by Theresa Grenier Courtesy of Goldrush magazine
Originally published in Volume 11, Issue 7, July 2006
Katherine Dunham, a dance pioneer and passionate human rights advocate, died May 21, 2006, at age 96.
Born in Chicago on June 22, 1909, to an African American father and French-Canadian mother, Dunham began her formal dance education in her late teens. She trained with Ludmilla Speranzeva, Mark Turbyfill, and Ruth Page, dancing the lead in Page’s La Guiablesse in 1933. A scholarship student ant the University of Chicago, she earned a BA in social anthropology in 1936. While in college she founded a dance school, Negro Dance Group, and a company, Ballet Nègre.
On completing her degree, Dunham was awarded a Rosenwald Travel Fellowship for her expertise in anthropology and dance. Inspired by the works of anthropologists Robert Redfield and Melville Herskovits, who believed that the survival of African culture and ritual was key to the understanding of African American culture, Dunham traveled to the West Indies to conduct field research. The experience changed her life. Fascinated by the Caribbean cultures, rituals, and dances, she would later spend half of her time in Haiti and become a vodoun priestess. Her experiences in Haiti provided fodder for her master’s thesis (Journey to Accompong, 1946; and Island Possessed, 1969).
Dunham’s Caribbean experiences also inspired her choreography. She began integrating African and Caribbean styles of dance with modern dance and ballet, creating such works as L’Ag’Ya, based on the fighting dance of Martinique; and Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem, which incorporated dances from the West Indies, Cuba, and Mexico, as well as early black American social dances.
In the early 1400s Dunham founded the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, which toured the Americas and Europe for the next 20 years, and married theatrical designer John Pratt, her artistic collaborator until his death in 1986. Dunham co-choreographed Cabin in the Sky with George Balanchine and performed with her company in the national tour of the Broadway production. She choreographed for or appeared in nine films, including Carnival of Rhythm (1941), which was devoted entirely to Dunham, her company, and her choreography.
Dunham’s work was creative, inspiring, and sometimes controversial. In her 1943 Tropical Revue, a dance called “Rites de Passage” portrayed puberty rituals of such an explicit nature that it was banned in Boston. She choreographed more than 90 dances and produced 5 revues, including the critically acclaimed Bal Negre (1946).
In the mid-40s, Dunham established the Dunham School of Dance and Theater (later known as the Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research) in New York, which trained such notables as Arthur Mitchell, James Dean, Peter Gennaro, Marlon Brando, Chita Rivera, Eartha Kitt, and José Ferrer.
In the 1960s Dunham taught at Southern Illinois University and in 1967 she opened the Performing Arts Training Center in St. Louis, offering programs in dance, drama, martial arts, and humanities to young people as a defense against gangs and other street influences.
An advocate for racial equality and human rights, Dunham fought against discrimination and prejudice with her voice and her dances. She filed lawsuits and spoke out against hotels, restaurants, and theaters that engaged in discriminatory practices. Her discrimination suit against a Brazilian hotel ultimately led to an apology from the country’s president and a law that forbade discrimination in public places. And she said no to Hollywood when she was asked to replace the darker-skinned dancers in her company. Perhaps the most notable of Dunham’s protests was her 1992 hunger strike, a 47-day fast to protest the United States’ deportation of Haitian refugees after the overthrow of Haitian president-elect Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The 82-year-old ended her fast only at Aristide’s personal request.
Katherine Dunham will be remembered as a woman who pioneered a genre of dance, took a strong stand for her beliefs, and made a difference in the worlds of dance and human rights.
Courtesy of Goldrush magazine. Originally published in Volume 11, Issue 7, July 2006
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Go to The Library of Congress — Katherine Dunham Collection