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Princess Orelia Benskina

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Princess Orelia Benskina, originally named Margarita Orelia Benskina, was born in 1911 to Barbadian parents in the Colón region of the U.S. Panama Canal Zone. Her father, Walter, worked as a dredger on the canal and also served as a cook aboard the SS Guiana, traveling between the West Indies and New York. In 1922, Benskina moved to Harlem, New York City, with her family. At 16, she married Harold Williams, a Barbadian ten years her senior, and their daughter, Pearline, was born the following year.
Benskina immersed herself in Harlem's vibrant dance scene, performing at renowned nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Elks Rendezvous. She toured across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean, and in 1934, she appeared in the Broadway production "Dance with Your Gods," alongside Lena Horne. By the 1939 New York World’s Fair, she was known for her "African" and "Afro-Cuban" dance performances. Starting in 1942, she toured as "Princess Orelia and Pedro," debuting at Carnegie Chamber Music Hall in New York with an orchestra and Cuban-designed costumes.

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Her career blossomed as she performed nationwide, mingling with prominent figures in the arts. Despite her Panamanian citizenship and Barbadian heritage, she embraced various Latin American and Caribbean identities. In the 1950s, she ventured into music production and management, working with Charlie Rouse and Julius Watkins’ band, Les Jazz Modes, and co-composing the song "Un Dia" on Rouse's album Bossa Nova Bacchanal. She also published several volumes of poetry.In 1972, the JFK Library for Minorities honored Benskina with the American Heritage Award for her contributions to jazz and vaudeville. In 1983, she graduated from Queens College with a degree in African Studies, alongside her daughter Pearl, who earned a sociology degree. Benskina passed away in 2002, leaving a legacy that transcended borders and genres, reflecting her rich Panamanian roots and Barbadian heritage.

Margarita Benskina, renowned as Princess Orelia, distinguished herself as a pioneer of the "Cuban Shake" from the 1930s onward, gracing the stages of the Cotton Club. Her Cuban lineage through parents José and Amelia remains uncertain. Despite this ambiguity, she received education and traversed between Panama and Cuba before settling in New York City for high school. Notably, a Brooklyn listing once labeled her and her dance partner as Brazilian.

Her physical allure garnered attention in countless reviews. In one such critique, pertaining to her performance at the Cuban Village during the 1939 World's Fair, Floyd Snelson articulated his impressions in his Harlem column:“At this spot Princess Orelia, Pete and her jungle company are one of the greatest features in this Latin Quartet. The Princess is a well known entertainer and was deservedly given his spot, which she is filling with distinction. Her svelte shape, her artistry, her smooth brown skin, all help to make her a glamorous entertainer and her act goes across with a bang”Princess Orelia epitomized a Pan-African and African diasporic artistic ethos, seamlessly traversing Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. In the 1930s, she shared the stage with luminaries like Louis Armstrong at Connie Immerman's Club, Connie's Inn. Her performances were a fixture at iconic venues such as the Apollo Theater, the New Rockland Palace, the Elks Rendezvous, and Club 845 in the Bronx, predominantly frequented by African American audiences, alongside her dance partner, Pete. Their routine often featured the dynamic El Tormillo, where she spun Pete around as he gracefully lowered his body, and a captivating act dubbed "shoeing the mare," wherein the man mimicked fitting hooves on the woman's feet, evoking the imagery of a horse.

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Additionally, Benskina engaged in frequent collaborations with African dancer Asadata Dafora, notably for performances at the African Academy of Arts and Research Festival. These collaborations extended to prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York and Jackson College in Mississippi. The connection with Dafora holds significance, as noted by García, given that African performers like Dafora were actively reenacting the African heritage of their African American counterparts. Benskina's artistic endeavors largely echoed this sentiment, positioning her as a bridge between Afro-Cuban and Caribbean rhythms and the evolving cultural landscape of Modern African American practices like jazz. García also highlights that many members of Dafora's dance ensemble were perceived as "Black American" and were initially assumed to be of African origin. Initially composed of "African and American Negro musicians and dancers," Dafora's troupe eventually expanded to include Afro-Cubans, Haitians, and Trinidadians. Figures like Asadata Dafora, Paul Robeson, and Katherine Dunham, among others, felt compelled to explore and perform their racialized and gendered histories, not only to comprehend their present circumstances but also to navigate the challenges of racism, sexism, and colonialism imposed by modernity.

Benskina's multifaceted identity as a blend of Caribbean, Cuban, Panamanian, African, and African American backgrounds appeared to serve her well as a performer, mirroring the versatility of her peers in Dafora's ensemble. She frequently graced the stage in "jungle dances" and led her own African troupe in all-black revue shows, notably at renowned venues like the Apollo Theater and Carnegie Hall. Beyond her artistic endeavors, she actively participated in charitable causes and fundraisers. Nationally, Benskina showcased her Cuban Congo dancers at esteemed venues such as the Howard Theater in Washington, DC, and Chicago's Grand Terrace Café.

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In 1941, she performed at the Latin Quarter in Boston alongside her dance partner Pete, demonstrating a fluidity between genres and cultures, even when sharing the bill with Cuban entertainer Desi Arnaz. While her ability to seamlessly navigate various cultural landscapes was admired, journalists and critics often exoticized and sexualized her Pan-African and diasporic focus. Ted Watson of the Pittsburgh Courier commented on her and Pete's performance, praising their mastery of the "Dance of the Hills," also known as La Cumbia, which added an element of wild abandon to their celebrated exotic routine. During a 1941 West Coast tour with Pete, Benskina performed at several clubs including George Raft's Club Copacabana and the Paramount Theater. However, the pinnacle of her tour was her involvement in a Hal Roach feature film titled "Cuba Libre." In 1944, Benskina and Pete shared the stage with Mary Lou Williams and Woody Guthrie in a nationally touring musical revue supporting Eleanor Roosevelt and the New Deal. Another notable appearance was at one of Roosevelt's concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1946, where Benskina showcased her talent alongside a group of African percussionists.
Across her career, Benskina engaged in performances alongside calypso groups and notably starred as a featured dancer in a calypso showcase at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1947. Beyond her artistic endeavors, she also shared culinary wisdom, promoting the avocado as a delectable and nourishing Cuban fruit, without revealing her Panamanian roots. Amidst her performances, she maintained a presence in Houston and Los Angeles. In 1953, she graced the stage alongside renowned Cuban vocalist Miguelito Valdés at the Celebrity Club in Providence, Rhode Island.
Robin Kelley observed that Benskina practiced West African divination and in 1956, she was initiated into "The Spiritual Healers Fellowship" while also managing her own botanica. Despite her vibrant career in nightclubs and theaters, she maintained a strong spiritual foundation and dedicated herself to aiding others in need. Notably, she provided support to jazz saxophonist Charlie Rouse in overcoming addiction and personal struggles.


Members of Father Divine's Peace Mission shared a profound interest in attaining health and longevity through their dietary practices, much akin to the members of the NOI. Unlike the NOI's approach of restricting food intake in various ways, Peace Mission members regularly indulged in feasts. Father Divine asserted that those who embraced his consciousness could manifest positive spiritual thoughts, even within their own bodies. This belief formed the basis for the members' dietary and health principles. According to Divine, his presence had made the Kingdom of God a tangible reality, and by renouncing worldly possessions and mortal attachments, his followers could potentially attain eternal life in a utopian paradise filled with abundance. Since the early days of the group, Divine and his followers convened for their central ritual: Holy Communion banquets, which seamlessly blended worship with lavish feasts, showcasing abundance. Visitors and members of the Peace Mission often marveled at the extravagant array and diversity of food served at these banquets, spread across multiple courses. Margarita Benskina, a Panamanian immigrant and popular Afro-Cuban dancer known as Princess Orelia on stage, was among those who attended these banquets in Harlem, accompanied by her "earthly mother." Following one such event in 1948, she wrote a heartfelt letter to Divine expressing her gratitude, effusively stating, "Father I ate at the feast until I could hold no more. I´ve never in my life seen too much to eat and drink, its most wonderful."
 

References

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Margaret Benskin, 1925 United States Federal Census; Census Place: New York, New York; Page: 21; Election District: 24; Image 11. Ancestry.com. [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. link

Margaret William, 1930 United States Federal Census; Census Place: New York, New York, Page: 16B. Enumeration District: 0980; Image: 32. Ancestry.com [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002. link

Margaret William, 1940 United States Federal Census; Census Place: New York, New York; Roll: m-t0627-02671; Page: 16B; Enumeration District: 31-1938; Image 32. Ancestry.com. [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. link

Princess Orelia Benskina. (2022, January 11). National Museum of African American History and Culture. link

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"BENSKINA, Margarita O" in Who’s Who of American Women: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living American Women, Second Edition, Marquis Who’s Who (Chicago: Marquis Publications Building, 1961), 83. link

"BENSKINA, Margarita Orelia Serene" in Dictionary of International Biography, Vol 9, Ernest Kay (London: Melrose Press Limited), 142. link

"Benskina, Princess Orelia, and Pedro at the New York World's Fair, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, New York City.” Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. link

Walter Benskin, U.S., Panama Canal Zone, Employment Records and Sailing lists, Box Number: 15; FHL Film Number: 100194550; Affiliate Identifier: 6821421. Image 143. 1884-1937 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2019. link

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