"I just let 'em call me as a chorus girl and choreographer, because it was hard, really hard, for a woman, in my time, to be a woman producer, to come up. Because they wouldn't take you." - Hortense Allen Jordan
Hortense Allen Jordan is often remembered for her act. Dressed as half snake and half woman, she opened shows by dancing long-legged on top of a drum, mesmerizing audiences. But her main role in Larry Steele's shows, which she had just joined in 1949, was as producer. That was why Steele had hired her to come East. That was never acknowledged publicly. Her visible and public identity was exclusively that of a dancer.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri (as Hiawatha Hortense Allen) and dancing "when she was just a schoolgirl" at the age of 14, Allen was choreographing and producing shows at the Plantation, the largest club in town, with a revue and her own chorus line by the time she was twenty. She had wanted to be a doctor, but saw no prospect of pursuing such a career, as a young African American woman without financial means. Brilliant and capable, she went into show business. Leonard Reed was an early mentor. Appearing in Chicago and the midwest with a revue and her own chorus line - to rave reviews - Allen came to the attention of impresario Larry Steele, who hired her to come east with him.
Allen produced and danced in Steele's "Smart Affairs" shows at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, eventually directing and choreographing hundreds of shows, dancing every style of dance, sewing costumes for her lines, traveling in road shows, playing all the major houses, and teaching thousands of younger women. Allen fought the color prejudice that effectively barred any but the lightest African American women from dancing in chorus lines. She eventually left Larry Steele over this issue and continued producing shows headlined by Sugar Ray Robinson, Louis Jordan and James Brown. Much of her work as producer, director and choreographer over these many years went uncredited; she was named only as a dancer. She was, however, the first person to put an African American chorus line on Broadway, and opportunity that came her way via Louis Jordan.
When other people thought stage shows were dead, in the 1960s and 1970s, Hortense Allen Jordan was still actively producing them at the Philadelphia's Robin Hood Dell, making work for women she had trained and bringing top-notch entertainers to large crowds. She was also the impetus behind the City of Philadelphia's Recreation Department hiring excellent African American women dancers are teachers at Rec Centers, when her husband, Ted Jordan, was commissioner of recreation.
Ms. Jordan was Artistic Director of "Steppin' in Time," a revue produced by PFP in 1995. She is one of the three women featured in the PFP documentary Plenty of Good Women Dancers.