After a decade of work, Oxford University Press and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute published the African American National Biography(AANB). The AANB is the largest repository of black life stories ever assembled with more than 4,000 biographies. To celebrate this monumental achievement we have invited the contributors to this 8 volume set to share some of their knowledge with the OUPBlog. Over the next couple of months we will have the honor of sharing their thoughts, reflections and opinions with you.
Practically every young girl in Harlem in the 1950’s knew about Katherine Dunham and her dance studio. Though we’d never met her, we felt she was a member of our family. We loved to dance and she was our role model. Prancing around our Harlem apartment, my sister and I imitated her uninhibited style.
Katherine Dunham was a dancer, choreographer, anthropologist, author, and unofficial ambassador to countries around the world. Former President Jean Bertrand Aristide called her the “Spiritual Mother of Haiti” and her dance pedagogy known as the Dunham Technique is taught in modern dance schools today.
Born in Glen Ellyn, Illinois on June 22, 1909, Dunham didn’t begin formal dance training until her late teens. In 1928, after moving to Chicago with her brother Albert Jr., Dunham began taking classes at the University of Chicago, and studying dance with Madame Ludmila Speranzeva. While at the university, she attended lectures on cultural anthropology presented by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Edward Sapir, and Bronislaw Malinowski. She studied under anthropologist Robert Redfield who introduced her to the African dance tradition. Dunham researched popular dances of the day such as the Cake Walk, the Lindy Hop, and the Black Bottom. She also took dance classes and performed in several productions at the Cube Theater, a local playhouse in Chicago where she met choreographer Ruth Page and ballet dancer Mark Turbyfill, both members of the Chicago Opera Company. The three opened a dance studio called the “Ballet Negre.”
From 1935-1936, she was awarded travel fellowships from Julius Rosenwald and the Guggenheim Foundation to conduct ethnographic study of dance forms of the Caribbean Vodun of Haiti. Her graduate thesis was entitled “Dances of Haiti, their social Organization, Classification, Form and Function.”
In 1938, she was appointed dance director for the Negro Federal Theatre Project, and the next year, she became the dance director of the Labor Stage of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union for the production of “Pins and Needles.”
On July 10, 1939, Dunham married John Thomas Pratt, a renowned costume and theatrical set designer who became her manager and managed her career for forty-seven years until his death in 1986. They adopted a daughter, Marie Christine Dunham Pratt.
She appeared as Georgia Brown in the Broadway production of “Cabin in the Sky.” In 1941 her first performance in a short film “Carnival of Rhythm” was the first Hollywood dance filmed in color. Her other films include “Star Spangled Rhythm” 1941 with Abbott and Costello; “Pardon My Sarong,” and the breakthrough 1943 black musical “Stormy Weather” with Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, and Cab Calloway.
Dunham began The Katherine Dunham Company, a troupe of dancers, singers, actors, and musicians which was the first African American modern dance company. For thirty years, the troupe was self-subsidized supporting itself by performing in nightclubs, films, and on Dunham’s writing. In 1944, the revue was banned in Boston after one performance of “Rites of Passage” which depicted puberty rituals. Throughout her career, Dunham and her troupe performed in fifty-seven countries in Europe, North Africa, South America, Australia, and the Far East.
In 1945, Dunham opened and directed the Katherine Dunham School of Dance. Eartha Kitt and Marlon Brando were among the school’s alumni. Others who attended were James Dean, Jose Ferrer, Jennifer Jones and Warren Beatty. The company was dissolved when in 1965, President Johnson nominated her to be technical cultural adviser to the Senegalese government to help train the Senegalese National Ballet and assist President Leopold Senghor with the first Pan African World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar.
Dunham lived for several months in Jamaica where she wrote Journey to Accompong. 1946, and traveled to Martinique, Trinidad and Tobago and wrote numerous articles on her observations. She investigated voodoo rituals in Haiti and became a mambo priestess. In 1969 she wrote Island Possessed which explored African religions and rituals adapted to the New World. Also in 1969, she lived a year in Kyoto, Japan where she wrote her autobiography A Touch of Innocence. Dunham wrote articles on anthropology under the pen name of Kaye Dunn and lectured at Yale and the Royal Anthropological Societies in London and Paris.
Because of discrimination she and her troupe encounter in their travels around the U.S. and several countries of the world, she used her influence to protests the treatment of all people of color. In places in the South she refused to perform before segregated audiences. She fought against segregation in hotels, restaurants, and theaters. She turned down a lucrative contract with a Hollywood studio when they requested she replace some of her dark-skinned dancers with lighter skinned ones. While the State Department did not fund her travels, they took credit for the praise she received when performing in other countries.
In the early 1990’s Dunham moved to East St. Louis, Illinois and opened the Performing Arts Training Center, a school designed to offer inner city youth an alternative to the everyday violence occurring in their devastated neighborhoods. In 1992 at age 82, to protest treatment of Haitian refugees, she went on a forty-seven day hunger which was broken only after appeals from several prominent figures including the President of Haiti, Jean Bertrand Aristide.
Dunham died on May 21, 2006. She will also be remembered as the “Matriarch of black dance” for her unique style of dance and the blending of cultural anthropology with dance.