Hidden History: Dance pioneer from Norfolk is now a local influencer

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NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) —  In the local world of dance, Elbert Watson is a bit of a legend, an icon and described as a master instructor.

Growing up in the Campostella section of Norfolk, he was always a good dancer, but he didn’t realize he wanted to pursue dance as a profession until he saw Alvin Ailey perform.

That moment changed the trajectory of his life. Watson went from a Norfolk State University biology major to a dance studio in New York City. Ailey is considered by most to be one of the top modern dance pioneers of the 20th century.

“His premise was that every culture has its blues,” Watson said. “His black experience was the palette, but wherever they danced people understood it. Stuggle is indigenous to every people.”

After two years of intense classical ballet training, Watson was granted a position with Ailey’s American Dance Theater, and in less that a year’s time he became a principle dancer.

Ailey personally choreographed works for Elbert Watson, including “Three Black Kings.” 

Duke Ellington wrote the score for that performance, and it was the last one he worked on before he died. Watson considers being selected for the role in “Three Black Kings” one of the highest honors of his career.

In 1978, he was offered an opportunity to dance abroad and contemporary ballet took him to Germany.

He continued to dance, tour and choreograph ballets of his own. He also discovered a love for teaching.

The desire to nurture aspiring dancers brought him back home to Norfolk. Elbert Watson was asked to develop a dance program at Norfolk Academy in 1984 and his goal was to make dance an integral part of life at the school.

“Dance becomes a bridge for athletics and athletics for fitness, wellness and kinetic learning,” according to Watson.

Not only does he teach ballet and other forms of dance, he works with athletes on physical conditioning, uses dance to assist teachers in the classroom and makes himself available to serve in any capacity asked of him at NA.

If all of that isn’t enough, Watson has his own dance company. He hand picks his performers and his work is heavily influenced by his time with Ailey.

He believes in connecting with the audience through choreography that refects the human experience.

His next performance will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Attucks Theater in Norfolk. He will showcase the lives of Crispus Attucks and Sam Cook on September 23 at 4 p.m. For additional information, visit www.attucks100.com .


Throughout Black History Month, 10 On Your Side is telling hidden histories — stories that have gone untold in our communities for far too long. Read 10 On Your Side’s other reports below:

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