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).
Katherine Mary Dunham (June 22, 1909 – May 21, 2006) was an American dancer, choreographer, songwriter, author, educator and activist who was trained as an anthropologist. Dunham had one of the most successful dance careers in American and European theater of the 20th century and has been called the Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance,. During her heyday in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, she was renowned throughout Europe and Latin America as La Grande Katherine, and the Washington Post called her "Dance's Katherine the Great." For more than 30 years she maintained the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the only permanent, self-subsidized American black dance troupe at that time, and over her long career she choreographed more than 90 individual dances. Dunham was an innovator in African-American modern dance as well as a leader in the field of Dance Anthropology, or Ethno choreology (see also Dance Studies). In 1992, at the age of 82, Katherine Dunham went on a highly publicized 47-day hunger strike to protest what she condemned as the discriminatory U.S. foreign policy against Haitian boat-people. She died in her sleep in New York City on 21 May 2006.
Upon completing Joliet Junior College, she moved to Chicago to join her brother Albert who was attending the University of Chicago. Later she studied both dance and anthropology while an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Chicago during the 1930s. During this period she became interested in researching the origins of such popular dances as the cake-walk, the Lindy hop,and the black bottom. She showed great promise in her ethnographic studies of dance and studied under some of the great anthropologists of the day, Robert Redfield, (who introduced her to African dance traditions), A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Edward Sapir, and Bronislaw Malinowski.
While doing graduate work in 1935-1936, she was awarded Travel Fellowships from the Julius Rosenwald and Guggenheim Foundations to conduct ethnographic study of the dance forms of the Caribbean, especially as manifested in the Vodun of Haiti, a path also followed by fellow anthropology student, Zora Neale Hurston ; Professor Melville Herskovits of Northwestern University helped to provide the tutelage and preparation for her voyage. Dunham's ground-breaking "field work helped to develop a now recognized subdiscipline of anthropology and also led to Ms. Dunham's own understanding - both intellectual and kinesthetic - of the African roots of black dance in the Caribbean" and the USA. In 1939 she submitted her thesis, entitled "Dances of Haiti, Their Social Organization, Classification, Form and Function.
Her stay in the Caribbean began in Jamaica, where she went to live several months in the remote isolated Maroon village of Accompong, deep in the Cockpit Country, and she later wrote a book, "Journey to Accompong" describing those experiences. Then she traveled on to Martinique and Trinidad and Tobago for short stays (primarily to do an investigation of Shango, the African God who remained an important presence in West Indian heritage) before arriving in Haiti, where she remained for several months, the first of her many extended stays in that country throughout the rest of her life.
While in Haiti, she investigated Voodoo rituals and years later, after extensive studies and initiations, she became a mambo (priestess) in the Vaudon religion. She also became friends with, among others, Dumarsais Estimé, then a high level politician, who later became President of Haiti in 1949. Somewhat later, she assisted him, at considerable risk to her life, when he was persecuted for his progressive policies and sent in exile to Jamaica after a coup-d'état.
When she returned to Chicago in 1936 she was awarded her Bachelor's degree in Social Anthropology. As a result of her academic research "she acquired the title of 'dancing anthropologist' and actually founded the field of dance anthropology because of her intense study of African-influenced dance in the western hemisphere. This academic undertaking would also lead to the emergence and codification of the Dunham Technique, a dance technique utilizing African drums and rhythms as well as ballet and modern dance."
While working on her masters degree, she was told by her advisers that she had to choose between anthropology and dance. Much to their regret, although she was offered another grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, she decided to choose dance, left her graduate studies before finishing her doctorate, and departed for the bright lights of Broadway and Hollywood.
In 1949 she returned briefly to the USA where she temporarily suffered a nervous breakdown after the premature death of her brother Albert, who had been a promising philosophy professor at Howard University and a protegé of Alfred North Whitehead.
During this time, she developed a warm friendship with famous psychologist and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm, whom she had known in Europe.
Julie Belafonte, formerly a performer with the Katherine Dunham Company, met her husband, singer and later political activist Harry Belafonte, while working with the Company, and they both remained very close friends of Dunham.
"First Negro Dance Recital was presented by Hemsley Winfield and Edna Guy in New York, a dance composition "Negro Rhapsody" was presented at Beaux Arts Ball in Chicago by a group called Ballets Nègres. The group's teacher, choreographer and chief dancer was the young Katherine Dunham."
From 1933-36 she performed as a guest star for the Chicago Opera Company. Page wrote a scenario and choreographed La Guiablesse, based on a folk d the Negro Dance Group in Chicago in 1937. In March of that year she journeyed with her group to New York to take part in the Negro Dance Evening at the YMCA organized by Edna Guy.
and was dance director for the Chicago unit. She was the choreographer for the Chicago production of Run Lil Chillun, performed at the Goodman Theatre, and produced several other works of choreography including The Emperor Jones and Barrelhouse.
At this time she first became associated with designer John Pratt, who she later married,and produced the first version of her dance composition L'Ag Ya, based on her research in Martinique. "With startingly exotic sets and costumes created by her late husband, John Pratt, the company instantly made their mark on America."
In 1939 they went to New York where she was dance director of the Labor Stage of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union for the production of Pins and Needles.
That same year she and her troupe performed at the Windsor Theatre in Tropics and Le Hot Jazz, including her principal Haitian drummer, Papa Augustin. Initially scheduled for one show, it was so popular among audiences that they stayed on for 13 weeks.
This success led to the entire company being engaged in the Broadway production, Cabin in the Sky, staged by George Balanchine and starring Ethel Waters, a run that went on for 20 weeks in New York, with Dunham in the stunning role of Georgia Brown, before moving to the West Coast for extended performances there and then she performed in theaters and nightclubs in major cities throughout the USA between 1939-41.
Her performance in Cabin in the Sky soon "created a controversy that raged in the newspapers over whether the torrid, bare-midruffed and bare-torsoed dancers represented "art" or "sex" ... From there Hollywood opened up".
Another famous role as a seductress during this period was the 'Woman with a Cigar' from her solo role in the revue Shore Excursion. A New York Times critic wrote in 1940: "Her sense of rhythm, theater and costuming and her wonderful performers - as well as her choreography and dancing - put serious Negro music on the map once and for all. Another forties critic felt the show was so hot "There were times when I heard the scenery sizzle."
In 1941, the company stayed in Los Angeles where Dunham made her first performance in movies, starring in a short film named Carnival of Rhythm, the first Hollywood dance film in color.
Other movies she appeared in during this period included Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), the Abbott and Costello comedy Pardon My Sarong (1942), and the famous break-through Black musical, Stormy Weather (1943).
Later that year, they returned to New York and in September 1943, under the management of the renowned impresario Sol Hurok, her troupe opened for Tropical Review, which was an immediate and enormous success at the Martin Beck Theatre. At the time, it was rumored that Hurok had insured Katherine Dunham's legs for 1 million dollars (she later said it was a mere quarter million).
Commenting about it in the New York Times, renowned critic John Martin wrote that "throughout the evening Miss Dunham's chief business is to sizzle, she is one hundred percent seductress."
After their success of 156 performances in New York, they went on tour throughout the USA and Canada, but in Boston, the bastion of conservatism, her Revue was banned in 1944 after only one performance, although it was well received by the audience. A reviewer for the Boston Herald Tribune regarded Dunham as an 'unconventional star' because she did not usurp the limelight.
Dunham produced other works during this period, including Rara-Tonga, her famous Rites de Passage, and Plantation Dances.
Other big Broadway hits in 1945 were Carib Song and Windy City, and she later won acclaim for her balletic Choros.
In 1946 Dunham returned to Broadway for a revue named Bal Nègre, then in late 1947 she opened in Las Vegas, the first year that the city became a popular entertainment destination.
The next year, in 1947 she went to Mexico and her dance troupe's performance was so popular that they remained there for more than 2 months. This was the beginning of more than 20 years performing almost exclusively internationally throughout Europe, North Africa, South America, Australia and the Far East, during which she performed in 57 countries, and throughout this period she continued to develop dozens of new productions.
After Mexico, Dunham began touring in Europe, where she was an immediate sensation. She opened Caribbean Rhapsody first at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, then swept on to Theatre des Champs Elysées in Paris and took the city by storm and was treated as a member of the jet set and mixed with nobility and celebrities such as famous French actor Maurice Chevalier.
"It was the first time that Europe had seen black dance as an art form and also the first time that the special elements of American modern dance appeared outside America." "The tour was a grand success, and newspapers proclaimed that Katherine Dunham was sweeping Europe in a wave of popularity greater than that of Isadora Duncan thirty years earlier.
"The Dunham troupe, in the course of worldwide travels in the following decade, was to become the best-known American dance troupe in the world."
Despite these successes, the company frequently ran into periods of financial difficulties, as Dunham was required to support all of the 30-40 dancers and musicians.
In 1949, she made an appearance in the movie Casbah, and also that year appeared in the first ever hour-long American spectacular televised by NBC when television was first beginning to spread across the USA. This was followed by television spectaculars on BBC in London, Buenos Aires (where she was a house guest of Evita Peron), Toronto, Sydney, Mexico, and Germany.
Dunham and her dance troupe remained outside of the USA for most of the next 20 years with the exception of several short stays for some choreography work in several Hollywood movies, including Green Mansions and The Bible, and others in Europe and elsewhere, such as Botta e Riposta, but made no further TV appearances until long after she retired.
The last appearance of the Dunham Company (on Broadway) in New York was in 1962, in the production Bamboche!, which included a contingent from the Royal Troupe of Morocco.
After collaborating with symphony orchestras in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Dunham, with Aida in 1963, Katherine Dunham became the first African-American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Even in retirement Dunham continued her choreography, and one of her major works was directing Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha in 1972.
Famous choreographer Alvin Ailey later produced a tribute for her in 1987-8 with his American Dance Theatre at Carnegie Hall entitled The Magic of Katherine Dunham.
The program included courses in dance, drama, performing arts, applied skills, humanities, cultural studies and Caribbean research, and in 1947 it was expanded and granted a charter as the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts. The School was managed in Dunham's absence by one of her dancers, SYLLIVIA Fort, thrived for about 10 years and was considered one of the best learning centers of its type at the time. Schools inspired by it later opened in Stockholm, Paris and Rome by dancers trained by Ms. Dunham.
Her alumni included many future celebrities, such as Eartha Kitt, who, as a teenager, won a scholarship to her school and later became one of her dancers before moving on to a successful singing career. Others who attended her school included James Dean, Jose Ferrer, Jennifer Jones, Shelley Winters, Doris Duke and Warren Beatty. Marlon Brando frequently dropped in to play the bongo drums, and jazz musician Charles Mingus held regular jam sessions with the drummers. Known for her many innovations, she developed a dance pedagogy named the Dunham Technique which won international acclaim and is now taught as a modern dance style in dance schools, including at the Harkness Dance Center of the 92nd Street Y.
In 1965 Dunham dissolved her company when President Johnson nominated her to be technical cultural adviser, i.e. a sort of cultural ambassador, to the government of Senegal in West Africa, to help train the Senegalese National Ballet, and assist President Leopold Senghor in sponsoring the First Pan-African World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar from 1965-6.
Afterwards she established a second home there and occasionally returned to Senegal to scout for talented African musicians and dancers.
Throughout the time of her dance career, Dunham continued publishing articles in anthropology under the name of Kaye Dunn, and to give occasional lectures in anthropology, including at Yale University, and the Royal Anthropological Societies in London and Paris.
By 1957, Dunham was under severe personal strain that was affecting her health, and she decided to live for a year in relative isolation in Kyoto, Japan, where she worked on writing autobiographies of her youth.
The first work, entitled A Touch of Innocence, was published in 1958. A continuation based on her experiences in Haiti, Island Possessed, was published in 1969, and another written work, Kasamance, based on her African experiences, was published in 1974.
In 1964, she moved to settle in East St. Louis, where she was an artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. One of her fellow professors with whom she collaborated was renowned architect Buckminister Fuller, who has been called the "planet's friendly genius".
In 1967, Dunham opened the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) in East St. Louis, Illinois as an attempt to use the arts to combat poverty and urban unrest. It served as a catharsis after the 1968 riots, during which she encouraged gang members in the ghetto to vent their frustrations with drumming and dance.
The PATC drew on former members of Dunham's touring company as well as local residents for its teaching staff. While trying to help the young people in the community she was even jailed herself, making international headlines which quickly embarrassed local police officials to release her.
She also continued refining and teaching the Dunham Technique to transmit that knowledge to succeeding generations of dance students, and lecturing at annual Masters Seminars in St. Louis which attracted dance students from around the world every summer until her death.
She also established the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities and Children's Workshop in East St. Louis to preserve Haitian and African instruments and artifacts from her own personal collection.
In 1976 she was guest Artist-in-Resident/Lecturer for Afro-American Studies at University of California, Berkeley.
In Hollywood, she refused to sign a lucrative studio contract when the producer said she would have to replace some of her darker-skinned company members. She and her company frequently had difficulties finding adequate accommodations while on tour because in many regions of the USA blacks were not allowed to stay at hotels.
While in Brazil Dunham was refused a room at the finest hotel in São Paulo, the Hotel Esplanada, due to her race. She made sure the incident was publicized and in response the Afonso Arinos law was passed in 1951 forbidding racial discrimination in public places.(Degler)
While Dunham was recognized as 'unofficially' representing American cultural life in her foreign tours, she was given very little assistance of any kind by the US State Department.
Despite strong opposition from the State Dept., the Katherine Dunham Company performed Southland, a ballet whose theme dramatizing lynching of blacks in the racist American South, in Santiago, Chile. As a result, she later experienced some diplomatic 'difficulties' on her tours.
Consequently, while the State Dept. regularly subsidized other less well known groups, it consistently refused to support her company (even when it was entertaining US Army troops), although at the same time it did not hesitate to take credit for them as 'unofficial artistic and cultural representatives.' In attempts to downplay their popularity, the State Dept. repeatedly scheduled performances of their cultural representatives in conflict with those of the Dunham Company, invited ambassadors and other foreign officials to these performances, despite the frequent protests of officials and recommendations that Dunham's Company be supported.
This initiative drew international publicity to the plight and US discrimination against Haitian boat-people, and she only ended her fast after exiled Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Jesse Jackson came to personally request that she stop risking her life for this cause. After it ended, ABC News nominated her as Person of the Week.
In recognition of her stance, President Aristide later awarded her a medal of Haiti's highest honor, and called her the "Spiritual Mother of Haiti."
After she became famous, Dunham and her husband John Pratt regularly returned to visit Haiti for extended stays, frequently bringing members of her dance company with them to recuperate, and to work on developing new dance productions.
While there in 1949, President Estimé gave her an award of Chevalier in the Haitian Legion of Honor.
On one of these visits during the late 1940s she purchased a large property of more than 7 hectares in the Carrefours suburban area of Port-au-Prince which was initially used as a retreat area. This mini-tropical rain forest reputedly formerly belonged to General Emmanuel Leclerc - the brother-in-law of Napoleon Bonaparte who was married to Napoleon's notorious nymphomanic sister Pauline. General Leclerc had been sent by Napoleon to re-establish slavery in the formerly rich sugar and coffee producing French colony of Saint-Domingue. After the defeat of his army in November, 1803, Haiti gained its independence.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the spring, or 'source' which runs through the property was a major source for drinking water in Port-au-Prince, and was considered sacred in the Vaudon religion. As part of her many efforts to help the Haitian people, she established a medical clinic on her property to provide free medical services to the impoverished residents of the surrounding neighborhood.
Later, in 1959 President "Papa Doc" Duvalier made her Commander and Grand Officer of the Haitian Legion of Honor.
In the early 1970s a French entrepreneur named Olivier Coquelin leased most of the Habitation Leclerc property to develop a luxury hotel on it, including 44 villas and 11 swimming pools. After its opening in 1974, Habitation Leclerc became renowned as one of the best international resorts in the world, catering particularly to the affluent jetset crowd, and its patrons included members of the Kennedy family, European nobility, and famous rock stars such as Mick Jagger. The hotel flourished until 1983.
With the proceeds of the lease, Dunham was also able to built her own residence on the adjoining property which was designed by her and husband John Pratt and constructed by the Haitian architect Albert Mangonèse.
Today the Habitation Leclerc property is one of the only places in the Haitian capital region where a thick urban mini-forest still remains, and plans are under way to transform this into the Katherine Dunham Botanical Garden and Cultural Center for the Arts.
Initial botanical surveys indicate that it has the potential to become the most beautiful botanical garden in the Caribbean region, and could also become a center for addressing Haiti's critical deforestation problems.
Katherine Dunham was a trail-blazer who led the way in opening the stage doors and overcoming racial prejudice for entertainers of color in Broadway, Hollywood, Las Vegas and the international concert circuit. Anna Kisselgoff, a scholar of dance, called her "a major pioneer in Black theatrical dance ... ahead of her time." "In introducing authentic African dance-movements to her company and audiences, Dunham - perhaps more than any other choreographer of the time - exploded the possibilities of modern dance expression."
As one of her biographers, Joyce Aschenbrenner, wrote: "Today, it is safe to say, there is no American black dancer who has not been influenced by the Dunham Technique, unless he or she works entirely within a classical genre" and the Dunham Technique is still taught to anyone who studies modern dance.
The highly respected DANCE magazine did a feature cover story on her in August 2000 entitled "One-Woman Revolution." As Wendy Perron wrote, "Jazz dance, 'fusion' and the search for our cultural identity all have their antecedents in Dunham's work as a dancer, choreographer and anthropologist. She was the first American dancer to present indigenous forms on a concert stage, the first to sustain a black dance company, the first black person to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera. She created and performed in works for stage, clubs and Hollywood films; she started a school and a technique that continue to flourish; she fought unstintingly for racial justice."
Scholar of the arts, Harold Cruse wrote in 1964: "Her early and life-long search for meaning and artistic values for black people, as well as for all peoples, has motivated, created opportunities for, and launched careers for generations of young black artists ... Afro-American dance was usually in the avant-garde of modern dance ... Dunham's entire career spans the period of the emergence of Afro-American dance as a serious art."
Black writer Arthur Todd described her as "one of our national treasures." Regarding her impact and effect he wrote: "The rise of American Negro dance commenced ... when Katherine Dunham and her company skyrocketed into the Windsor Theater in New York, from Chicago in 1940, and made an indelible stamp on the dance world... Miss Dunham opened the doors that made possible the rapid upswing of this dance for the present generation." "What Dunham gave modern dance was a coherent lexicon of African and Caribbean styles of movement -- a flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis and isolation of the limbs, a polyrhythmic strategy of moving -- which she integrated with techniques of ballet and modern dance." "Her mastery of body movement was considered 'phenomenal.' She was hailed for her smooth and fluent choreography and dominated a stage with what has been described as 'an unmitigating radiant force providing beauty with a feminine touch full of variety and nuance."
Richard Buckle, ballet historian and critic, wrote: "her company of magnificent dancers and musicians ... met with the success it has and that herself as explorer, thinker, inventor, organizer, and dancer should have reached a place in the estimation of the world, has done more than a million pamphlets could for the service of her people."
"Dunham's European success led to considerable imitation of her work in European revues ... it is safe to say that the perspectives of concert-theatrical dance in Europe were profoundly affected by the performances of the Dunham troupe."
While in Europe, she also influenced hat styles on the continent as well as spring fashion collections, featuring the Dunham line and Caribbean Rhapsody, and the Chiroteque Francaise made a bronze cast of her feet for a museum of important personalities."
The Katherine Dunham Company became an incubator for many well known performers, including Archie Savage, Talley Beatty, Janet Collins, Lenwood Morris, Vanoye Aikens, Lucille Ellis, Pearl Reynolds, Camille Yarbrough, Lavinia Williams, and Tommy Gomez.
Alvin Ailey, who stated that he first became interested in dance as a professional career after having seen a performance of the Katherine Dunham Company as a young teenager of 14 in Los Angeles, called the Dunham Technique "The closest thing to a unified Afro-American dance existing. For several years her personal assistant and press promoter was Maya Deren, who later also became interested in Haitian Voodoo and wrote The Divine Horseman: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti (1953). Deren is now considered to be a pioneer of independent American filmmaking. Dunham herself was quietly involved in both the Voodoo and Orisa communities of the Caribbean and the United States, in particular with the Lucumi tradition.