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Katherine Dunham (1909 - 2006)

By Joanna Dee Das

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As an artist, educator, anthropologist, and activist, Katherine Dunham transformed the field of twentieth-century dance. Though other African American choreographers had come before her, Dunham was the most successful in bringing African diasporic aesthetics to the concert dance stage and developing her own technique. Thus she is widely considered the founder of black concert dance in the United States and also a major influence on the idioms of both modern and jazz dance. From the 1930s through the 1960s, her company toured the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia. She established several schools, including the Katherine Dunham School of Dance in New York in 1945 and the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis in 1967, and published numerous books and articles. As an activist, she publicly challenged segregation and discrimination throughout her life. In recognition of her important legacy, she received numerous honorary awards and degrees, including the Kennedy Center Honors in 1983 and the National Medal of the Arts in 1989.

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Katherine Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She fell in love with dance and theater as a child, but did not have much opportunity to explore her interest until moving to Chicago in 1928. Her older brother, Albert Dunham Jr., invited her to join the Cube Theatre, which he had co-founded to produce serious plays about African American life. There she met members of the New Negro Movement such as Langston Hughes and Alain Locke who believed in the power of the arts to create social change. Dunham’s time at the Cube revived her love of performance and gave her a purpose. In January, 1930, she voiced a desire to start a ballet company that would challenge the minstrelsy stereotypes that still dominated black performance. New York dancers such as Edna Guy and Hemsley Winfield had begun to choreograph modern dance works that similarly refuted existing stereotypes, but for the most part the concept of a black dance company was unheard of at the time. Mary Hunter, a director at the Cube, introduced Dunham to ballet dancer and poet Mark Turbyfill, who agreed to give her ballet classes and co-found a company, Ballet Nègre.

The Ballet Nègre soon folded, but in 1932 Dunham started the Negro Dance Group with Ludmila Speranzeva, a former dancer with the Chauve-Souris, an émigré cabaret company from Moscow. Speranzeva had also trained briefly with modern dance pioneer Mary Wigman, and drawing on this experience she encouraged Dunham to become more expressive of her inner emotions in her performances. Dunham later remarked, “I think I must have gotten a lot of that explosive feeling, and also a freedom of sexual presentation” from Speranzeva (Dunham 1999, 5). The Chicago Defender wrote of the Negro Dance Group’s December, 1932 performance at the Beaux Arts Ball, “The[se] modern dancers are beginning a new era in the history of the Race dancer” (12). Dunham also began to dance with the choreographer Ruth Page, who gave her the lead role in a ballet inspired by a Martinican folk tale: La Guiablesse (1933). She performed the role to great critical acclaim at the Chicago Opera House in 1934.

Meanwhile, Dunham had also been a student of anthropology at the University of Chicago since 1928 and had begun developing the idea of using ethnographic research to enrich her performances onstage. In 1934, she applied to the Rosenwald Foundation for a grant to study modern dance at the Wigman School in New York, ballet at the School of American Ballet in New York, and what she called “primitive dance” in the field. The Rosenwald Foundation denied her request for further study of modern dance and ballet, but gave her funding to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in the Caribbean under the auspices of Melville Herskovits.  Leaving her first husband Jordis McCoo in Chicago, Dunham sailed for the Caribbean in June 1935.

Dunham’s ten months in Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and Haiti changed her life. She not only found the dance materials she sought, but also developed a novel method of ethnographic fieldwork, a sense of connection with the African diaspora, and a new approach to choreography. Rather than merely observing, as her mentors implored her to do, Dunham participated, even undergoing initiation into the Haitian religion of Vodun. Her dancing won her the acceptance and admiration of the people she met, and she felt a new sense of kinship through shared experience (Dunham 1969, 79). In her letters to Herskovits, she reflected on her own role in the community, something that purportedly objective anthropologists of her era did not do. Her self-reflexive, participatory approach anticipated changes in anthropology that would occur decades later (Ramsey, 211). While in the Caribbean, Dunham also formulated a theory of the relationship between form and function in dance: dance was not an abstract aesthetic expression, but rather served specific functions. For example, social dances that emphasized the pelvic region released sexual tension, whereas ritual funeral dances served as catharsis for grief (Dunham 1941, 2-4). She published her ethnographic observations in magazines such as Esquire and Educational Dance, as well as in several books, including Journey to Accompong (1946) and Island Possessed (1969).

After returning to Chicago in 1936, Dunham revived her company and began to develop a new technique that she could use to teach her dancers the complex, polyrhythmic movements of the Caribbean. She performed in the Negro Dance Evening at the 92nd Street Y in New York City on March 7, 1937, but her first major breakthrough was L’Ag’Ya, which premiered in January 1938 as part of Chicago’s Federal Theatre Project. In Dunham’s theatrical interpretation of the ag’ya, a fighting dance from Martinique, she combined Afro-Caribbean, ballet, and modern dance and fit the movement into a narrative that Chicago audiences would understand: a love triangle. While working on this ballet, Dunham met the designer John Pratt, who would become her lifelong artistic collaborator and second husband.

As a result of L’Ag’Ya’s positive reception, Louis Schaeffer of the Labor Stage invited Dunham to New York to create new numbers for the Broadway revue Pins and Needles. Dunham used the theater during off hours to rehearse material for her own company. On February 18, 1940, “Katherine Dunham and Dance Group” gave a Sunday afternoon recital entitled Tropics and Le Jazz “Hot” at the Windsor Theatre. In his February 19, 1940 review of the concert, New York Times dance critic John Martin called Dunham a “revelation” and her choreography “the nearest thing that has yet been shown hereabouts to the basis of a true Negro dance art” in his (23). Other reviewers, including Dan Burley of the African American newspaper New York Amsterdam News agreed unequivocally that Dunham had founded a new genre: Negro dance (21). 

The success of Tropics and Le Jazz “Hot” catapulted Dunham into the limelight. George Balanchine asked her to play the seductress Georgia Brown in the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky (1940), for which Dunham also contributed choreography. From Broadway, Dunham went to the West Coast for two years, where Alvin Ailey became inspired to dance after seeing one of Dunham’s shows. In addition to stage performances, Dunham made movies such as Carnival of Rhythm (1941), Star-Spangled Rhythm (1942), and Stormy Weather (1943) while in California. Dunham’s “Stormy Weather” ballet opened a new space of imaginative possibility outside of the prescribed arenas of black dance on film, namely minstrelsy and tap. Her choreography combined balletic jumps, leg extensions, and lifts with pulsating torsos and undulating spines borrowed from her Caribbean material.

After the West Coast, Dunham and her company toured the United States under the impresario Sol Hurok in Tropical Revue (1943-1945), then performed in Carib Song (1945) and Bal Negre (1946) on Broadway. These shows included several notable works, such as Rites de Passage (1941), which explored group rituals surrounding puberty, marriage, and death. The Boston city censor banned the number, considering it too sexually explicit, which then galvanized several members of Boston’s cultural elite to write editorials in support of the ballet’s artistic merits. Controversy about the sexual nature of Dunham’s choreography would continue to surface throughout her career. Another important ballet, Shango (1945), blended aspects of Trinidadian Santería and Haitian Vodun to examine the nature of divine possession. One of Dunham’s most beloved numbers, Rara Tonga (1939), was set in Melanesia, demonstrating that she never considered her creative abilities to be limited to the areas of her ethnographic research.

During this period of national touring, Dunham became active in civil rights causes. She constantly battled housing segregation on tour and at one point threatened to sue the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago for racial discrimination. In 1944 she gave a speech to the audience in Louisville, Kentucky in which she stated that she would not return to the city until the theater was integrated. Dunham also channeled her activism into the Katherine Dunham School of Dance (later the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre, and then the Dunham School of Cultural Arts), which operated from September 1945 to February 1954 in New York City. The School had an interracial, international faculty and student body, which Dunham touted as a model for racial egalitarianism. Just as importantly, the School served to disseminate the Dunham Technique and give black dance a status in the performing arts world. Several aspects of the Dunham Technique would become integral to both modern and jazz dance in America: isolations of the head, shoulders, torso, and hips, an increased freedom of movement of the pelvis and spine, an emphasis on percussion, and the concept of polyrhythm in the body.

Facing financial difficulties and an increasingly oppressive political climate, Dunham and her company left the United States for a tour of Mexico in 1947. Though Dunham would occasionally return to perform in Las Vegas nightclubs or give short runs on Broadway, she spent most of the next fifteen years touring Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Australia. International audiences loved her work, leading the Chicago Daily News to proclaim in 1949 that Dunham was “sweeping Europe in a way that tops even Isadora Duncan.”1 In 1951, she purchased a twenty-acre estate in Haiti, Habitation Leclerc, which would become her second home for many years.

Though always politically engaged offstage, Dunham rarely addressed social issues directly in her choreography. A notable exception was Southland, which Dunham premiered on December 9, 1950, in Santiago, Chile. In the ballet, set in the American South, a white woman falsely accuses a black field hand of rape, leading to his lynching by an angry mob. State Department officials in Santiago, greatly upset by Dunham’s frank depiction of American racism during a tense Cold War moment, suppressed further publicity about Southland and instructed U.S. embassies throughout Latin America to pressure her not to perform the piece again (Dee Das, 8). Though Dunham kept the work under wraps for a few years, she revived it in January, 1953, in Paris, France, before acceding to her dancers’ wishes not to perform such an emotionally difficult and traumatizing ballet (Hill, 6).

Financially pressed, Dunham dissolved the company in 1958, 1960, 1962, and for good in 1964. During the first hiatus, she wrote A Touch of Innocence (1959), a memoir of her childhood in Joliet. In 1964, she moved on to other projects, including a position at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, Illinois.  Through SIU, Dunham became involved in efforts to revitalize nearby East St. Louis and founded the Performing Arts Training Center (P.A.T.C.) there in 1967. Within a few years, P.A.T.C. included a wide array of courses for college credit and a student dance company. She also maintained a longstanding commitment to the people of Haiti; at age eighty-two, she staged a hunger strike to protest the U.S. treatment of Haitian boat refugees. Dunham passed away just one month shy of her ninety-seventh birthday on May 21, 2006 in New York. Because of her artistry, scholarship, and sustained commitment to both education and activism, Dunham has left an enduring legacy in the field.


NOTES

1. The Chicago Daily News article is from a scrapbook housed in the Katherine Dunham Papers at the Special Collections Research Center of Southern Illinois University Carbondale. For a complete listing of Katherine Dunham archives, see Archives. 


Joanna Dee Das is a PhD candidate in history at Columbia University, where she is writing her dissertation on the life and work of Katherine Dunham. In 2009, she processed the Katherine Dunham Papers at the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, which enabled those archives to become available to the public. She has authored essays on Katherine Dunham and Aida Overton Walker for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism and is editing a series of interviews with Broadway artists for the journal Studies in Musical Theatre. Her scholarship has been supported by Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, a Victor Barnouw Fellowship, and a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship. In addition to her research, she has guest lectured at Harvard University, Marymount Manhattan College, and Barnard College.

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Aschenbrenner, Joyce. Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Burley, Dan. “Chicago Danseuse Scores on Broadway.” New York Amsterdam News, February 24, 1940, 21.

Clark, Vèvè A., and Sarah East Johnson, eds. Kaiso!: Writings by and About Katherine Dunham. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. (This volume contains reprints of several important essays by VéVé Clark, Susan Manning, Halifu Osumare, Albirda Rose, and others, and thus these essays will not be re-cited in this bibliography.)

Das, Joanna Dee. “Both Black and American? Katherine Dunham and the State Department, 1948-1960.” Paper Presentation at the Congress on Research in Dance Special Topics Conference, March 11, 2011, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida.

Dunham, Katherine. "Form and Function in Primitive Dance." Educational Dance 4, no. 1 (October, 1941): 2-4.

---------. Journey to Accompong. New York: H. Holt and Company, 1946.

———. A Touch of Innocence. New York: Harcourt, 1959.

———. Island Possessed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

———. Dances of Haiti. Los Angeles, CA: Center for Afro-American Studies, UCLA, 1983.

---------. Interview by Constance Valis Hill, New York City, November 18, 1999. Transcript in Box 13, Folder 3, Katherine Dunham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Foulkes, Julia L. "Ambassadors with Hips: Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and the Allure of Africa in the Black Arts Movement." In Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s, edited by Avital H. Bloch and Lauri Umansky. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Hill, Constance Valis. "Katherine Dunham's Southland: Protest in the Face of Repression." Dance Research Journal 26, no. 2 (Fall 1994): 1-10.

Kraut, Anthea. "Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham." Theatre Journal 55, no. 3 (Oct., 2003): 433-50.

Martin, John. “Negro Dance Art Shown In Recital.” New York Times, February 19, 1940, 2.

“Modern Dancers Praised at Stevens.” Chicago Defender, December 24, 1932, 12.

Perpener, John O. African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Ramsey, Kate. "Melville Herskovits, Katherine Dunham, and the Politics of African Diasporic Dance Anthropology." In Dancing Bodies, Living Histories: New Writings About Dance and Culture, edited by Lisa Doolittle and Anne Flynn. Banff: Banff Centre Press, 2000.

Online Resources

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Katherine Dunham Collection digital photographs and film clips from the Library of Congress (link)

Archives

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Katherine Dunham Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/natlib/ihas/warehouse/dunham/200006106/0001.pdf

This archive contains over fifteen hundred films, many which document the Dunham Technique, as well as archival materials primarily concerning the last thirteen years of her life.

Katherine Dunham Papers, 1919-1968. Special Collections Research Center, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

http://archives.lib.siu.edu/index.php?p=collections/controlcard&id=6&q=dunham%2C+katheri ne

This archive contains correspondence, films, sound recordings, photographs, scrapbooks, and other materials documenting Dunham’s life and career until 1968.

Katherine Dunham Papers, Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

This archive contains materials Katherine Dunham donated in 1992 and primarily documents her time in East St. Louis from 1967 to 1992. In addition, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts houses scrapbooks, concert programs, and other materials relating to Katherine Dunham and her company.