Katherine Dunham

Katherine Mary Dunham (also known as Kaye Dunn,[1] June 22, 1909 – May 21, 2006) was an African-American dancer, choreographer, author, educator, anthropologist, and social activist. Dunham had one of the most successful dance careers in African-American and European theater of the 20th century, and directed her own dance company for many years. She has been called the "matriarch and queen mother of black dance."[2]

Katherine Dunham
Katherine Dunham in 1956.
Katherine Mary Dunham

(1909-06-22)June 22, 1909
DiedMay 21, 2006(2006-05-21) (aged 96)
Alma materUniversity of Chicago
OccupationDancer, choreographer, author, educator, activist
Jordis W. McCoo
(m. 1931; div. 1938)

John Pratt
(m. 1941; died 1986)

While a student at the University of Chicago, Dunham also performed as a dancer and ran a dance school. Receiving a fellowship, she went to the Caribbean to study dance and ethnography. She later returned to graduate and submitted a master's thesis in anthropology. She did not complete the other requirements for that degree, however. She realized that her professional calling was performance.

At the height of her career in the 1940s and 1950s, Dunham was renowned throughout Europe and Latin America and was widely popular in the United States. The Washington Post called her "dancer Katherine the Great". For almost 30 years she maintained the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the only self-supported American black dance troupe at that time. Over her long career, she choreographed more than ninety individual dances.[3] Dunham was an innovator in African-American modern dance as well as a leader in the field of dance anthropology, or ethnochoreology. She also developed the Dunham Technique, a method of movement to support her dance works.[4]

Early years

Katherine Mary Dunham was born on June 22, 1909, in a Chicago hospital and taken as an infant to her parents' home in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, about 25 miles west of Chicago. Her father, Albert Millard Dunham, was a descendant of slaves from West Africa and Madagascar. Her mother, Fanny June Dunham (née Taylor), who was of French-Canadian heritage, died when Dunham was three years old. She had an older brother, Albert Jr., with whom she had a close relationship.[5] After her father married again a few years later, the family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in Joliet, Illinois. There her father ran a dry-cleaning business.[6]

Dunham became interested in both writing and dance at a young age. In 1921, a short story she wrote when she was 12 years old, called "Come Back to Arizona", was published in volume 2 of The Brownies' Book.[5]

She graduated from Joliet Central High School in 1928, where she played baseball, tennis, basketball, and track; served as vice-president of the French Club, and was on the yearbook staff.[7] In high school she joined the Terpsichorean Club and began to learn a kind of modern dance based on the ideas of Europeans Émile Jaques-Dalcroze and Rudolf von Laban.[5] At the age of 15, she organized "The Blue Moon Café", a fundraising cabaret to raise money for Brown's Methodist Church in Joliet, where she gave her first public performance.[5][8] While still a high school student, she opened a private dance school for young black children.[8]

Academic anthropologist

After completing her studies at Joliet Junior College, Dunham moved to Chicago to join her brother Albert, who was attending the University of Chicago as a student of philosophy. In a lecture by Robert Redfield, a professor of anthropology, she learned that much of black culture in modern America had begun in Africa. She decided to major in anthropology and to study dances of the African diaspora. Besides Redfield, she studied under anthropologists such as A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Edward Sapir, and Bronisław Malinowski. Under their tutelage, she showed great promise in her ethnographic studies of dance.[9]

In 1935, Dunham was awarded travel fellowships from the Julius Rosenwald and Guggenheim foundations to conduct ethnographic study of the dance forms of the Caribbean, especially as manifested in Vodun practice of Haiti. Fellow anthropology student Zora Neale Hurston also did field work in the Caribbean. Dunham also received a grant to work with Professor Melville Herskovits of Northwestern University, whose ideas about retention of African culture among African Americans served as a base for her research in the Caribbean.

Her field work in the Caribbean began in Jamaica, where she lived for several months in the remote Maroon village of Accompong, deep in the mountains of Cockpit Country. (She later wrote Journey to Accompong, a book describing her experiences there.) Then she traveled to Martinique and to Trinidad and Tobago for short stays, primarily to do an investigation of Shango, the African god who was still considered an important presence in West Indian religious culture. Early in 1936, she arrived in Haiti, where she remained for several months, the first of her many extended stays in that country through her life.

While in Haiti, Dunham investigated Vodun rituals and made extensive research notes, particularly on the dance movements of the participants. Years later, after extensive studies and initiations, she became a mambo in the Vodun religion. She also became friends with, among others, Dumarsais Estimé, then a high-level politician, who became president of Haiti in 1949. Somewhat later, she assisted him, at considerable risk to her life, when he was persecuted for his progressive policies and sent in exile to Jamaica after a coup d'état.

Dunham returned to Chicago in the late spring of 1936. In August she was awarded a bachelor's degree, a Ph.B., bachelor of philosophy, with her principal area of study named as social anthropology. She was one of the first African-American women to attend this college and to earn these degrees.[4] In 1938, using materials collected during her research tour of the Caribbean, Dunham submitted a thesis, The Dances of Haiti: A Study of Their Material Aspect, Organization, Form, and Function, to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a master's degree, but she never completed her course work or took required examinations to complete the degree. Devoted to dance performance, as well as to anthropological research, she realized that she had to choose between the two. Although Dunham was offered another grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to pursue her academic studies, she chose dance, gave up her graduate studies, and departed for Broadway and Hollywood.[6]

Dancer and choreographer

From 1928 to 1938

In 1928, while still an undergraduate, Dunham began to study ballet with Ludmilla Speranzeva, a Russian dancer who had settled in Chicago, after having come to the United States with the Franco-Russian vaudeville troupe Le Théâtre de la Chauve-Souris, directed by impresario Nikita Balieff. Dunham also studied ballet with Mark Turbyfill and Ruth Page, who became prima ballerina of the Chicago Opera. Through her ballet teachers, she was also exposed to Spanish, East Indian, Javanese, and Balinese dance forms.[10]

In 1931, at the age of 21, Dunham formed a group called Ballets Nègres, one of the first black ballet companies in the United States. After a single, well-received performance in 1931, the group was disbanded. Encouraged by Speranzeva to focus on modern dance instead of ballet, Dunham opened her first dance school in 1933, calling it the Negro Dance Group. It was a venue for Dunham to teach young black dancers about their African heritage.

In 1934–1936, Dunham performed as a guest artist with the ballet company of the Chicago Opera. Ruth Page had written a scenario and choreographed La Guiablesse ("The Devil Woman"), based on a Martinican folk tale in Lafcadio Hearn's Two Years in the French West Indies. It opened in Chicago in 1933, with a black cast and with Page dancing the title role. The next year the production was repeated with Katherine Dunham in the lead and with students from Dunham's Negro Dance Group in the ensemble. Her dance career was interrupted by her travel to the Caribbean for anthropological research.

Having completed her undergraduate work at the University of Chicago and decided to pursue a performing career rather than academic studies, Dunham revived her dance ensemble. In 1937 she traveled with them to New York to take part in A Negro Dance Evening, organized by Edna Guy at the 92nd Street YMHA. The troupe performed a suite of West Indian dances in the first half of the program and a ballet entitled Tropic Death, with Talley Beatty, in the second half. Upon returning to Chicago, the company performed at the Goodman Theater and at the Abraham Lincoln Center. Dunham created Rara Tonga and Woman with a Cigar at this time, which became well known. With choreography characterized by exotic sexuality, both became signature works in the Dunham repertory. After her company performed successfully, Dunham was chosen as dance director of the Chicago Negro Theater Unit of the Federal Theatre Project. In this post, she choreographed the Chicago production of Run Li'l Chil'lun, performed at the Goodman Theater. She also created several other works of choreography, including The Emperor Jones (a response to the play by Eugene O'Neill) and Barrelhouse.

At this time Dunham first became associated with designer John Pratt, whom she later married. Together, they produced the first version of her dance composition L'Ag'Ya, which premiered on January 27, 1938, as a part of the Federal Theater Project in Chicago. Based on her research in Martinique, this three-part performance integrated elements of a Martinique fighting dance into American ballet.

From 1939 to the late 1950s

In 1939, Dunham's company gave additional performances in Chicago and Cincinnati and then returned to New York. Dunham had been invited to stage a new number for the popular, long-running musical revue Pins and Needles 1940, produced by the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. As this show continued its run at the Windsor Theater, Dunham booked her own company in the theater for a Sunday performance. This concert, billed as Tropics and Le Hot Jazz, included not only her favorite partners Archie Savage and Talley Beatty, but her principal Haitian drummer, Papa Augustin. Initially scheduled for a single performance, the show was so popular that the troupe repeated it for another ten Sundays.

Based on this success, the entire company was engaged for the 1940 Broadway production Cabin in the Sky, staged by George Balanchine and starring Ethel Waters. With Dunham in the sultry role of temptress Georgia Brown, the show ran for 20 weeks in New York. It next moved to the West Coast for an extended run of performances there. The show created a minor controversy in the press.

After the national tour of Cabin in the Sky, the Dunham company stayed in Los Angeles, where they appeared in the Warner Brothers short film Carnival of Rhythm (1941). The next year, after the US entered World War II, Dunham appeared in the Paramount musical film Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) in a specialty number, "Sharp as a Tack," with Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Other movies she performed in as a dancer during this period included the Abbott and Costello comedy Pardon My Sarong (1942) and the black musical Stormy Weather (1943), which featured a stellar range of actors, musicians and dancers.[11]

The company returned to New York. In September 1943, under the management of the impresario Sol Hurok, her troupe opened in Tropical Review at the Martin Beck Theater. Featuring lively Latin American and Caribbean dances, plantation dances, and American social dances, the show was an immediate success. The original two-week engagement was extended by popular demand into a three-month run, after which the company embarked on an extensive tour of the United States and Canada. In Boston, then a bastion of conservatism, the show was banned in 1944 after only one performance. Although it was well received by the audience, local censors feared that the revealing costumes and provocative dances might compromise public morals. After the tour, in 1945, the Dunham company appeared in the short-lived Blue Holiday at the Belasco Theater in New York, and in the more successful Carib Song at the Adelphi Theatre. The finale to the first act of this show was Shango, a staged interpretation of a Vodun ritual, which became a permanent part of the company's repertory.

In 1946, Dunham returned to Broadway for a revue entitled Bal Nègre, which received glowing notices from theater and dance critics. Early in 1947 Dunham choreographed the musical play Windy City, which premiered at the Great Northern Theater in Chicago. Later in the year she opened a cabaret show in Las Vegas, during the first year that the city became a popular entertainment as well as gambling destination. Later that year she took her troupe to Mexico, where their performances were so popular that they stayed and performed for more than two months. After Mexico, Dunham began touring in Europe, where she was an immediate sensation. In 1948, she opened A Caribbean Rhapsody, first at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, and then took it to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

This was the beginning of more than 20 years during which Dunham performed with her company almost exclusively outside the United States. During these years, the Dunham company appeared in some 33 countries in Europe, North Africa, South America, Australia, and East Asia. Dunham continued to develop dozens of new productions during this period, and the company met with enthusiastic audiences in every city. Despite these successes, the company frequently ran into periods of financial difficulties, as Dunham was required to support all of the 30 to 40 dancers and musicians.

Dunham and her company appeared in the Hollywood movie Casbah (1948) with Tony Martin, Yvonne De Carlo, and Peter Lorre, and in the Italian film Botta e Risposta, produced by Dino de Laurentiis. Also that year they appeared in the first ever, hour-long American spectacular televised by NBC, when television was first beginning to spread across America. This was followed by television spectaculars filmed in London, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Sydney, and Mexico City.

In 1950, Sol Hurok presented Katherine Dunham and Her Company in a dance revue at the Broadway Theater in New York, with a program composed of some of Dunham's best works. It closed after only 38 performances. The company soon embarked on a tour of venues in South America, Europe, and North Africa. They had particular success in Denmark and France. In the mid-1950s, Dunham and her company appeared in three films: Mambo (1954), made in Italy; Die Grosse Starparade (1954), made in Germany; and Música en la Noche (1955), made in Mexico City.

Later career

The Dunham company's international tours ended in Vienna in 1960. They were stranded without money because of bad management by their impresario. Dunham saved the day by arranging for the company to be paid to appear in a German television special, Karibische Rhythmen, after which they returned to the United States. Dunham's last appearance on Broadway was in 1962 in Bamboche!, which included a few former Dunham dancers in the cast and a contingent of dancers and drummers from the Royal Troupe of Morocco. It was not a success, closing after only eight performances.

A highlight of Dunham's later career was the invitation from New York's Metropolitan Opera to stage dances for a new production of Aida, starring soprano Leontyne Price. In 1963, she became the first African American to choreograph for the Met since Hemsley Winfield set the dances for The Emperor Jones in 1933. The critics acknowledged the historical research she did on dance in ancient Egypt, but they were not appreciative of her choreography as staged for this production.[12]

Subsequently, Dunham undertook various choreographic commissions at several venues in the United States and in Europe. In 1967 she officially retired, after presenting a final show at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. Even in retirement Dunham continued to choreograph: one of her major works was directing the premiere full, posthumous production Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha in 1972, a joint production of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Morehouse College chorus in Atlanta, conducted by Robert Shaw.[13] This work was never produced in Joplin's lifetime, but since the 1970s, it has been successfully produced in many venues.

In 1978 Dunham was featured in the PBS special, Divine Drumbeats: Katherine Dunham and Her People, narrated by James Earl Jones, as part of the Dance in America series. Alvin Ailey later produced a tribute for her in 1987-88 at Carnegie Hall with his American Dance Theater, entitled The Magic of Katherine Dunham.

Educator and writer

In 1945, Dunham opened and directed the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre near Times Square in New York City. Her dance company was provided with rent-free studio space for three years by an admirer and patron, Lee Shubert; it had an initial enrollment of 350 students.

The program included courses in dance, drama, performing arts, applied skills, humanities, cultural studies, and Caribbean research. In 1947 it was expanded and granted a charter as the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts. The school was managed in Dunham's absence by Syvilla Fort, one of her dancers, and thrived for about 10 years. It was considered one of the best learning centers of its type at the time. Schools inspired by it were later opened in Stockholm, Paris, and Rome by dancers who had been trained by Dunham.

Her alumni included many future celebrities, such as Eartha Kitt. As a teenager, she won a scholarship to the Dunham school and later became a dancer with the company, before beginning her successful singing career. Dunham and Kitt collaborated again in the 1970s in an Equity Production of the musical Peg, based on the Irish play, Peg O' My Heart. Dunham Company member Dana McBroom-Manno was selected as a featured artist in the show, which played on the Music Fair Circuit.

Others who attended her school included James Dean, Gregory Peck, Jose Ferrer, Jennifer Jones, Shelley Winters, Sidney Poitier, Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty. Marlon Brando frequently dropped in to play the bongo drums, and jazz musician Charles Mingus held regular jam sessions with the drummers. Known for her many innovations, Dunham developed a dance pedagogy, later named the Dunham Technique, a style of movement and exercises based in traditional African dances, to support her choreography. This won international acclaim and is now taught as a modern dance style in many dance schools.

By 1957, Dunham was under severe personal strain, which was affecting her health. She decided to live for a year in relative isolation in Kyoto, Japan, where she worked on writing memoirs of her youth. The first work, entitled A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood, was published in 1959. A continuation based on her experiences in Haiti, Island Possessed, was published in 1969. A fictional work based on her African experiences, Kasamance: A Fantasy, was published in 1974. Throughout her career, Dunham occasionally published articles about her anthropological research (sometimes under the pseudonym of Kaye Dunn) and sometimes lectured on anthropological topics at universities and scholarly societies.[14]

In 1963 Dunham was commissioned to choreograph Aida at New York's Metropolitan Opera Company, with Leontyne Price in the title role. Members of Dunham's last New York Company auditioned to become members of the Met Ballet Company. Among her dancers selected were Marcia McBroom, Dana McBroom, Jean Kelly, and Jesse Oliver. The Met Ballet Company dancers studied Dunham Technique at Dunham's 42nd Street dance studio for the entire summer leading up to the season opening of Aida. Lyndon B. Johnson was in the audience for opening night. Dunham's background as an anthropologist gave the dances of the opera a new authenticity. She was also consulted on costuming for the Egyptian and Ethiopian dress. Dana McBroom-Manno still teaches Dunham Technique in New York City and is a Master of Dunham Technique.

In 1964, Dunham settled in East St. Louis, and took up the post of artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University in nearby Edwardsville. There she was able to bring anthropologists, sociologists, educational specialists, scientists, writers, musicians, and theater people together to create a liberal arts curriculum that would be a foundation for further college work. One of her fellow professors, with whom she collaborated, was architect Buckminster Fuller.

The following year, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Dunham to be technical cultural adviser— a sort of cultural ambassador—to the government of Senegal in West Africa. Her mission was to help train the Senegalese National Ballet and to assist President Leopold Senghor with arrangements for the First Pan-African World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar (1965–66). Later Dunham established a second home in Senegal, and she occasionally returned there to scout for talented African musicians and dancers.

In 1967, Dunham opened the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) in East St. Louis in an effort to use the arts to combat poverty and urban unrest. The restructuring of heavy industry had caused the loss of many working-class jobs, and unemployment was high in the city. After the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Dunham encouraged gang members in the ghetto to come to the Center to use drumming and dance to vent their frustrations. The PATC teaching staff was made up of former members of Dunham's touring company, as well as local residents. While trying to help the young people in the community, Dunham was arrested. This gained international headlines and the embarrassed local police officials quickly released her. She also continued refining and teaching the Dunham Technique to transmit that knowledge to succeeding generations of dance students. She lectured every summer until her death at annual Masters' Seminars in St. Louis, which attracted dance students from around the world. She established the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities in East St. Louis to preserve Haitian and African instruments and artifacts from her personal collection.

In 1976, Dunham was guest artist-in-residence and lecturer for Afro-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. A photographic exhibit honoring her achievements, entitled Kaiso! Katherine Dunham, was mounted at the Women's Center on the campus. In 1978, an anthology of writings by and about her, also entitled Kaiso! Katherine Dunham, was published in a limited, numbered edition of 130 copies by the Institute for the Study of Social Change.

Social activism

The Katherine Dunham Company toured throughout North America in the mid-1940s, performing as well in the racially segregated South. Dunham refused to hold a show in one theater after finding out that the city's black residents had not been allowed to buy tickets for the performance. On another occasion, in October 1944, after getting a rousing standing ovation in Louisville, Kentucky, she told the all-white audience that she and her company would not return because "your management will not allow people like you to sit next to people like us." She expressed a hope that time and the "war for tolerance and democracy" (this was during World War II) would bring a change.[15] One historian noted that "during the course of the tour, Dunham and the troupe had recurrent problems with racial discrimination, leading her to a posture of militancy which was to characterize her subsequent career."

In Hollywood, Dunham refused to sign a lucrative studio contract when the producer said she would have to replace some of her darker-skinned company members. She and her company frequently had difficulties finding adequate accommodations while on tour because in many regions of the country, black Americans were not allowed to stay at hotels.

While Dunham was recognized as "unofficially" representing American cultural life in her foreign tours, she was given very little assistance of any kind by the U.S. State Department. She had incurred the displeasure of departmental officials when her company performed Southland, a ballet that dramatized the lynching of a black man in the racist American South. Its premiere performance on December 9, 1950, at the Teatro Municipal in Santiago, Chile,[16][17] generated considerable public interest in the early months of 1951.[18] The State Department was dismayed by the negative view of American society that the ballet presented to foreign audiences. As a result, Dunham would later experience some diplomatic "difficulties" on her tours. The State Department regularly subsidized other less well-known groups, but it consistently refused to support her company (even when it was entertaining U.S. Army troops), although at the same time it did not hesitate to take credit for them as "unofficial artistic and cultural representatives."

The Afonso Arinos Law in Brazil

In 1950, while visiting Brazil, Dunham and her group were refused rooms at a first-class hotel in São Paulo, the Hotel Esplanada, frequented by many American businessmen. Understanding that the fact was due to racial discrimination, she made sure the incident was publicized. The incident was widely discussed in the Brazilian press and became a hot political issue. In response, the Afonso Arinos law was passed in 1951 that made racial discrimination in public places a felony in Brazil.[19][20][21][22][23][24]

Hunger strike

In 1992, at age 83, Dunham went on a highly publicized hunger strike to protest the discriminatory U.S. foreign policy against Haitian boat-people. Time reported that, "she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest the U.S.'s forced repatriation of Haitian refugees. "My job", she said, "is to create a useful legacy."[25] During her protest, Dick Gregory led a non-stop vigil at her home, where many disparate personalities came to show their respect, such Debbie Allen, Jonathan Demme, and Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.

This initiative drew international publicity to the plight of the Haitian boat-people and U.S. discrimination against them. Dunham ended her fast only after exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Jesse Jackson came to her and personally requested that she stop risking her life for this cause. In recognition of her stance, President Aristide later awarded her a medal of Haiti's highest honor.

Private life

Dunham married Jordis McCoo, a black postal worker, in 1931, but he did not share her interests and they gradually drifted apart, finally divorcing in 1938. About that time Dunham met and began to work with John Thomas Pratt, a Canadian who had become one of America's most renowned costume and theatrical set designers. Pratt, who was white, shared Dunham's interests in African-Caribbean cultures and was happy to put his talents in her service. After he became her artistic collaborator, they became romantically involved. In the summer of 1941, after the national tour of Cabin in the Sky ended, they went to Mexico, where inter-racial marriages were less controversial than in the United States, and engaged in a commitment ceremony on 20 July, which thereafter they gave as the date of their wedding.[26] In fact, that ceremony was not recognized as a legal marriage in the United States, a point of law that would come to trouble them some years later. Katherine Dunham and John Pratt married in 1949 to adopt Marie-Christine, a French 14-month-old baby. From the beginning of their association, around 1938, Pratt designed the sets and every costume Dunham ever wore. He continued as her artistic collaborator until his death in 1986.

When she was not performing, Dunham and Pratt often visited Haiti for extended stays. On one of these visits, during the late 1940s, she purchased a large property of more than seven hectares (approximately 17.3 acres) in the Carrefours suburban area of Port-au-Prince, known as Habitation Leclerc. Dunham used Habitation Leclerc as a private retreat for many years, frequently bringing members of her dance company to recuperate from the stress of touring and to work on developing new dance productions. After running it as a tourist spot, with Vodun dancing as entertainment, in the early 1960s, she sold it to a French entrepreneur in the early 1970s.

In 1949, Dunham returned from international touring with her company for a brief stay in the United States, where she suffered a temporary nervous breakdown after the premature death of her beloved brother Albert. He had been a promising philosophy professor at Howard University and a protégé of Alfred North Whitehead. During this time, she developed a warm friendship with the psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm, whom she had known in Europe. He was only one of a number of international celebrities who were Dunham's friends. In December 1951, a photo of Dunham dancing with Ismaili Muslim leader Prince Ali Khan at a private party he had hosted for her in Paris appeared in a popular magazine and fueled rumors that the two were romantically linked.[27] Both Dunham and the prince denied the suggestion. The prince was then married to actress Rita Hayworth, and Dunham was now legally married to John Pratt; a quiet ceremony in Las Vegas had taken place earlier in the year.[28] The couple had officially adopted their foster daughter, a 14-month-old girl they had found as an infant in a Roman Catholic convent nursery in Fresnes, France. Named Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, she was their only child.

Among Dunham's closest friends and colleagues was Julie Robinson, formerly a performer with the Katherine Dunham Company, and her husband, singer and later political activist Harry Belafonte. Both remained close friends of Dunham for many years, until her death. Glory Van Scott and Jean-Léon Destiné were among other former Dunham dancers who remained her lifelong friends.[29]


On May 21, 2006, Dunham died in her sleep from natural causes in New York City. She died a month before her 97th birthday. She wished her family a happy life. [30]


Anna Kisselgoff, a dance critic for The New York Times, called Dunham "a major pioneer in Black theatrical dance ... ahead of her time." "In introducing authentic African dance-movements to her company and audiences, Dunham—perhaps more than any other choreographer of the time—exploded the possibilities of modern dance expression."

As one of her biographers, Joyce Aschenbrenner, wrote: "Today, it is safe to say, there is no American black dancer who has not been influenced by the Dunham Technique, unless he or she works entirely within a classical genre", and the Dunham Technique is still taught to anyone who studies modern dance.

The highly respected Dance magazine did a feature cover story on Dunham in August 2000 entitled "One-Woman Revolution." As Wendy Perron wrote, "Jazz dance, 'fusion,' and the search for our cultural identity all have their antecedents in Dunham's work as a dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist. She was the first American dancer to present indigenous forms on a concert stage, the first to sustain a black dance company.... She created and performed in works for stage, clubs, and Hollywood films; she started a school and a technique that continue to flourish; she fought unstintingly for racial justice."

Scholar of the arts Harold Cruse wrote in 1964: "Her early and lifelong search for meaning and artistic values for black people, as well as for all peoples, has motivated, created opportunities for, and launched careers for generations of young black artists ... Afro-American dance was usually in the avant-garde of modern dance ... Dunham's entire career spans the period of the emergence of Afro-American dance as a serious art."

Black writer, Arthur Todd, described her as "one of our national treasures." Regarding her impact and effect he wrote: "The rise of American Negro dance commenced ... when Katherine Dunham and her company skyrocketed into the Windsor Theater in New York, from Chicago in 1940, and made an indelible stamp on the dance world... Miss Dunham opened the doors that made possible the rapid upswing of this dance for the present generation." "What Dunham gave modern dance was a coherent lexicon of African and Caribbean styles of movement—a flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving—which she integrated with techniques of ballet and modern dance." "Her mastery of body movement was considered 'phenomenal.' She was hailed for her smooth and fluent choreography and dominated a stage with what has been described as 'an unmitigating radiant force providing beauty with a feminine touch full of variety and nuance."

Richard Buckle, ballet historian and critic, wrote: "Her company of magnificent dancers and musicians ... met with the success it has and that herself as explorer, thinker, inventor, organizer, and dancer should have reached a place in the estimation of the world, has done more than a million pamphlets could for the service of her people."

"Dunham's European success led to considerable imitation of her work in European revues ... it is safe to say that the perspectives of concert-theatrical dance in Europe were profoundly affected by the performances of the Dunham troupe."

While in Europe, she also influenced hat styles on the continent as well as spring fashion collections, featuring the Dunham line and Caribbean Rhapsody, and the Chiroteque Française made a bronze cast of her feet for a museum of important personalities."

The Katherine Dunham Company became an incubator for many well known performers, including Archie Savage, Talley Beatty, Janet Collins, Lenwood Morris, Vanoye Aikens, Lucille Ellis, Pearl Reynolds, Camille Yarbrough, Lavinia Williams, and Tommy Gomez.

Alvin Ailey, who stated that he first became interested in dance as a professional career after having seen a performance of the Katherine Dunham Company as a young teenager of 14 in Los Angeles, called the Dunham Technique "the closest thing to a unified Afro-American dance existing."

For several years, Dunham's personal assistant and press promoter was Maya Deren, who later also became interested in Vodun and wrote The Divine Horseman: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti (1953). Deren is now considered to be a pioneer of independent American filmmaking. Dunham herself was quietly involved in both the Voodoo and Orisa communities of the Caribbean and the United States, in particular with the Lucumi tradition.

Not only did Dunham shed light on the cultural value of black dance, but she clearly contributed to changing perceptions of blacks in America by showing society that as a black woman, she could be an intelligent scholar, a beautiful dancer, and a skilled choreographer. As Julia Foulkes pointed out, "Dunham's path to success lay in making high art in the United States from African and Caribbean sources, capitalizing on a heritage of dance within the African Diaspora, and raising perceptions of African American capabilities."[31]

Awards and honors

Over the years Katherine Dunham has received scores of special awards, including more than a dozen honorary doctorates from various American universities.

Further reading

  • Das, Joanna Dee (2017). Katherine Dunham: dance and the African diaspora. ISBN 978-0190264871.</ref>


  1. "Katherine Dunham | African American dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  2. Joyce Aschenbenner, Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).
  3. VèVè A. Clark and Sara E. Johnson, editors, Kaiso!: Writings by and about Katherine Dunham (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). This anthology of writings contains an abbreviated chronology of Dunham's life and career as well as a selected bibliography, a filmography of her commercial works, and a glossary.
  4. "Katherine Dunham - Katherine Dunham Biography". kdcah.org. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  5. "Timeline: The Katherine Dunham Collection at the Library of Congress (Performing Arts Encyclopedia, The Library of Congress)". memory.loc.gov. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  6. "Special Presentation: Katherine Dunham Timeline". Library of Congress.
  7. Joliet Central High School Yearbook, 1928
  8. "Learn About Dancer Katherine Dunham". About.com Home. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  9. Ira E. Harrison and Faye V. Harrison, African-American Pioneers in Anthropology (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), p. 139.
  10. Aschenbenner, Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life, p. 26
  11. Claude Conyers, "Film Choreography by Katherine Dunham, 1939–1964," in Clark and Johnson, Kaiso! (2005), pp. 639–42.
  12. Hughes, Allen (October 20, 1963). "Dunham's Dances and Verdi's 'Aida'". The New York Times. New York City, NY. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  13. Southern, Eileen (1997). The Music of Black Americans. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. p. 237. ISBN 0-393-03843-2.
  14. See "Selected Bibliography of Writings by Katherine Dunham" in Clark and Johnson, Kaiso! (2005), pp. 643–46.
  15. Clark and Johnson, Kaiso! (2005), p. 252.
  16. "Hoy programa extraordinario y el sábado dos estamos nos ofrece Katherine Dunham," El Mercurio (Santiago, Chile), Thursday, December 7, 1950.
  17. Joanna Dee Das, "Katherine Dunham (1909-2006)", Dance Heritage Coalition.
  18. Constance Valis Hill, "Katherine Dunham's Southland: Protest in the Face of Repression," reprinted in Clark and Johnson, Kaiso! (2005), pp. 345–63.
  19. Edward E. Telles, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 37.
  20. Paulina L. Alberto, Terms of Inclusion: Black Intellectuals in Twentieth-Century Brazil'' (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), pp. 176-78.
  21. George Reid Andrews, Blacks and Whites in São Paulo: 1888-1988 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), pp. 184-86.
  22. Ronald W. Walters, Pan Africanism in the African Diaspora: An Analysis of Modern Afrocentric (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993), p. 287.
  23. Carl N. Degler, Neither Black not White: Slavery and Racial Relations in Brazil and United States (New York: Macmillan, 1971), p. 278.
  24. Florestan Fernandes, "The Negro Problem in a Class Society: 1951-1960 Brazil", in Arlene Torres and Norman E. Whitten Jr. (eds), Blackness in Latin American and Caribbean (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), p. 117.
  25. Time magazine article
  26. Katherine Dunham, The Minefield (manuscript, c. 1980–85), book II, 122–123, Box 20, Katherine Dunham Papers, Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, St. Louis.
  27. Jet: The Weekly Negro News Magazine, vol. 1, no. 9 (December 27, 1951).
  28. Katherine Dunham, The Minefield (manuscript, c. 1980-85).
  29. Anna Kisselgoff, "Katherine Dunham's Legacy, Visible in Youth and Age," New York Times (March 3, 2003).
  30. Anderson, Jack (May 23, 2006). "Katherine Dunham, Dance Icon, Dies at 96". The New York Times. Retrieved September 9, 2012.
  31. Julia L. Foulkes, Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), p. 72.
  32. "CANDACE AWARD RECIPIENTS 1982-1990, Page 1". National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Archived from the original on March 14, 2003.
  33. St. Louis Walk of Fame. "St. Louis Walk of Fame Inductees". stlouiswalkoffame.org. Retrieved April 25, 2013.
  34. Asante, Molefi Kete, 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002).
  35. Kate Mattingly, "Katherine the Great: 2004 Lifetime Achievement Awardee Katherine Dunham", Dance Teacher, September 1, 2004.


  • Haskins, James, Katherine Dunham. New York: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1982.
  • Kraut, Anthea, "Between Primitivism and Diaspora: The Dance Performances of Josephine Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katherine Dunham," Theatre Journal 55 (2003): 433–50.
  • Long, Richard A., The Black Tradition in American Dance. New York: Smithmark Publications, 1995.
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