and Charles Auggins.

One of my first roles in my early 20s was as Barnaby Tucker with Pearl Bailey in her first touring company of Hello Dolly! Miss Bailey had approval of the entire cast and was present at our final callback auditions. I vividly recall her asking me if I knew how to waltz clog? After I said no, she pulled me aside and said “If you’re ever again asked to do something that you don’t know, respond by saying ‘No, but I’m a fast learner.’” To my joy and immense surprise, I was cast two days later.

Damon in Hello, Dolly! with Marki Bey

Damon in Porgy and Bess

What was the most frighten-ing or funny story?

We were doing Hello Dolly! at The Muny. Before one of the perfor-mances Miss Bailey had me summoned to her dressing room. She was very sweet, as she referred herself to me as ‘Mama #2’ and said “Honey, I know that’s a big theater out there, but you really don’t have to work so hard. Just perform as if you’re in a regular sized theater and you’ll be OK. After all, they didn’t come here to see you.”



What experience or legacy would you like to pass on? 

I’d like to pass on to the younger generation of performers two major things which I have learned that I consider extremely important 

  1. There’s always room for one more!!!! I hate seeing young people thinking they must always be ‘Number One,’ and that they must compete with their fellow performers. That’s simply ridiculous and a waste of good energy. If you want to compete with yourself that’s OK. But there is room in this business for each and every one of us. 
  2. Cultivate learning to support each other’s journeys as they craft their own careers and legacies. Because in the end we’re all part of this huge and enormous artistic family.

Damon and the Mayor of NYC John
Lindsey with the cast of The Me
Nobody Knows

When I began performing in the early 1970’s the concert pianist, Don Shirley, who is the main character in the film Green Book, would come to see all of our shows – Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, The River Niger, and The Wiz – just to let us know he was there watching us.

He never asked for a thing from any of us. Occasionally he’d invite one or two of us back to his fabulous Carnegie Hall Towers apartment with his huge enormous piano and share with us stories about his friendships, associations, and even rivalries with the likes of Duke Ellington, Hazel Scott, Harry Belafonte, and Lena Horne.

It didn’t occur to me until many years later that he was simply there to support us as he witnessed each of us build and create our own legacies. And that he was so proud seeing us carry on the contributions of Black performers to Broadway. To this day, I deeply regret I never said “THANK YOU!”


Loni Ackerman-Kennedy

What inspired you to become a dancer?

My grandparents took me to see The Pajama Game when I was 5 or 6 years old. I wanted to be Carol Haney. Just to be a part of Steam Heat...oh my! Then, I saw The Red Shoes. I literally left this earth when Moira Shearer opened the drawer filled with different colored pointe shoes! Then, of course, watching Margot Fonteyn sealed the deal. I knew I was destined to do what they did - to be able to tell a story with your body was everything. And so, began the journey.

Who were the most influential people in your career?

Margaret Craske. She passed on the gifts of discipline and respect for the art. She nurtured her students. She never let you give up. When I teach, I try to do the same.

What were your most memorable dance performances?

Partnering with Joseph Russillo at The Spoleto Festival, Italy. We danced at the opera house, underground concert venues, and my favorite, the newly constructed Buckminster Fuller "Bucky" Dome!

What was the most frightening or funny story?

This one is a combo! Cats - at the end of the show, we all danced around the stage, eventually making our exits. Macavity and I fell into a jitterbug routine which grew and grew!!! One matinee we were way too energetic, and jived ourselves off the stage onto a lady's lap. She laughed. We were written up!

Loni in The Magic Show
with Doug Henning

What experience or legacy would you like to pass on?

To always give 100%. There might be a very young per-son in the audience who is so taken by the experience, like I was, that they begin the journey. I'm still on it.

Background Photo DO40 Cares 2012, By Jeff Eason, Wilsonmodels, Inc