DUNHAM, KATHERINE (1909– ) Dancer, Choreographer
Drawing on her study of anthropology, Katherine Dunham introduced movements from African and Caribbean ritual traditions into American modern dance. Born on June 22, 1909, to an African American father and a white mother, she spent her early years in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. After her mother’s death when she was five, Katherine and her older brother Albert were sent to live with her paternal aunt in a family full of musical performers. Though they were desperately poor, Dunham remembered fondly this early introduction to music and the theater.
After remarrying, her father moved the children to Joliet, Illinois. His abusive behavior drove Albert out of the household. After winning a scholarship to the University of Chicago, he helped Katherine leave as well. She worked at the Chicago Public Library while taking dance lessons before she also enrolled in the university when she turned 18.
Dunham began formally studying anthropology, but her interest in dance remained strong. With several other students, she founded the short-lived Ballet Negre. At about this time, she also married a fellow dancer, Jordis McCoo. In 1934 Dunham founded the Negro Dance Group, which eventually grew into the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. The company was invited to perform at the Chicago World’s Fair that year. The success of this performance helped Dunham win a research grant from the Rosenwald Foundation. After several months of study with the head of African studies at Northwestern University, Dunham headed for Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and Haiti to learn firsthand about theirindigenous dance traditions. For 18 months, she toured remote villages, slowly winning the confidence of the inhabitants, who were unaccustomed to visitors. They allowed her to watch and perform in their ritual dances. In Haiti, she was also initiated into a voodoo cult. Dunham later wrote three books about her experiences in the Caribbean Journey to Accompong (1946), The Dances of Haiti (1947), and Island Possessed (1969).
After returning to the United States in 1936, she was awarded a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. Though Dunham also earned a master’s degree from Chicago and a doctorate from Northwestern, she began increasingly to see her future in dance. Sponsored by the Federal Works Theater Project, her first major work was L’Ag’Ya (1938), a dance that told of a love triangle through movements based on a Martinique fighting dance. In addition to working from her anthropological research, Dunham drew on the instruction of her Russian dance teacher Ludmilla Speranzeva, who emphasized dance’s ability to tell a story. During the production of L’Ag’Ya, Dunham met costume and set designer John Pratt. After her divorce from her first husband, they married in 1941. The couple had one child, Marie Christine, whom they adopted in 1951.
In 1940 Dunham reached out to a larger audience by taking her company to New York City, where they performed in Tropics, Le Jazz Hot, and several other dance revues she created. Audiences were enthusiastic, and Dunham and her dancers were soon hired to perform in the all-black Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. In the show, Dunham was cast as the temptress Georgia Brown, a part that allowed her to act and sing as well as dance. Members of Dunham’s company also appeared in several films, including Star-Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Stormy Weather (1943).
In New York, Dunham established her own dance school in 1945. There, she taught a combination of classical ballet and African, Caribbean dance, and African-American folk dance that became known as the Dunham Technique. In addition to formal dance instruction, lessons explored acting, voice, and the ethnography of dance. This interdisci plinary approach attracted to the school a diverse of group of performers, including Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, and Chita Rivera. Following successful tours in the United States, the Dunham Company started performing abroad in the late 1940s. Proving especially popular in Europe, the company went on to tour 57 countries in six continents over the next two decades. These travels took Dunham back to Haiti, where she and her husband bought a villa, Habitation Le Clerc, in 1949.
Dunham’s dancers had their last major show in 1962 with Bamboche, a revue based on the dances of Haiti. Two years later, Dunham provided daring choreography for a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Plagued by arthritis, Dunham then decided to disband her company and went into semiretirement in 1965.
At the request of the U.S. State Department, Dunham traveled to the African nation of Senegal in 1965 to help organize the First World Festival of Negro Arts. Back in the United States, she placed all of her energies into a new project: The establishment of the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis. She came up with the idea for the center while serving as an artist in residence at Southern Illinois University in 1964. Dunham was disturbed that young people in the impoverished African-American neighborhoods nearby had no constructive way to spend their time. Working with the university, she created the center as a place where neighborhood residents could learn about African cultures and receive training in the performing arts. Dunham also created a museum there to display the costumes from her performances and the objects from many cultures she had collected during her world tours.
To show her commitment to the project, Dunham herself took a home in East St. Louis, although she continued to live part of the year in Haiti. Her love of the country and the people lead her to establish a medical center at her villa to provide basic health care to the poorest Haitians. In the early 1990s, Dunham also drew international attention to the plight of Haitian refugees refused entrance into the United States by going on a hunger strike. Although the United States did not change its policy, Dunham ended the strike on its 47th day at the request of Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide.
Dunham’s spectacular career was celebrated in 1983 with a Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement Award. Fourteen of her dance works were revived four years later by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in a program titled The Magic of Katherine Dunham. Another project intended to preserve her choreography and technique for future dancers is a pair of videotapes, Katherine Dunham: A Portrait of the Artist and The Dunham Technique, which Dunham herself is helping to produce.
Beckford, Ruth. Katherine Dunham. New York: M. Dekker, 1979.
Dunham, Katherine. A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood. 1959.
Reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Rose, Albirda. Dunham Technique: A Way of Life. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1990.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Mambo (1954). Hen’s Tooth Video, VHS, 1997.
Stormy Weather (1943). Twentieth Century-Fox, VHS, 1991.