Dunham, Katherine (1909—)

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Dunham, Katherine (1909—)

African-American choreographer, anthropologist, and social activist who first introduced Afro-Caribbean dance to American audiences and created the first African-American dance troupe in the U.S. Name variations: (pseudonym) Kaye Dunn. Born Katherine Dunham on June 22, 1909, in Glen Ellyn, Illinois; daughter of Albert Millard Dunham and Fanny June (Taylor) Dunham; had one older brother, Albert, Jr., who died in 1949; attended University of Chicago and received a degree in social anthropology in 1936; married Jordis McCoo, in 1931 (divorced 1939); married Thomas Pratt, in 1939 (died 1986); children: one adopted daughter, Marie-Christine.

Co-founded the Ballet Negre in Chicago (1929) and, later, the Negro Dance Group; traveled to Trinidad, Jamaica, and Haiti (1935–36) and adapted Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms to her own ballets; created the Katherine Dunham Dance Company (1938), which appeared on stage and film to great acclaim (1940s–50s); established the Katherine Dunham Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis, Illinois, for urban African-American youth (1967); active in civil-rights movement and social causes, staging a 47-day hunger strike in protest of U.S. treatment of Haitian refugees fleeing political and economic strife (1992).


(stage) Negro Rhapsody, L'Ag'YA, Tropics, Le Jazz Hot, Tropical Review, Carib Song, Windy City, Bal Negre, Caribbean Rhapsody, Los Indios, Shango, Bambouche, Aïda (for the Metropolitan Opera Company); (film) Carnival of Myth, Star Spangled Banner, Pardon My Sarong, Mumbo, Cakewalk, Green Mansions.

While those who knew her were alarmed, few were surprised when Katherine Dunham, on a chill afternoon in late January of 1992, announced her protest of the U.S. government's policy toward Haitian refugees by embarking on a hunger strike. For most of her 82 years, Dunham's passion for social justice had run high, particularly when it came to her beloved Haiti; and for the next 47 days, as Dunham refused to take anything but cranberry juice and tea, notables as diverse as film director Jonathan Demme and the Reverend Jesse Jackson came to the shabby, two-story house in East St. Louis, Illinois, to pay their respects to the woman whom choreographer Alvin Ailey once called "the mother of us all."

Born to a middle-class family in rural Glen Ellyn, Illinois, in 1909, Katherine Dunham had early on felt a strong attraction to music and rhythm, which would prove to be unlikely catalysts for her social crusading. In her fictionalized autobiography A Touch of Innocence, published in 1959, Dunham would remember her mother's harp and organ playing. Fanny Taylor Dunham , a French-Canadian who claimed a Native-American heritage, died when Katherine was only three; and, as Dunham recalled in the third person, "with her father alone, there was seldom music." Albert Dunham, a dry cleaner and dyer, moved his daughter and son Albert, Jr.—some years older than Katherine—to Joliet, Illinois, where they were left in the care of an aunt. From then on, the two children would see little of their father, who later remarried.

It was music that remained Katherine's chief joy in school, even when she caused a stir by refusing to sing an old Southern song taught to her class by a white music teacher, who particularly relished the lyric: "Came to a river and I couldn't get across/Jumped on a nigger 'cuz I thought he was a hoss." Letters from family friends, and personal visits to the school principal by her aunt and her father, led the school to quietly suggest the music teacher drop that particular ballad from the repertoire. By the time she was eight years old, Dunham had successfully organized a cabaret to raise money for her church, writing and performing most of the music and dances, and adding $32 to the church's coffers.

I used to want the words "She tried" on my tombstone. Now, I want "She did it."

—Katherine Dunham

Dunham's other great comfort was her brother Albert. The two grew close during those lonely times in Joliet, especially afternoons after school, when Albert would read to her from science-fiction magazines and tell her about his dreams of attending school in Chicago. When he finally left Joliet for the University of Chicago, Dunham followed him to the city as soon as she graduated from high school, finding work in department stores, attending ballet school, and plunging eagerly into Chicago's lively arts community of the mid-1920s. Albert founded the Cube Theater, an experimental venture that featured the work of African-American writers and performers. It was here that Dunham met playwright Langston Hughes, actor Canada Lee, composer W.C. Handy, and appeared on stage professionally for the first time, taking a dramatic role in The Man Who Died at Twelve O'-Clock. It was also at this time that she met poet, painter, and dancer Mark Turbyfill, who invited her to help him set up his Ballet Negre, modelled on Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. It would be the country's first completely African-American dance troupe, with Turbyfill rehearsing the dancers to Dunham's choreography. As she would find out throughout her professional life, money was a problem. The Ballet Negre gave only one public performance, at Chicago's Beaux Arts Theatre, before disbanding in 1931, after two years. Shortly afterward, Katherine married Jordis McCoo, whom she had met through her work at the Cube.

Although the success of the Ballet Negre had been less than spectacular, the idea of an allblack dance troupe intrigued Katherine Dunham. It wasn't long before her Negro Dance Group set up shop in an unheated loft, and Dunham began researching the roots of the urban dances upon which she based much of her choreography—the Lindy, the cake walk, the black bottom. With the advice and guidance of an anthropologist at the university, she was soon immersed in African dance traditions, which she incorporated into her own work. The Dance Group gave its first, scantily attended, performances in the early 1930s; and, in 1934, at the Chicago World's Fair, Dunham made her own professional debut dancing La Guiablesse (The She-Devil), a dance created by her friend Ruth Page , based on a folk tale from Martinique.

While the Negro Dance Group's future seemed as uncertain as that of the Ballet Negre, one audience member was impressed enough to contact Dunham with an invitation. Edith Rosenwald Stern happened to serve on the board of the Rosenwald Foundation, which provided grants for academic research. The board may not have been prepared for the type of proposal that Dunham gave them by stripping off her prim two-piece suit and performing an African war dance in her rehearsal tights. Nonetheless, the Foundation gave her a grant for research in social anthropology, and, in 1935, Dunham began a year-and-a-half project studying the local dance traditions of the Caribbean.

She traveled in Martinique, Trinidad, Jamaica, and, finally, Haiti, with whose people and culture she would form a deep and abiding relationship. Living in remote villages in Haiti's back-country, she found a rich source of material in the dances and ritual of voudun, into which she was initiated. She would later tell how she had lain on her side for three days as part of the initiation rites, her hair full of eggshells and feathers, and announced that she had taken the snake god Dumballa as her personal deity. In years to come, she would take care to sprinkle the stage with perfume before every performance to appease him. Her research, she said, was intended to find out "what we are really like, [instead of] what we have been made into by slavery and/or colonialism."

Based on her work in the Caribbean, Dunham received her bachelor's degree in social anthropology in 1936 from the University of Chicago and was offered a Rockefeller scholarship to allow her to work toward her master's degree. But by now she had decided to make dance her

career, though she continued to write scholarly articles under the name Kaye Dunn throughout the 1930s and 1940s. "You can learn more about people from their dances than from almost anything else about them," she said, and she set out to show the world what she had discovered.

Her dance group's New York debut came in March 1937, at a "Negro Dance Evening" organized by the YWHA in Manhattan. The next year, she staged her first full-scale choreographic work, L'Ag'YA, based on folklore from Martinique, and was named dance director for the WPA's Federal Dance Project in Chicago. By 1939, she was back in New York, choreographing Pins and Needles at the Labor Stage for the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union and presenting two more of her original works, Tropics and Le Jazz Hot. Before the year was out, she had divorced McCoo and married John Pratt, a white man who had joined her company as a costume and set designer two years earlier. The marriage, while troubled at times, would last until Pratt's death in 1986. The company, now called the Katherine Dunham Dancers, attracted attention from major supporters with their appearance in the 1940 Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky, in which they danced to George Balanchine's choreography. Co-starring with Ethel Waters , Dunham played the wily Georgia Brown. When Dunham's own Tropical Revue opened on Broadway in 1944, the box office was soon taking in $17,000 a week—a record for its time.

Over the next decade, the Dunham company gained an international reputation for presenting works of startling originality, establishing a fertile ground for the growth of what came to be regarded as "modern" dance—even though much of her work was based on material that was centuries old. She was, in fact, often accused of plagiarizing a cultural heritage for her own ends. In 1957, Richard Buckle, editor of the English magazine Ballet, called her Caribbean Rhapsody "a disconcerting mixture of revived folk dance and ritual," and said it was as if "Dunham had explored a whole culture and resuscitated a whole corpus of age-old, obsolescent tradition only to use them as sauce and stuffing to an ephemeral entertainment." But Dunham was not to be denied the same creative impulse that had inspired West Indian slaves to turn the staid, courtly dances of their French and British masters into a body of dance and movement full of color, rhythm and vitality. "I'd not consider myself too terribly talented," she rejoined, "if I only reproduced what I saw elsewhere." She was frequently charged, too, with ignoring other cultures' dance traditions by limiting herself strictly to Afro-Caribbean dance. But she told Dance in 1956, "I don't see any color in what we do. I see human emotions. It's only a fortunate accident that I've hit upon and used material chiefly of people with Negro background."

Even though she tried to use the troupe's multiethnic composition as an example of racial harmony, Katherine Dunham was continually confronted with racial prejudice during her company's touring life. The State Department routinely turned down her offers to form an American cultural program for overseas audiences, refusals she would later brand as racist; the troupe was often denied accommodation at major hotels, leading to successful lawsuits against two of them, in Chicago and Cincinnati; and she once told an all-white audience in Lexington, Kentucky, who had just warmly received the company's performance, that they would not be appearing there again because the theater's management refused "to let people like us sit next to people like you."

By the mid-1950s, strains began to pull the Katherine Dunham Dancers apart. Dunham had been touring nearly constantly at home and abroad, had battled discriminatory practices from Broadway to Hollywood (where she had been told that her troupe would never appear in films because there weren't enough "paleskinned" dancers in the company), struggled to keep the company financed and her school in New York open, all the while creating and mounting new productions. There were troubles in her personal life, too. Her beloved brother Albert had died in 1949 after a nervous breakdown, and her marriage to John Pratt had become troubled, leading Pratt to quit the company in the middle of an Asian tour. In 1957, after a performance in Japan, Dunham announced she was disbanding the troupe and retiring from public performance. After recuperating in Japan, Dunham returned to her beloved Haiti, where she had purchased a former plantation, Habitacion LeClerc. During the next several years, she established a medical clinic for poor Haitians and donated some of her land to the nation as a botanical garden, bird sanctuary, and an outdoor theater. In 1959, Haiti's then-president, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, made her a Commander and Grand Officer of his Legion Of Honor.

But dance remained her first love. Before long, she had established a studio at Habitacion LeClerc; and in 1962, she began to put the Katherine Dunham Dance Company back together, finally opening in New York with a new work, Bambouche, in October of 1962 and setting up a new dance studio on 42nd Street, where Eartha Kitt and even Marlon Brando came to learn her technique. The next year saw the premiere of her controversial choreography for the Metropolitan Opera's production of Aïda, sensual and opulent even by the Met's standards; and, in 1965, she presented an equally provocative staging of Faust at Southern Illinois University (SIU), setting Goethe's medieval story in World War II Germany.

While she was rehearsing Faust, Dunham happened to visit nearby East St. Louis, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. Shocked by the lack of proper health, educational, and housing resources in the primarily black city, not to mention a total lack of any cultural opportunities, she immediately wrote a proposal to provide such services, built around what she called a "cultural village." Although Buckminster Fuller designed and built one of the village's proposed domes, the project never advanced further.

Nonetheless, Dunham could not forget the poverty, hopelessness, and anger she had seen, even more so when they exploded into riots during the troubled summer of 1967. That year, as an artist in residence at SIU, she set up a cultural arts program at the university, which included three community centers and a small performing arts group, which she called the Performing Arts Training Center. The Center's first presentation—a staging of Langston Hughes' Dreams Deferred—was performed in parks and schools throughout East St. Louis, aspiring to build a sense of identity and community, and leading to further programs in the cultural arts. "If they didn't want to learn dance," Dunham recalled for an interviewer, "we taught them judo and karate and percussion."

The real test came the following year. In April of 1968, when news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reached East St. Louis, anger flared into violence, as it did in so many African-American communities across America. Dunham remained in the midst of it, managing to persuade some of East St. Louis' young people to vent their anger through the drumming she had learned 30 years earlier in Haiti. For 12-to-14 hours a day, for days on end, the drumbeats pounded throughout the city. Dunham was fearless in venturing out into the streets, and, while trying to prevent the innocent from being rounded up in random police raids and sent to jail, she was herself arrested and imprisoned until officials of SIU intervened for her release. She later persuaded the authorities to free many of those arrested, and even set up a program to transport young people in police cars and vans to classes and rehearsals at her Training Center.

"I've never known what it's like to believe a thing cannot be done," Dunham once said, and the years since 1968 in East St. Louis have borne that statement out. Dunham went on to create the Katherine Dunham Fund for Research and Development of Cultural Arts and counseled drug addicts, set up nutritional programs, and worked with senior citizens—just some of the activities that brought her the 1979 Albert Schweitzer Award "for a life dedicated to music and devoted to humanity."

Approaching her ninth decade of life, Katherine Dunham refused to rest on past accomplishments or give up her devotion to social justice. "I'd rather lose my body than my morality," she once said. The 1992 hunger strike in support of Haitian refugees was followed by her outspoken advocacy of the Reverend Bertrand Aristide's claim to Haiti's presidency—a position she has seen vindicated after her equally public support for the use of U.S. troops in Haiti to establish that claim.

Dunham then turned to fighting to save her own work. Her modest home in East St. Louis was badly in need of repair, with her personal archives, comprising 50 years' worth of work, threatened by dampness and leaks, to say nothing of the perilous state of the Dunham Center for the Performing Arts. Dunham told Dance in 1995 that the Center had received no funds from Southern Illinois University or anyone else for several years, and that she would be unable to support it with her own resources much longer. (SIU's Katherine Dunham Dancers merely used her name, with Dunham's permission, and was not under her direction or control.) In those later years, a reporter who visited Dunham, taking note of the wheelchair in which she was confined and looking over the photographs from her endangered collection, asked her when she stopped dancing. "Never," she retorted, then added sweetly, "because you dance inside yourself."


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

Ben-Itzak, Paul. "Dunham Legacy Stands at Risk," in Dance Magazine. Vol. 69, no. 1. January 1995.

Buckle, Richard. "Adventures of a Ballet Critic: Concerning the Dunham Dancers," in Ballet Magazine. Vol. 2. June–September 1958.

Campbell, Bebe Moore. "The 1990 Essence Awards," in Essence. Vol. 21, no. 6. October 1990.

Dunham, Katherine. A Touch of Innocence. NY: Harcourt Brace, 1959.

Glieck, Elizabeth. "Hunger Strike: Dance Legend Katherine Dunham Ends Her Fast for the People of Haiti," in People Weekly. Vol. 37, no. 12. March 30, 1992.

related media:

Dance in America: Divine Drumbeats, produced by WNET-TV, originally broadcast on PBS, April 1990.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York, New York