Dance Treasure: The Life and Legacy of Katherine Dunham

By Cali Carss

Katherine Dunham was a legendary choreographer, author, and activist. Called the “Mother of Black Dance,” she spent the initial part of her career studying the roots of Black dance in the 1930s. She traveled around the Caribbean in those years, but found a special connection to Haiti. Here she wrote about her discoveries in dance and developed dance anthropology as an academic discipline. Using her work she developed the Dunham Technique–a groundbreaking dance technique combining the modern Horton technique, classical ballet, and Afro-Caribbean dance. She performed and inspired all over the world for the better part of 70 years. To discuss Katherine Dunham is to portray a woman of incredible intellect, courage, and creativity.

Ms. Dunham’s career began against all odds. Born in 1909, she danced and sang for her church as a child. But when it came to the future, she abided by her father’s wishes to follow her brother to college and become a teacher. She attended the University of Chicago and was one of the first African American women to do so. It was here that she earned three degrees in anthropology, including a doctorate. It was also here where she became a student of dance luminaries like Ludmilla Speranzeva, Mark Turbyfill, and Ruth Page. It was in Page’s ballet, La Guiablesse, where Dunham danced her first leading role in 1933. Following graduation she changed paths, founding the Negro Dance Group in 1933. Their performances were so impressive that Mrs. Alfred Rosenwald Stern invited Dunham to the Rosenwald Foundation, offering her finances for any studying that contributed to her dance career she wanted. 

It was with this money that Dunham traveled to the Caribbean for the next few years, spending a majority of her time in Haiti. She also published many works under the pen name K. Dunn. Her interest in Haiti chiefly surrounded their traditional dances and religions, and with this interest Dunham eventually became a Vaudun priestess. One of Haiti’s oldest traditional dances is Yanvalou, which is inspired by the movements of a snake. Yanvalou heavily influenced the Dunham technique as it developed in later years. Returning to the US with this knowledge, her dance career took off from there. She and her company performed all over the US, with Dunham’s choreography enchanting audiences and took her team all the way to NBC’s first hour-long “American Spectacular,” where her choreography was the marquee display on national television.

The Dunham School.

Several national tours later, The Dunham School of Dance and Theater opened in New York at Caravan Hall, and her dance group would be based in and perform around the city.  The school underwent several name changes over the years, settling on the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts in 1952. At this time, Dunham and her company were touring internationally, visiting South America, Europe, and North Africa. They returned to South America and Europe the next year, and throughout the following years toured Australia, New Zealand, and East Asia. As her career progressed, Dunham’s influence only spread. She was in several movies, and was the first African American person to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera with her piece Aida in 1963.

Even beyond her dance career, Dunham was an inspiration. A dedicated activist, she took every opportunity to speak about social and racial injustices, and her work reflected her passion. Following one performance at the Memorial Auditorium in Louisville, Kentucky, Dunham took the stage to inform the audience that they would not be returning to perform there any time soon, as she had found that the management segregated the audience. Perhaps her most publicized protest was in 1992, when the then 82 year-old went on a forty seven day hunger strike to protest unjust US policies affecting Haitian immigrants. 

Throughout her life, Dunham earned an impressive number of accolades. Ranging from honorary doctorates in a variety of subjects from several colleges, to a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. She was one of nine individuals presented with the National Medal of the Arts in a 1989 class that also included the likes of jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie. And in 2000, she was named one of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition.

“Even beyond her dance career, Dunham was an inspiration.”

Her crowning achievement, however, was the aforementioned technique. The Dunham technique begins with traditional ballet forms and ideas, taking them and mixing them with  Afro-Caribbean idioms, intertwining the two styles into something unique. This incorporates the undulation of the spine and plié – staying much more grounded than the traditional ballet. The Afro-Caribbean influences make Dunham unique in a western dance world that historically favors Eurocentric styles. Today Dunham’s technique is not as widely taught as some other disciplines, and that’s  a shame because while it is difficult to master, it is beautifully rich in technique and history.

Katherine Dunham was a woman of many talents and professions. She amassed countless accolades and continues to be an inspiration to students of dance. Although she died in 2006 at the age of 96, her work and legacy lives on to this day.