June 8, 2006 by

Katherine Dunham

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Categories: Artists, Writers/Editors

Katherine Dunham, a multicultural dancer-choreographer who established one of the first self-supporting all-black modern dance groups in the United States, died on May 21. Cause of death was not released. She was 96.
Born and raised in Illinois, Dunham began taking dance classes as a teenager. She performed in several productions at the Cube Theatre, a local playhouse her brother Albert Dunham Jr. helped to establish, and danced her first leading role in the 1933 ballet “La Guiablesse.”
Dunham earned a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology at the University of Chicago in 1936. One particular lecture on cultural anthropology inspired her to begin viewing dance as more than an art form, but as a cultural symbol. Inspired by these new ideas, Dunham started studying the anthropological roots of dance. She earned a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship, and used the money to study native dance in Haiti and Jamaica. Once the villagers in these Caribbean nations felt comfortable with her, Dunham was invited to attend several sacred dance rituals. At one of these ceremonies, she viewed the Myal dance, which is based on the belief that the dead can back to life. Dunham would eventually adopt Haiti as a second home and become a priestess of voudon (voodoo).
Known as the “matriarch of black dance,” Dunham added her African-infused dance steps to Metropolitan Opera’s production of “Aida” and to the Broadway musical “Cabin in the Sky.” She also choreographed several films, including “Carnival of Rhythm,” “Stormy Weather,” “Mambo” and “The Bible: In the Beginning.”
In the spring of 1938, she formed the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in New York. The renowned Dunham Dancers performed all over the United States and toured 57 countries on six continents. In a time when the color of her skin led to discrimination, Dunham fought back by suing hotels and restaurants that wouldn’t cater to her dancers. She refused to allow her company’s productions play at segregated theaters and even choreographed “Southland,” an hour-long ballet about lynching.
Dunham opened schools in Paris, Stockholm and Rome, but thousands of students studied at her New York studio, including actors Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt and James Dean. There they learned the “Dunham Technique,” which combines African movements with the classic elements of ballets and modern dance. This technique is still taught at colleges all over the U.S., and at prestigious dance companies, such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
After serving as an advisor to the cultural ministry of Senegal in the late 1960s, Dunham moved to East St. Louis, Ill., a predominantly black town that suffered from povery and high crime. Determined to bring arts and hope to the area, she taught at Southern Illinois University and opened the Katherine Dunham Centers for the Arts and Humanities, a school and community center that provided free classes in dance, drama, foreign languages, social science, woodcarving and African hair-braiding. Dunham’s center also offered martial arts training to help young, black teens channel their anger.
Dunham and set designer John Thomas Pratt were married for 49 years. After his death in 1986, she was plagued with health problems and poverty. Former students and celebrities helped keep her from living on the streets, but no matter how much she struggled, Dunham was always aware of other people’s problems. In 1992, she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest U.S. government’s policy of repatriating Haitian refugees.
For her social and artistic contributions, Dunham received numerous honorary doctorates, the National Medal of the Arts, the Albert Schweitzer Prize and France’s Legion d’Honneur. In 2000, the Dance Heritage Coalition named her one of “American’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures.” The Katherine Dunham College at the Library of Congress features nearly 1,700 documents and videos that document her career. Her life was also chronicled in the biography, “Katherine Dunham: A Dancing Life” by Joyce Aschenbrenner, and in her 1959 memoir, A Touch of Innocence.”
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One Response to Katherine Dunham

  1. nina butts

    The energy of Dr. Katherine Dunham’s classes was infectious. It was both a pleasure and a highlight of one’s dance career to be in her presence.

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