June 22, 1909 – Katherine Dunham:
“Go within every day and find the inner strength so that the world will not blow your candle out.”
At the apex of her career in the 1940s and 1950s, Dunham was famous throughout Europe and Latin America, if not quite so popular in the USA. For three decades she ran the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the only self-supported African-American dance company of the era. Over her long career, she choreographed more than 100 dances. Dunham was an innovator of African-American Modern Dance, plus a pioneer in the study of Ethnochoreology, a special kind of movement anthropology. She was also the developer of the “Dunham Technique”, a method of movement that informed her work.
Offstage, Dunham was strikingly beautiful and soft-spoken, but onstage, she danced hot, sexual roles such as Woman With A Cigar from Tropics and Le Jazz Hot, the flirtatious Jazz Baby in Barrel House Blues, and the doomed, passionate lead in L’Ag’Ya who tears off her clothes in frenzy.
She was also a journalist, professor, political activist, filmmaker and writer, Dunham was the a scholar/choreographer who incorporated her anthropological fieldwork in her dances.
Most of the influential black choreographers of the next generation, such as Geoffrey Holder, Jean-Leon Destiné, and Charles Moore, to name a few, were members of Dunham’s company before the formed their own troupes. At the Katherine Dunham School she trained teachers who would bring her ideas and technique in the world of mainstream American Dance. By her own assessment, she wrote:
“I was not the best dancer. But I think I am an important catalyst.”
Born into poverty in Chicago, Dunham began dancing when she was in high school. She earned a scholarship to the University of Chicago, graduating in 1930 with a degree in Social Anthropology and then departed for the Caribbean to study the movements and rituals that linked African and African-Caribbean dances. She returned 18 months later, founded the Negro Dance Group, and began incorporating what she discovered into her own choreography and the “Katherine Dunham Technique”.
Dunham gave Modern Dance an approach that blended movements from African-Caribbean and African-American social dances with techniques of Modern Dance and traditional Ballet. In fact, her theatrical choreography she fused all sorts of dance styles. The Africanized principles of movement defined the style, and breadth, of American Dance: the flexible torso and spine, swiveling pelvis, the odd isolations of arms and legs, the polyrhythmic and syncopated playfulness of the body.
Ironically, most young dancers do not know about her contributions. Yet when Hip-Hop is performed on the concert stage, or when dancers noddle around in the style of today’s Post-Modernist dance, they are following Dunham’s ideas from 70 years earlier.
She was never fully accepted by American Anthropologists (Europeans embraced her insights) because she was not an “objective” observer. Dunham got down and danced like the people, which made her a lively lecturer and wonderful writer.
The culture of Haiti was the most influential force in her life. After her first visit in 1936, she ended up living there half of the time. Haitian dance shaped her aesthetics and Haitian Voodoo shaped her spirit. She would do do that voodoo that she knew so well. In the middle of a lecture, she once quipped:
“Oh, no. I never hire zombies. They are so unreliable.”
She was a mambo (a voodoo high priestess). She was magical. She knew the spells. She enjoyed surprises.
I attended a lecture she gave in the afternoon between two days of concerts at the University of Washington in 1981, where, resplendent in her gold jewelry and African turban, she spoke so softly, you had to lean towards her.
A Dunham dance concert was a theatrical event, a blend of dancing, exotic rhythms and splashy showbiz. Beautifully costumed dancers moved through lush tropical paradises performing dances based on genuine folk origins. Simple folk music was pumped up to full orchestral arrangements, then, at the climax, authentic drumming. Dunham knew audiences came for entertainment not anthropology. But behind the glitz lay an educational goal: proving that African-American and African-Caribbean styles were related and offered powerful ingredients for the American Dance scene.
Although Dunham was recognized for her talent, glamour and style, she was a black performer trying to make it in segregated America in the late 1930s through to the 1950s. Fighting segregated hotels, restaurants and theatres, she filed lawsuits and made public condemnations. In 1943, she rejected a lucrative Hollywood studio contract because she refused to get rid of some of the darker-skinned dancers in her company.
From the early 1940s to the late 1960s, her company appeared on Broadway, in films, toured to more than 87 countries, and were seen by more people than any other Modern Dance troupe of the era. Between 1945 and 1955 she maintained her Dunham School of Dance and Theatre in Manhattan.
Her success brought out her detractors. Academics criticized Dunham’s sense of theatrical; some dance critics found her work too entertaining. And the press could never quite make sense of Dunham the anthropologist and Dunham the sexualized dancer.
In the 1960s, the culture changed dramatically. The Dunham School closed, her dances were considered old fashioned and the bookings dropped. Dunham disbanded the company.
When her performing career was winding down, her educational and political career began.
In 1967, inspired by the Civil Rights struggle, Dunham decided to open a dance school, cultural center and museum in a poor neighborhood in St. Louis. During the 1970s she flourished anew; the center received strong financial support and critical praise, and she started teaching at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
But in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan was busy defunding the arts and education, as Republicans do, and America’s poorer neighbors went up in crack smoke. Dunham’s cultural center struggled to stay open.
Still, during this decade she was honored with many awards: the Albert Schweitzer Music Award; a PBS Dance In America program, Katherine Dunham And Her People; a Kennedy Center Honor.
In 1987, Alvin Ailey had 78-year-old Dunham reset her dances for a presentation by his company, The Magic Of Katherine Dunham. Dunham’s dances were given a new life, but her choreographic career was on the wane. By 1990, East St. Louis was mostly boarded up and Dunham lived in a crumbling building. In Haiti, a military coup made it nearly impossible for her to return to her much-loved island.
In 1992, 82-year-old Dunham made headlines when she started a 47-day fast to protest against the U.S. government deportation of Haitian refugees and to support the return of deposed dictator Jean-Bertrand Aristide. She stopped only after Aristide personally visited her and begged her not continue.
While Dunham was recognized as “unofficially” representing American cultural life on her foreign tours, she was not treated well by the U.S. State Department. They were very unhappy when her company performed Southland, a ballet that dramatized the lynching of a black man in the racist American South. 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 refused to support her company, even when it was entertaining U.S. Army troops, although they took credit for them being “unofficial artistic and cultural representatives.”
In 1939, she married John Pratt, a white set and lighting designer who worked with her in Chicago at the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project. In the summer of 1941, after her national tour in the musical Cabin In The Sky ended, she and Pratt went to Mexico, where interracial marriages were legal. Their marriage ceremony was not recognized as a legal marriage in the USA, a point of law that made trouble them years later. From the beginning of their association in 1938, Pratt designed the sets and every costume Dunham ever wore. He continued as her artistic collaborator until his death in 1986.
At the end she had been diagnosed with cancer. Years of dancing had crippled her knees, she was confined to her wheelchair and slid into dementia. In 1983, a television interviewer asked what her epitaph should be. Dunham’s answered:
In 2006, Dunham died in her sleep from natural causes in New York City, a month before her 97th birthday.