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Dunham, Katherine

Katherine Dunham

1910–2006

Dancer, anthropologist, social worker, activist, author

Katherine Dunham's long and remarkable life spanned the fields of anthropology, dance, theater, and inner city social work. As an anthropologist, Dunham studied and lived among the peoples of Haiti and other Caribbean islands; as a dancer and choreographer she combined "primitive" Caribbean dances with traditional ballet, African ritual, and black American rhythms to create an entirely new dance form called the Dunham Technique; and as founder of the Performing Arts Training Center in the East St. Louis ghetto she has taught a new generation of black youth to take pride in its African cultural heritage. Along the way, Dunham found time to mount numerous successful Broadway revues, tour 57 countries on 6 continents, and choreograph half a dozen major motion pictures. Her legacy of spirited dance, cultural acceptance, and social justice lives on in dance schools and cultural programming throughout the world.

Lost Mother at Early Age

Katherine Mary Dunham, the second child of Albert Millard and Fanny June Dunham, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 22, 1909. As a young man Albert Dunham moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Chicago to work as a tailor and drycleaner while also pursuing a career as a jazz guitarist. Performing one night at a party in the home of wealthy white socialites, Dunham met Fanny Taylor, a divorced woman of French-Canadian and Indian blood, twenty years his senior and already a grandmother of five. Despite the unlikelihood of their union, Albert Dunham wooed and married Fanny Taylor around 1905. The couple moved to suburban Glen Ellyn a few years later to escape the constant harassment caused by their mixed-race marriage, and it was in Glen Ellyn that Katherine Dunham spent the first few years of her life. Her mother was the assistant principal at one of the larger Chicago high schools, and, for a while, the Dunham family was prosperous and happy.

Dunham was only four years old at the time of her mother's death, and she and her brother, Albert Jr., were sent to live with their father's sister on the South Side of Chicago. It was in the household of her Aunt Lulu that Katherine Dunham was first exposed to the joys of music and dance, as the Dunham side of her family was crowded with performers of every kind. When Dunham's father married a schoolteacher from Iowa, he reunited his family in the Illinois town of Joliet, about 70 miles from Chicago. There he opened a dry-cleaning business that met with little success, further embittering him, since he had received nothing from his first wife's large estate and keenly felt the loss of social status he suffered with her death. His personal frustrations led to frequent quarrels with his second wife and children that became increasingly violent over the years until Albert Jr., still a teenager, was forced to leave home. The senior Dunham also displayed an unhealthy sexual interest in his growing daughter, and in her autobiography, A Touch of Innocence, Katherine Dunham candidly described their relations: "the wanting her to sit close to him in the truck or kiss him goodbye, or the touch and fondling that made everything about her life seem smudgy and unclean."

Found Freedom in College

With the help of her brother, who was then attending the University of Chicago on scholarship, Dunham gradually freed herself of her father's influence. She got a job in the Chicago Public Library system, continued the dance classes she had been taking for years, and at the age of 18 joined Albert Jr. at the University of Chicago. There she studied anthropology while also beginning to teach dance, renting and living in a tiny studio near the University's South Side campus. Among the artists Dunham met at the University of Chicago were Ruth Page, later a noted choreographer; Mark Turbyfill, ballet dancer and choreographer; and Langston Hughes, the famed poet. The university atmosphere challenged Dunham to reconcile her scholarly interest in anthropology with her love of dance, and she responded by writing a bachelor's dissertation on the use of dance in primitive ritual. At the same time, Dunham teamed up with Page and Turbyfill to form what has been called the first black concert dance group, the Ballet Nègre, which made its debut in 1931 at Chicago's annual Beaux Arts Ball. A few years later Dunham formed her own company, the Negro Dance Group, and appeared with the Chicago Symphony and at the Chicago World's Fair in 1934.

In 1935 Dunham received a Julius Rosenwald Foundation grant to study the dances of the Caribbean Islands, where she spent 18 months, mainly in Haiti and Jamaica. Dunham's experiences in the Caribbean were of fundamental importance to the rest of her career—living and dancing with the peasants of Haiti strengthened her appreciation for African-based forms of movement and gave her an entirely new, African perspective from which to view American art and society. She became an initiate of the voodoo religion and later wrote three books based on her experiences in the Caribbean: Journey to Accompong was published in 1946, followed a year later by The Dances of Haiti, and, in 1969, Island Possessed.

Upon returning to the University of Chicago, Dunham continued her work in anthropology but soon realized that her future lay in the area of dance performance. She worked briefly for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) researching urban religious cults before launching her dance career in 1938 with a ballet mounted for the Federal Works Theater Project. L'Ag'Ya—based on a fighting dance native to the island of Martinique—was written, choreographed, and directed by Dunham and featured the members of her own newly formed Dunham Dance Company wearing authentic costumes she had brought from the Caribbean. The work became part of the repertory of the Ballet Fedré, a part of the Federal Theater Project.

At a Glance …

Born Katherine Mary Dunham on June 22, 1909, in Chicago, IL; died on May 21, 2006, New York, NY; daughter of Albert Millard and Fanny June Taylor Dunham; married Jordis McCoo (a dancer), 1931 (divorced, 1938); married John Pratt (a set and costume designer), 1941 (died, 1986); children: Marie Christine (adopted). Education: University of Chicago, PhB, social anthropology, 1936; Rosenwald Fellowship studies, West Indies, 1935–36; ballet studies with Ludmila Speranzeva, Chicago, 1928–1930s.

Career: Dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, social worker, activist, and author. Ballet Nègre (dance company), Chicago, founder, 1930; Negro Dance Group (dance school), Chicago, founder, 1933; Federal Theater Project, choreographer and director of Chicago branch Negro Unit, 1938; Dunham Dance Company, founder, 1939–60; Dunham School of Dance and Theatre (later called the Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research, and later Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts), New York, founder, 1944–57; Southern Illinois University, artist-in-residence, 1964; First World Black and African Festival of Arts, Senegal, adviser, 1966; Performing Arts Training Center (PATC), East St. Louis, IL, founder and director, 1967–1999; Dunham Dynamic Museum (also known as Katherine Dunham Museum and Children's Workshop), founder 1977; University of Hawaii, artist-in-residence, 1994.

Awards: Julius Rosenwald Foundation travel grant, 1935; Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1935; Haitian Légion d'Honneur et Merite, 1968; American association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, Dance Division Heritage Award, 1971; Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, inductee, 1974; Albert Schweitzer Music Award, 1979; Kennedy Center Honor, 1983; Founder of Dance in America Award, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts, National Medal of Arts, 1989; Dance Heritage Coalition, America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasure, 2000; Cuba, Fernando Ortiz International Award, 2005; National Black Theatre, Lifetime Achievement Award, 2005; Katherine Dunham National Memorial Tribute, 2006.

Star Rose

The year 1939 marked the beginning of Dunham's rise to stardom. Following the success of L'Ag'Ya, she and her company were invited to share a nightclub stage with Duke Ellington and his orchestra at Chicago's Sherman Hotel. Dunham's program, including both Caribbean and Afro-American dance routines with titles such as Barrelhouse, Floyd's Guitar's Blues, and Cakewalk, represented the first time black concert dancing had ever been performed in a nightclub setting. Shortly thereafter, the company was hired to perform at New York's Windsor Theater, for which Dunham created and starred in Tropics and Le Jazz Hot. Both shows were well received by the public and press, and Dunham was beginning to make a name for herself. The Dunham Dance Company also became the subject of a short film called Carnival of Rhythm, produced by Warner Brothers. Dunham's rising success led to an opportunity to work with world-renowned choreographer George Balanchine on the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. Dunham and her company had lead roles in this all-black production that toured nationally, closing on the West Coast in 1941.

That same year, Dunham was married to John Pratt, a stage and costume designer with whom she had been working for a number of years. Pratt, a white American of Canadian birth, was the chief designer for Dunham's shows throughout her career, and the couple remained happily married until Pratt's death in 1986. The couple also had a daughter, Marie Christine, adopted in 1951 at the age of four from a Catholic nursery in France.

The dance company remained on the West Coast after the closing of Cabin in the Sky and, in the early 1940s, appeared in two motion pictures, Stormy Weather and Star-Spangled Rhythm. The troupe toured the United States in 1943 and 1944 with Dunham's Tropical Revue and a year later opened Carib Song on Broadway. Henceforth based in New York City, Dunham soon opened the Dunham School of Dance and Theater in Manhattan. Within a few years the school was given a state charter and had more than 300 pupils.

In the late 1940s Dunham and her troupe made their first overseas tour, taking Dunham's Bal Negre and New Tropical Revue to Mexico, England, and Europe. The tour was a great success, and Dunham received particularly favorable reviews in Europe. She followed it up in 1950 with a trip to South America and, a year later, a second European program including stops in North Africa. In the meantime, Dunham had returned to Haiti in 1949 to buy a villa, located near the capital of Port au Prince, that had originally been owned by Pauline Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon I of France. Habitation LeClerc, as Dunham called the residence, would remain a place of retreat, study, and relaxation for the dancer. Less happily, 1949 was also the year in which Dunham's much loved brother, Albert Jr., died, followed by their father in the same year.

Rejected Social Injustice

Dunham built her reputation as a pioneering dancer and choreographer at a time when segregation was common in parts of the United States. Dunham did not ignore the separation of the races to advance her career. Instead, she refused to perform at venues that did not allow blacks and whites to mingle. She refused to sign a film studio contract that would force her to use only light colored dancers, according to Sally Sommers biography of Dunham on the PBS Web site. She balked at "colored only" signs she found backstage. To one all white audience in Louisville, Dunham reportedly delivered this announcement: "It makes me very happy to know that you have liked us … but tonight our hearts are very sad because this is a farewell to Louisville…. I have discovered that your management will not allow people like you to sit next to people like us. I hope that time and unhappiness of this war for tolerance and democracy … will change some of these things. Perhaps then we can return," according to the Missouri Historical Museum Web site. Dunham even used her art as an avenue for activism, creating Southland, a ballet that depicted a lynching, in 1951.

Further touring occupied Dunham's troupe in the 1950s, including several more European trips and a long excursion to Australia and the Far East in 1956 and 1957. Dunham disbanded her dance group in 1960, and made her last Broadway appearance in 1962. The following year, however, she shocked the opera world with her daring choreography and designs for Aida, performed by the New York Metropolitan Opera Company.

The work made Dunham the first African American to choreograph for the Met. Now in her fifties, Dunham began to think about retiring from the stage. Several years earlier she had written A Touch of Innocence, an account of the first 18 years of her life, but a retirement devoted to writing would never satisfy a woman who wasn't happy unless she were working physically and emotionally with the people around her. As her performing career tapered off, Dunham searched for a worthwhile alternative.

Brought Cultural Aid to Ghetto

In 1964 Dunham was invited by Southern Illinois University to serve as artist-in-residence for a term. She directed and choreographed a production of the opera Faust, made many good friends, and parted from the university with a feeling that it might figure in her long-range retirement goals. After helping to organize the First World Festival of Negro Arts in the African nation of Senegal, becoming good friends with the country's president, Leopold Senghor, Dunham became increasingly involved in the rising black civil rights movement in the United States. She met with Sargent Shriver, head of the VISTA jobs program, to propose helping the ghetto community of East St. Louis, Illinois, which she had visited while working for Southern Illinois University. Though nothing came of the proposal, Dunham resolved that she would do something herself to relieve the misery in East St. Louis.

She returned to Southern Illinois University as a visiting professor at the Edwardsville campus, not far from East St. Louis. With the support of the university, Dunham moved to East St. Louis and created the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) in 1967, offering local blacks an opportunity to learn about African cultural history as well as to participate in its living arts. Dunham's school was no elitist enclave; she actively sought out the toughest gang members and militant black activists for enrollment at PATC, and her actions often involved personal danger and numerous run-ins with the local police. East St. Louis was a violent city in the revolutionary climate of the late 1960s, but Dunham went about her business with a calm courage that impressed all who met her.

Through PATC, Dunham hoped to break the cycle of black ghetto life, offering students a range of courses in dance, theater, and African arts, while also stressing an understanding of African-American history and the need to reverse the decay of inner-city life. As Dunham had learned in Haiti 30 years before, African arts become meaningful only in the context of an Afro-centered culture: "I was trying to steer them into something more constructive than genocide," Dunham stressed in Jeannine Dominy's Katherine Dunham. "Everyone needs, if not a culture hero, a culturally heroic society." In addition to the activities at the PATC, Dunham added the Dunham Dynamic Museum, the Institute for Intercultural Communication, and the Katherine Dunham Museum's Children's Workshop in East St. Louis. The institutions continue to develop training and cultural programming there with help from the "Save America's Treasures" project. Dunham called the East St. Louis ghetto her home from 1969 until she moved to an assisted living facility in New York City in 1999.

Remained a Vibrant Spirit

As long as her health allowed, Dunham maintained her activism at PATC. Haiti occupied Dunham's her work there. The increasingly desperate condition of the Haitian people prompted Dunham to turn Habitation LeClerc into a kind of unlicensed medical center, bringing basic health care to some of the poorest people on earth; and in response to the plight of thousands of Haitian refugees refused entry into the United States in the early 1990s, Dunham began a hunger strike by which she hoped to pressure the U.S. government into a more humane stand on the issue. "This isn't just about Haiti," Dunham maintained in People. "It's about America. This country doesn't feel that Haitians are human. And America treats East St. Louis the way it does Haitians." Dunham's hunger strike received national attention and brought to her bedside such figures as activist Rev. Jesse Jackson; entertainer, author, and health and fitness proponent Dick Gregory; and the then-deposed Haitian president, J. Bertrand Aristide. It did not, however, change the U.S. government's position on the Haitian refugees, and, at the urging of President Aristide, who convinced her she was too valuable an ally of Haitian democracy to be allowed to die, Dunham gave up her fast in its forty-seventh day, agreeing to work along with Aristide to restore his progressive government.

Even in her last months, Dunham remained active. She participated in filming for Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball television special, in which Dunham was honored, and appeared at La Boule Blanche to celebrate the publication of Kaiso!, an anthology of writings by and about her. These last appearances witnessed Dunham's vibrancy. Her spark, even in her last years, revealed her rare drive, which brought her some of the world's most prestigious awards during her lifetime and nearly 50 honorary doctoral degrees. Among them are the Albert Schweitzer Music Award, presented in 1979, and the Kennedy Center Honor, which she received in 1983; the National Medal of Arts, which she accepted in 1989; and the honor of being named among America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures by the National Dance Coalition in 2000.

Dunham died in her sleep at age 96 on May 21, 2006. Her passing sparked a flurry of activity and planning for her legacy. Tributes to her were held in Detroit, Michigan, East St. Louis, Missouri, and Washington, D.C. In Detroit the Dunham Legacy Project hoped to preserve and perpetuate her teachings through the development of a school. East St. Louis named Dunham its "empress" and named a performing arts center in her honor. The Missouri Historical Society held a vast collection of items from Dunham's career. The Library of Congress received a grant to support the Katherine Dunham Legacy Project, which has grown to become the most comprehensive repository of information about Dunham's multi-faceted career and artifacts from her dance productions and travels. Yet it is through performances that dance lives on. In 1990, Dunham and her colleagues began a comprehensive documentation of the Dunham Technique, Dunham's pioneering dance innovation, so that her legacy would be more formally preserved. The Library of Congress now holds complete documentation of the Dunham Technique. Dunham's spirit will live on through the instruction of the Dunham Technique to new students, perpetuating her vital contribution to modern dance.

Selected works

Nonfiction

Katherine Dunham's Journey to Accompong, originally published in 1946, Greenwood, 1971.
The Dances of Haiti, originally published in 1947, University of California Center for Afro-American Studies, 1983.
A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood, originally published in 1959, Books for Libraries, 1980.
Island Possessed, Doubleday, 1969.

Choreography

L'Ag'Ya, 1938.
Barrelhouse, 1939.
Le Jazz Hot, 1940.
Tropics, 1940.
(With George Balanchine) Cabin in the Sky, 1940.
Tropical Revue, 1943.
Carib Song, 1945.
Bal Negre, 1946.
New Tropical Revue, 1946.
Bamboche, 1962.
Aida, 1963.

Films

Carnival of Rhythm, 1939.
Star-Spangled Rhythm, 1942.
Casbah, 1948.
Mambo, 1954.

Sources

Books

Aschenbrenner, Joyce, Katherine Dunham, Congress on Research in Dance, 1981.

Beckford, Ruth, Katherine Dunham: A Biography, Dekker, 1979.

Clark, Veve A. and Sara E. Johnson, eds., Kaiso!: An Anthology of Writings by and about Katherine Dunham, University of Wisconsin, 2006.

Dominy, Jeannine, Katherine Dunham, Black Americans of Achievement Series, Chelsea House, 1992.

Dunham, Katherine, A Touch of Innocence, Books for Libraries, 1980.

Periodicals

Black Issues Book Review, September-October 2006, p. 46.

Connoisseur, December 1987.

Michigan Chronicle, July 26-August 1, 2006, p. A3.

New York Times, May 23, 2006, p. B7.

People, March 30, 1992.

On-line

"Collecting a Career: The Katherine Dunham Legacy Project," Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cocoon/ihas/html/dunham/dunham-career.html (February 5, 2007).

"Conserving the Katherine Dunham Collection," Missouri Historical Society, www.mhsvoices.org/dept2.php (February 5, 2007).

"Free to Dance: Biographies: Katherine Dunham," PBS, www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/biographies/dunham.html (February 5, 2007).

"Katherine Dunham's Living Legacy," Missouri Historical Museum, www.mohistory.org/content/KatherineDunham (February 5, 2007).

"Timeline: Katherine Dunham's Life and Career," Library of Congress, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cocoon/ihas/html/dunham/dunham-timeline.html (February 5, 2007).

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Dunham, Katherine 1910(?)–

Katherine Dunham 1910(?)

Dancer, anthropologist, social worker, activist, author

At a Glance

Combined Interest in Anthropology and Dance

Attained Stardom Through Dance

Expanded Role as Social Worker and Activist

Selected writings

Selected choreography

Sources

Katherine Dunhams long and remarkable life has spanned the fields of anthropology, dance, theater, and inner-city social work. As an anthropologist, Dunham studied and lived among the peoples of Haiti and other Caribbean islands; as a dancer and choreographer she combined primitive Caribbean dances with traditional ballet, African ritual, and black American rhythms to create an entirely new dance form called the Dunham Technique; and as founder of the Performing Arts Training Center in the East St. Louis ghetto she has taught a new generation of black youth to take pride in its African cultural heritage. Along the way, Dunham found time to mount numerous successful Broadway revues, tour 57 countries on 6 continents, and choreograph a half dozen major motion pictures. In the early 1990s the vigorous Dunham made headlines around the world with a hunger strike in support of refugees from her beloved Haiti.

Katherine Mary Dunham, the second child of Albert Millard and Fanny June Dunham, was born in Chicago on June 22, probably in the year 1910. As a young man Albert Dunham moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to Chicago to work as a tailor and drycleaner while also pursuing a career as a jazz guitarist. Performing one night at a party in the home of wealthy white socialites, Dunham met Fanny Taylor, a divorced woman of French-Canadian and Indian blood, twenty years his senior and already a grandmother of five. Despite the unlikeliness of their union, Albert Dunham wooed and married Fanny Taylor around 1905. The couple moved to suburban Glen Ellyn a few years later to escape the constant harassment caused by their mixed-race marriage, and it was in Glen Ellyn that Katherine Dunham spent the first few years of her life. Her mother was the assistant principal at one of the larger Chicago high schools, and, for a while, the Dunham family was prosperous and happy.

Katherine was only four years old at the time of her mothers death, and she and her brother, Albert Jr., were sent to live with their fathers sister on the South Side of Chicago. It was in the household of her Aunt Lulu that Katherine Dunham was first exposed to the joys of music and dance, as the Dunham side of her family was crowded with performers of every kind. When Katherines father married a schoolteacher from Iowa, he reunited his family in the Illinois town of Joliet, about 70 miles from Chicago. There he opened a drycleaning business that met with little success, further embittering him, since he had received

At a Glance

Born Katherine Mary Dunham on June 22, c. 1910, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Albert Millard and Fanny June Taylor Dunham; married Jordis McCoo (a dancer), c. 1931 (divorced); married John Pratt (a set and costume designer), 1941 (died, 1986); children: Marie Christine (adopted). Education: Bachelors degree in anthropology, University of Chicago, 1936; studied with Melville Herskovits, head of Northwestern Universitys African studies program, 1935; field study in Caribbean through Rosenwald Fellowship, 1935-36; studied dance in Caribbean and with Ludmila Speranzeva in United States. Religion: Vaudun (Haitian voodoo).

Dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, social worker, activist, and author. Formed Ballets Negre, 1931; appeared at Beaux Arts Ball, Chicago, 1931; performed at Chicago Worlds Fair, 1934; lived and studied in Caribbean, 1935-36; formed Dunham Dance Company, 1939; choreographed with George Balanchine and appeared on Broadway in Cabin in the Sky, 1940-41; appeared in Star Spangled Rhythm, Paramount Pictures, 1942, and in Stormy Weather, Twentieth Century Fox, 1943; opened Katherine Dunham School of Dance, New York, 1945; toured Mexico and Europe, 1946-49, and South America, 1950; choreographed Aida for Metropolitan Opera Company, New York, 1963; artist-inresidence, Southern Illinois University, 1964; helped organize First World Festival of Negro Arts, Senegal, 1965; founder and director of Performing Arts Training Center (PATC), East St. Louis, IL, 1967.

Selected awards: Rosenwald Foundation travel grant, 1935; Rockefeller Foundation grant, c. 1935; Albert Schweitzer Music Award, 1979; Kennedy Center Honor, 1983.

Addresses: Office Performing Arts Training Center, 10th St., East St. Louis, IL 62201.

nothing from his first wifes large estate and keenly felt the loss of social status he suffered with her death. His personal frustrations led to frequent quarrels with his second wife and children that became increasingly violent over the years until Albert Jr., still a teenager, was forced to leave home. The senior Dunham also displayed an unhealthy sexual interest in his growing daughter, and in her autobiography, A Touch of Innocence, Katherine Dunham candidly described their relations: the wanting her to sit close to him in the truck or kiss him goodbye, or the touch and fondling that made everything about her life seem smudgy and unclean.

Combined Interest in Anthropology and Dance

With the help of her brother, who was then attending the University of Chicago on scholarship, Katherine gradually freed herself of her fathers influence. She got a job in the Chicago Public Library system, continued the dance classes she had been taking for years, and at the age of 18 joined Albert Jr. at the University of Chicago. There she studied anthropology while also beginning to teach dance, renting and living in a tiny studio near the Universitys South Side campus. Among the artists Katherine met at the University of Chicago were Ruth Page, later a noted choreographer; Mark Turbyfill, ballet dancer and choreographer; and Langston Hughes, the famed poet. The university atmosphere challenged Dunham to reconcile her scholarly interest in anthropology with her love of dance, and she responded by writing a bachelors dissertation on the use of dance in primitive ritual. At the same time, Dunham teamed up with Page and Turbyfill to form what has been called the first black concert dance group, the Ballets Negre, which made its debut in 1931 at Chicagos annual Beaux Arts Ball. A few years later Dunham formed her own company, the Negro Dance Group, and appeared with the Chicago Symphony and at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1934.

In 1935 Dunham received a Rosenwald Foundation grant to study the dances of the Caribbean Islands, where she spent 18 months, mainly in Haiti and Jamaica. Dunhams experiences in the Caribbean were of fundamental importance to the rest of her careerliving and dancing with the peasants of Haiti strengthened her appreciation for African-based forms of movement and gave her an entirely new, African perspective from which to view American art and society. She became an initiate of the voodoo religion and later wrote three books based on her experiences in the Caribbean: Journey to Accompong was published in 1946, followed a year later by The Dances of Haiti, and, in 1969, Island Possessed.

Attained Stardom Through Dance

Upon returning to the University of Chicago, Dunham continued her work in anthropology but soon realized that her future lay in the area of dance performance. She worked briefly for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) researching urban religious cults before launching her dance career in 1938 with a ballet mounted for the Federal Works Theater Project. LAgYa based on a fighting dance native to the island of Martiniquewas written, choreographed, and directed by Dunham and featured the members of her own newly-formed Dunham Dance Company wearing authentic costumes she had brought from the Caribbean.

The year 1939 marked the beginning of Dunhams rise to stardom. Following the success of LAgYa, she and her company were invited to share a nightclub stage with Duke Ellington and his orchestra at Chicagos Sherman Hotel. Dunhams program, including both Caribbean and Afro-American dance routines with titles such as Barrelhouse, Floyds Guitars Blues, and Cakewalk, represented the first time black concert dancing had ever been performed in a nightclub setting. Shortly thereafter, the company was hired to perform at New Yorks Windsor Theater, for which Dunham created and starred in Tropics and Le Jazz Hot. Both shows were well received by the public and press, and Dunham was beginning to make a name for herself. The Dunham Dance Company also became the subject of a short film called Carnival of Rhythm, produced by Warner Brothers. Dunhams rising success led to an opportunity to work with world-renowned choreographer George Balanchine on the Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky. Dunham and her company had lead roles in this all-black production that toured nationally, closing on the West Coast in 1941.

That same year, Dunham was married to John Pratt, a stage and costume designer with whom she had been working for a number of years. Pratt, a white American of Canadian birth, was the chief designer for Dunhams shows throughout her career, and the couple remained happily married until Pratts death in 1986. The couple also had a daughter, Marie Christine, adopted in 1951 at the age of four from a Catholic nursery in France.

The dance company remained on the West Coast after the closing of Cabin in the Sky and, in the early 1940s, appeared in two motion pictures, Stormy Weather and Star-Spangled Rhythm. The troupe toured the United States in 1943 and 1944 with Dunhams Tropical Revue and a year later opened Carib Song on Broadway. Henceforth based in New York City, Dunham soon opened the Dunham School of Dance and Theater in Manhattan. Within a few short years the school was given a state charter and had more than 300 pupils

In the late 1940s Dunham and her troupe made their first overseas tour, taking Dunhams Bal Negre and New Tropical Revue to Mexico, England, and Europe. The tour was a great success, and Dunham received particularly favorable reviews in Europe. She followed it up in 1950 with a trip to South America and, a year later, a second European program including stops in North Africa. In the meantime, Dunham had returned to Haiti in 1949 to buy a villa, located near the capital of Port au Prince, that had originally been owned by Pauline Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon I of France. Habitation LeClerc, as Dunham called the residence, would remain a place of retreat, study, and relaxation for the dancer. Less happily, 1949 was also the year in which Dunhams much loved brother, Albert Jr., died, followed by their father in the same year.

Expanded Role as Social Worker and Activist

Further touring occupied Dunhams troupe in the 1950s, including several more European trips and a long excursion to Australia and the Far East in 1956 and 1957. Dunham choreographed her last Broadway show in 1962, but the following year she shocked the opera world with her daring choreography and designs for Aida, performed by the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. Now in her fifties, Dunham began to think about retiring from the stage. Several years earlier she had written A Touch of Innocence, an account of the first 18 years of her life, but a retirement devoted to writing would never satisfy a woman who wasnt happy unless she were working physically and emotionally with the people around her. As her performing career tapered off, Dunham searched for a worthwhile alternative.

In 1964 Dunham was invited by Southern Illinois University to serve as artist-in-residence for a term. She directed and choreographed a production of the opera Faust, made many good friends, and parted from the university with a feeling that it might figure in her long range retirement goals. After helping to organize the First World Festival of Negro Arts in the African nation of Senegal, becoming good friends with the countrys president, Leopold Senghor, Dunham became increasingly involved in the rising black civil rights movement in the United States. She met with Sargent Shriver, head of the VISTA jobs program, to propose helping the ghetto community of East St. Louis, Illinois, which she had visited while working for Southern Illinois University. Though nothing came of the proposal, Dunham resolved that she would do something herself to relieve the misery in East St. Louis.

She returned to Southern Illinois University as a visiting professor at the Edwardsville campus, not far from East St. Louis. With the support of the university, Dunham moved to East St. Louis and created the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) in 1967, offering local blacks an opportunity to learn about African cultural history as well as to participate in its living arts. Dunhams school was no elitist enclave; she actively sought out the toughest gang members and militant black activists for enrollment at PATC, and her actions often involved personal danger and numerous run-ins with the local police. East St. Louis was a violent city in the revolutionary climate of the late 1960s, but Dunham went about her business with a calm courage that impressed all who met her.

Through PATC, Dunham hoped to break the cycle of black ghetto life, offering students a range of courses in dance, theater, and African arts, while also stressing an understanding of African-American history and the need to reverse the decay of inner-city life. As Dunham had learned in Haiti 30 years before, African arts become meaningful only in the context of an Afro-centered culture: I was trying to steer them into something more constructive than genocide, Dunham stressed in Jeannine Dominys Katherine Dunham. Everyone needs, if not a culture hero, a culturally heroic society. PATC has continued its mission, and Dunham still calls the East St. Louis ghetto her home.

Dunham has received many awards and honorary degrees in her life. Most important of these are probably the Albert Schweitzer Music Award, presented in 1979, and the Kennedy Center Honor, which she received in 1983. The Haitian government, however, has also bestowed a number of its highest honors on Dunham for her celebration of the islands cultural riches, and it is Haiti that occupies what time Dunham can spare from her work at PATC. The increasingly desperate condition of the Haitian people prompted Dunham to turn Habitation LeClerc into a kind of unlicensed medical center, bringing basic health care to some of the poorest people on earth; and in response to the plight of thousands of Haitian refugees refused entry into the United States in the early 1990s, Dunham began a hunger strike by which she hoped to pressure the U.S. government into a more humane stand on the issue. This isnt just about Haiti, Dunham maintained in People. Its about America. This country doesnt feel that Haitians are human. And America treats East St. Louis the way it does Haitians.

Dunhams hunger strike received national attention and brought to her bedside such figures as activist Rev. Jesse Jackson; entertainer, author, and health and fitness proponent Dick Gregory; and the recently deposed Haitian president, J. Bertrand Aristide. It did not, however, change the U.S. governments position on the Haitian refugees, and, at the urging of president Aristide, who convinced her she was too valuable an ally of Haitian democracy to be allowed to die, Dunham gave up her fast in its forty-seventh day, agreeing to work along with Aristide to restore his progressive government.

Selected writings

Katherine Dunhams Journey to Accompong, originally published in 1946, Greenwood, 1971.

The Dances of Haiti, originally published in 1947, University of California Center for Afro-American Studies, 1983.

A Touch of Innocence, originally published in 1959, Books for Libraries, 1980.

Island Possessed, Doubleday, 1969.

Selected choreography

LAgYa, 1938.

Barrelhouse, 1939.

Le Jazz Hot, 1940.

Tropics, 1940.

(With George Balanchine) Cabin in the Sky, 1940.

Star Spangled Rhythm (film), 1942.

Stormy Weather (film), 1943.

Tropical Revue, 1943.

Carib Song, 1945.

Bal Negre, 1946.

New Tropical Revue, 1946.

Bamboche, 1962.

Aida, 1963.

Sources

Books

Aschenbrenner, Joyce, Katherine Dunham, Congress on Research in Dance, 1981.

Beckford, Ruth, Katherine Dunham: A Biography, Dekker, 1979.

Dominy, Jeannine, Katherine Dunham, Black Americans of Achievement Series, Chelsea House, 1992.

Dunham, Katherine, A Touch of Innocence, Books for Libraries, 1980.

Periodicals

Connoisseur, December 1987.

People, March 30, 1992.

Jonathan Martin

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Martin, Jonathan. "Dunham, Katherine 1910(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1993. Encyclopedia.com. 27 Aug. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Martin, Jonathan. "Dunham, Katherine 1910(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1993. Encyclopedia.com. (August 27, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870600029.html

Martin, Jonathan. "Dunham, Katherine 1910(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1993. Retrieved August 27, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2870600029.html

Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham

As a dancer and choreographer, Katherine Dunham (born 1910) wowed audiences in the 1930s and 1940s when she combined classical ballet with African rhythms to create an exciting new dance style.

Dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist Katherine Dunham was born on June 22, 1910, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a small suburb of Chicago, to Fanny June (Guillaume) and Albert Millard Dunham. She was their second and last child together. Her brother, Albert Dunham Jr., was almost four years old when she was born. She adored him and thought of him as her protector. Their mother, who was French Canadian and Indian, was 20 years older than their African-American father.

Fanny Dunham had been married once before, to a man whose last name was Taylor. Their marriage ended in divorce and they had three children together: Louise and Fanny June (Taylor) Weir, who had families of their own by the time Dunham was born, and a son, Henry, who was mentally disabled. All of Fanny Dunham's children and grandchildren lived with her and her second husband under one roof in Glen Ellyn, making their house very crowded.

Mother Died

When Dunham was three years old, her mother died after a lengthy illness. She had owned property in Chicago, but it was sold to pay off her grown children's debts and her doctor bills. Albert Dunham, who had been working as a tailor, could no longer afford to keep his house in the mostly-white suburb of Glen Ellyn and was forced to sell it. This created a rift between him and his wife's grown children that would last for years.

Dunham and her brother, Albert Jr., went to live with their father's sister, Lulu Dunham, in a tenement slum in Chicago, while their father tried to make a better living as a traveling salesman. Lulu Dunham worked as a beautician and sometimes her relatives would baby-sit Katherine while Albert Jr. was in school.

Introduced to Theater

One of those baby-sitters, Clara Dunham, had come to Chicago with her daughter, Irene, hoping to break into show business. They and other amateur performers began rehearsing a musical/theatrical program in the basement of their apartment building, and Dunham would watch. Although the program wasn't a success, it provided Dunham with her first taste of show business.

Dunham and her brother were very fond of their Aunt Lulu. However, because she was experiencing financial difficulties, a judge granted temporary custody of the children to their half-sister Fanny June Weir, and ordered that the children be returned to their father as soon as he could prove that he could take care of them.

Home Was Dismal

When Dunham was about five years old, her father married an Iowa schoolteacher named Annette Poindexter. They moved to Chicago and were granted custody of the children, and Dunham grew to love her step-mother. Her father bought a dry cleaning business in Chicago and all four members of the family worked there, as they lived in a few rooms in back of the business.

Family problems emerged when Albert Sr. began to physically abuse his wife and children and became increasingly violent. Consequently, Dunham longed to get away from him.

In high school, Dunham excelled in athletics. She also took dancing lessons and joined an after-school club that put on dance recitals. However, her father began demanding that she spend more time working at the dry cleaners, leaving her very little time for her extra-curricular activities.

Albert Jr., who was valedictorian of his senior class, received a scholarship and went away to college, against the wishes of his father. A short time later, Annette Dunham left her abusive husband and went to live in another part of the city. Dunham, who was still in high school, went with her. However, she was forced to continue working for her father's business, in order to help support her step-mother.

Became Scholar

Dunham began attending junior college at the age of 17. During her second and final year there, her brother convinced her to take a Civil Service exam. If she passed, he said, she could become a librarian for the city. She passed the exam, graduated from junior college and began working at the Hamilton Park Branch Library, which was in a white, middle-class, suburban district of the city. The other librarians refused to eat lunch with her because she was black. However, she was not aware of the discrimination at first, because she was just glad to be free of her father.

Following in her brother's footsteps, Dunham enrolled in the University of Chicago, where she earned a master's degree and Ph.D. in anthropology. She also took dance lessons and participated in theater productions there. To help pay for her education, she opened a dance school in 1930.

Researched Dances

In 1935, Dunham received a fellowship to conduct anthropological field research. She used the grant to study African-based dances in the Caribbean. She knew that each Caribbean island had its own unique form of dance. However, all of the dances had a common denominator: They all had been influenced in some way by the African slaves who had been brought there by various colonial overseers.

Dunham wanted to discover exactly what that common denominator was and which dance moves had come from Africa. She spent 18 months in the Caribbean, documenting its various dances.

Found Answer

She found that of all the Caribbean islands, the purest forms of African dance were in Haiti. She theorized that this was because Haiti had won its independence as a nation long before any other country had freed its African slaves. "Haitians ground their hips, circled their haunches, executed mesmerizing pelvic movements, and shrugged a ritual called 'zepaules, accenting their shoulders. It was all fundamental African technique, identical to what is done in, say, Dakar, and on which variations persist in African-American communities everywhere," wrote Paula Durbin in an article about Dunham that appeared in the January/February 1996 issue of Americas magazine.

Dunham fell in love with Haiti and its people, and later bought a home and opened a dance school and medical clinic on the island. She chronicled her work in the Caribbean in her book, Journey to Accompong, and wrote about her experiences in Haiti in her book, Island Possessed.

Created New Style

When Dunham returned to the United States, she combined the ethnic dances she had learned in the Caribbean with classical ballet and theatrical effects. The result was an entirely new art form, called the "Dunham technique." It has also been referred to as "Afro-Caribbean dance."

In 1940, she formed The Dunham Dance Company, an all-black dance troupe, to perform her technique. The company gave its first show in New York City and performed a revue called "Tropics and le Jazz Hot." Audiences in the United States had never seen anything like it. As Durbin wrote in the Americas article, "Everything moved— shoulders twitched, torsos arched, hips popped—and Martha Graham proclaimed Dunham 'the high priestess of the pelvic girdle.'" Graham is considered to be the founder of modern dance.

Fought Segregation

Dunham and her company toured North and South America in the 1940s and 1950s, fighting segregation along the way. In 1952, the management of a hotel in Brazil refused to let Dunham join her husband, John Pratt, in his hotel suite because she was black and he was white. Dunham, who had been married to Pratt since 1940, filed a lawsuit against the hotel, and as a result, the Brazilian legislature quickly passed a bill outlawing discrimination in public places. In addition to touring with her company, which disbanded in 1957, Dunham operated a dance school in New York from 1944 through 1954. She also choreographed many ballets, stage shows and films, including the movies, "Stormy Weather" and "Pardon My Sarong." During this same period, she and her husband adopted their daughter, Marie Christine.

Opened Illinois School

In the 1960s, Dunham visited East St. Louis, Illinois, a very poor African-American community in the southern part of the state. She wanted to do something to help the children there and decided to open a school. In 1967 she opened the Katherine Dunham Centers for the Arts and Humanities. At the school, disadvantaged children can learn classical ballet, martial arts, the Dunham technique, foreign languages and, most importantly, self-discipline. The campus also includes the Dunham Museum, which houses costumes and other artifacts, and the Institute for Intercultural Communication.

Held Hunger Strike

In 1992 Dunham went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest the exclusionary U.S. policy toward Haitian refugees. Due to political unrest in their homeland, thousands of Haitians fled their country for the United States in the early 1990s. In 1991 and 1992, the U.S. Coast Guard intercepted some 35,000 Haitian refugees as they tried to enter the United States. Most of them were returned to Haiti.

Dunham has diabetes and arthritis and uses a wheelchair. She still lives and teaches in East St. Louis, Illinois, and has begun work on another autobiography.

Further Reading

Ben-Itzak, Paul, "Dunham Legacy Stands At Risk," in Dance Magazine, January 1995, pp. 42, 44.

Durbin, Paula, "The First Lady of Caribbean Cadences," in Americas, 1996, pp. 36-41.

Greene, Carol, Katherine Dunham: Black Dancer, Childrens Press, Inc., 1992. □

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Dunham, Katherine

Katherine Dunham (dŭn´əm), 1909?–2006, American dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist, b. Chicago. She studied anthropology at the Univ. of Chicago, where she received a B.A. and Ph.D. and began her research into dances of the Caribbean. In addition to teaching anthropology, from the late 1930s until the 1960s, she directed her own dance company, which toured the United States and worldwide. Her choreography combines Caribbean and African movements and rhythms with those of modern dance. In 1965, she accepted a position as adviser to the cultural ministry of Senegal. In 1967, she became director of the Performing Arts Training Center at the East St. Louis branch of Southern Illinois Univ., where she worked with inner-city youth groups.

Through her dance technique, which stressed the isolation of individual parts of the body, as well as her choreography, teaching, and appearances in different media, Dunham brought African and Caribbean dance to the attention of the public and exerted tremendous influence on the evolution of modern dance. She choreographed a number of dance revues including Bal Nègre (1946), Caribbean Rhapsody (1948), and Bamboche (1962). Dunham made her Broadway debut in the musical Cabin in the Sky (1940), choreographed and danced in several Hollywood musicals including Stormy Weather (1943), and also choreographed Aida (1963) at New York's Metropolitan Opera and The Magic of Katherine Dunham (1987) for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Among her books are Journey to Accompong (1946), Island Possessed (1969), and Dances of Haiti (1984).

See her memoir, A Touch of Innocence (1959); biography by R. Beckford (1979); V. A. Clark and S. E. Johnson, ed., Kaiso!: Writings by and about Katherine Dunham (2006).

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