Nick had in mind “The Zulu Chief,” the same song that I had been asked to choreograph and perform in 1950, on the Fred Waring Television Hour. Ray Sax had been the show’s line producer and his wife, Nadine Gay was the show’s weekly choreographer. Nadine with her partner, Peter Hamilton, were featured guest artists with the Charles Weidman Company. I had danced the number with Nadine’s assistant, Marc Breaux, also a Charles Weidman alumnus, now a Los Angeleno. In the early fifties the familiar harmonies of Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians had delivered the vocals. Now, in 1968, it was to be the thrilling and authentic sound of Miriam Makeba. No matter how deeply felt, my interpretation of the material was ignorant of authenticity. The dancers chosen from the audition were men who spent their childhood in Watts or Compton or who had recently migrated west, answering the seductive call of Hollywood. They were trained in studios featuring tap, swing, and acrobatic dance or they were émigrés from Club Harlem in Atlantic City or some such sister club. One dancer, Carlton Johnson, stood out. He had the respect of all the others. I immediately made him my assistant and began the rehearsal process. The dancers were not used to dance directors with my drive or technical demands. Many were laid back. They came to rehearsals straight from poolside or from the beach with sand in their hair and sunshine lazing their muscles. Miriam was not pleased with the results of our work. “Who is this Zulu Chief.... He is our king. In this song we pay homage to our ruler. He is wise as well as strong and cunning.” She threw herself into a pattern of movement. But when the dancers imitated her, they had little of the desired texture. It just was not in their bodies. Only Carlton
rose to the occasion, and I was able to develop a brief interlude for him with the other men forming a stately processional which led the camera to Miriam Makeba as she sang.