Syvilla Fort was a pioneer dancer, choreographer, and dance instructor.
Fort was born in Seattle, Washington and began dancing at the young age of three. After being denied admission to numerous ballet schools, Fort took private lessons at home. By the age of nine, she was teaching tap, ballet, and modern dance to the neighborhood children who could afford her private lessons.
After high school, Fort enrolled at the Cornish School of Allied Arts, she was the first black student to attend. After five years at Cornish, she pursued a professional dance career in Los Angeles. Her neighbor William Grant Still introduced her to dancer Katherine Dunham. It wasn’t long before Katherine Dunham offered her a spot with her company. She began touring and dancing with the company until 1945. Fort appeared in the well-known film Stormy Weather.
In the mid-1940s, Fort endured a serious knee injury but neglected to have it checked out. The injury later prevented her from performing professionally. In 1948, Dunham appointed Fort as chief administrator and dance teacher of the Katherine Dunham School of Dance in New York, a position Fort retained until 1954 when the school closed because of financial problems.
Fort joined her husband Buddy Phillips to open a dance studio on West 44th Street in New York in 1955. In this studio, Fort developed what she called the “Afro-Modern technique” which fused the Dunham approach with modern styles of dance that Fort learned in her early education. She continued to use this method in her work as a part-time instructor of physical education at Columbia University’s Teachers College from 1967 to 1975.
In 1975, Fort began her fight against breast cancer. By this time she had shaped three generations of dancers including James Earl Jones, Jane Fonda, Eartha Kitt, Chita Rivera, and countless others. Syvilla Fort died on November 8, 1975, from breast cancer.