Katherine Dunham Biography

Born Katherine Mary Dunham, June 22, 1909, in Chicago, IL; died May 21, 2006, in New York, NY. Dancer, choreographer, and educator. Known as the "Matriarch of Black Dance," Katherine Dunham, in the 1930s, founded the first major black modern dance company in the United States. Her troupe's work, which showcased the rhythms Dunham learned while studying with natives in the Caribbean, helped establish black dance as an art form in its own right. Dunham's unique blend of Afro-Caribbean, ballet, and modern dance captivated audiences around the world. Over the course of her lifetime, Dunham performed and choreographed productions for Broadway and Hollywood films, as well as for dance revues that toured the world.

Dunham was born on June 22, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois, to Albert Millard Dunham and Fanny June Taylor, though she spent most of her childhood in Joliet, Illinois. Her father, a tailor and dry cleaner, was black, while her mother was French Canadian. When Dunham was three, her mother died. She began dancing early on and also had a passion for writing. At 12, Dunham published a poem in a magazine edited by W.E.B. DuBois. She moved to Chicago in 1928 to study ballet with Ludmilla Speranzeva and eventually enrolled at the University of Chicago. She became interested in anthropology and won a fellowship to study in the Caribbean in 1935. While there, Dunham examined the dance rhythms particular to Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad, and Haiti. She learned to perform voodoo rituals, the rumba, and other primitive rhythms she later integrated into modern dance forms.

Dunham earned a doctorate in anthropology, but her love for dancing prevailed. Founded in the 1930s, her Chicago-based dance company, Ballet Negre (sometimes called the Negro Dance Group) was the first self-supporting black modern-dance troupe. Over the years, the troupe visited more than 50 countries on six continents. The group toured extensively after World War II, showing off its unique style of foot-stamping, hip-and-shoulder shaking, and primitive African dancing. Dunham liked to joke about how her dances were received around the world. According to Jack Anderson in the New York Times , Dunham once remarked, "Judging from reactions, the dancing of my group is called anthropology in New Haven, sex in Boston and in Rome—art!"

Dunham brought her first big show, called Tropics and Le Jazz Hot , to New York in 1940. During the 1940s, Dunham appeared in many Broadway shows, playing Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky , which she also helped choreograph. Other shows included 1943's Tropical Revue , 1945's Carib Song , 1946's Bal Negre , and 1948's Caribbean Rhapsody . During the 1940s, she opened a New York dance school, the Dunham School of Dance and Theater, which remained open for a decade. Dunham is credited with teaching her students the technique of isolationism, a form of dance that emphasizes the isolation of individual body parts. Some of her techniques are still taught in modern-dance schools across the United States and influenced many contemporary choreographers, including Alvin Ailey.

Dunham's Broadway work eventually led her to Hollywood, where she danced in and choreographed movies, including 1941's Carnival of Rhythm , 1942's Star-Spangled Rhythm , and 1943's Stormy Weather . While working at the Federal Theater in Chicago, Dunham met artist and designer John Pratt. They married in 1941 and adopted an orphan, Marie-Christine Dunham-Pratt, from Martinique. Pratt helped manage Dunham's career and did design work for the troupe. In the 1950s, Dunham traveled the world with her dance troupe, spending time in London and other European cities.

In 1963, Dunham was called upon to choreograph a production at the Metropolitan Opera, directing dances for Giuseppe Verdi's Aida . It was the first time in 30 years that an African American had been given the honor of choreographing at the famed New York opera. In 1964, Dunham began a collaboration with Southern Illinois University, choreographing Charles Gounod's Faust . In 1967, Dunham founded the Performing Arts Training Center in East St. Louis, setting up a dance program for disadvantaged youth with the hopes she could use art to keep youngsters from violence and gangs. According to the New York Times , Dunham said her goal was "to make the individual aware of himself and his environment, to create a desire to be alive." She counseled youth as well, calming their angry spirits with her soft—but firm—voice and the power of her presence. Dunham also wrote several books, many published under the pseudonym Kaye Dunn. Her books included 1946's Journey to Accompong , 1959's A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood , 1969's Island Possessed , and 1984's Dances of Haiti .

Over the course of her lifetime, Dunham used her position to fight against social injustices, particularly racial segregation. Once, while performing at a theater in Louisville, Kentucky, Dunham discovered blacks could only sit in the upper balcony. Fuming, she delayed the show's start and during the performance, showed her bottom to the audience—complete with a sign that read "whites only." During the 1950s, her troupe was known for performing a piece called Southland , which alluded to Southern lynching and featured a black man swinging from a rope.

Dunham was attached to Haiti, where she had studied as a young anthropologist, focusing her college thesis on Haitian dance. Dunham felt a kinship with the Haitian people and took their plight on as her own. In 1961, she established a medical clinic there. In 1992, at the age of 82, Dunham went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest the treatment of Haitian boat refugees, who were fleeing their country but were turned back. Later in life, the honors poured in and in 1979, Dunham was awarded the Albert Schweitzer Music Award, presented at Carnegie Hall. She also received a Southern Cross from Brazil and earned national honors in both Haiti and France.

By the late 1990s, Dunham was widowed and was living in near destitution near the St. Louis area. Her friends moved her to New York to help provide care for her. By this time, Dunham was nearly bed-ridden with severe arthritis. She died on May 21, 2006, in an assisted-living facility in New York City. She was 96. She is survived by her daughter.


Los Angeles Times , May 23, 2006, p. B10; New York Times , May 23, 2006, p. B7, p. E1; June 1, 2006, p. A2; Times (London), May 29, 2006, p. 42; Washington Post , May 23, 2006, p. B6.

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Donald Mandell
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Dec 26, 2009 @ 3:15 pm
Katherine Dunham was also a founder and teacher in the Southern Illinois University Experiment In Higher Education program which offered instruction to students who enrolled at the SIU Edwardsville campus. Students were selected on the basis of there having showed promise and high intelligence, but who had gotten themselves in juvenile justice, or other kinds of trouble. By designing a curriculum that would be considered both attractive and relevant, Dunham and others: including myself, Peter Rossi, Hy Frankel, Zeke Brown, Ed Cosby, etc., students vindicated themselves by producing quality creative works.

Columbia University/NYState Psychiatric Institute
1051 Riverside Drive, Mailstop 43
New York, NY 10032

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