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The Drum Is a Woman: Katherine Dunham

Katherine Dunham 

One of the ancestral imperatives of the New Negro Movement of the early twentieth century was for African-Americans to investigate and embrace their pan-African arts and identities. And for seven decades dancer, anthropologist, choreographer, author, educator and human right activist Katherine Dunham reconnected the long-lost, far-flung dances, songs and folklore of the African Diaspora, and she showed us how alike and beautiful we were in all of our Black beauty on a global scale.

Born to a Black father and mixed-race, French-Canadian mother in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Dunham started dancing as a child, studied ballet with Madame Speraneva and went on to earn her BA., MA. and Ph.D in cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago. She blended her two loves, dance and anthropology, and formed her first dance troupe, the Negro Dance Group in 1933, and with the support of pioneering anthropologist Melville Herskovits, sociologist Charles S. Johnson, Dunham won a fieldwork scholarship from the Rosenwald Fund. In 1935 and studied Afro-Caribbean culture in Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Haiti for a year.

Thus began Katherine Dunham’s mission:  to elevate the dance culture of the Black Diaspora; to, “develop a technique that will be as important to the white man as the Negro,” Dunham says in Joyce Aschenbrenner’s biography, Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life. “To attain a status in the dance world that will give to the Negro dance student the courage really to study and a reason to do so and to take our dance out of the burlesque and make it a more dignified art.” 

As Lisa A. Rivo writes in the Encyclopedia Africana, “Dunham’s revolutionary choreography blended Caribbean, South American and African styles of movement and folk narrative with modern dance and ballet, leading the way for Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theatre and Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem.”

No armchair academic, Dunham totally integrated herself into these island cultures, especially in Haiti, where she was initiated in Vodun and established a year-round residence. Those sojourns provided Ms. Dunham with the valuable source material when she worked with the Negro Unit of the Federal Theater Project in Chicago in 1938, where she choreographed dances for plays The Emperor Jones, Swing Makado, and Run Lil’ Chillun, and performed her West Indian-based ballet, L’Ag ‘Ya. The next year she worked in the Broadway musical Pins and Needles, and performed her first revue, Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem.

After she moved her company she starred in, and co-choreographed with George Balanchine in  the 1940  all-black Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky, and produced several critically-acclaimed shows, including, Tropical Revue, Carib Song and Bal Negre, was the subject of a 1941 documentary Carnival of Rhythm, and choreographed and appeared several movies, including Stormy Weather, Star-Spangled Rhythm and Mambo.

Traveling the world with her company, Dunham insisted equal rights for all, and was known to boycott segregated venues and launched lawsuits when she was discriminated against.

She opened the Dunham School of Dance in 1945 in New York, and taught her Dunham Method, which treated dance as a complete mind, body and spirit discipline. Some of her students included Marlon Brando and James Dean, and many dancers and percussionists including, Eartha Kitt, Nichelle Nichols Marpessa Dawn, and the Afro-Cuban santero, Jullito Collazo. In1962, she became the first Black choreographer of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and worked with the National Ballet of Senegal in 1967.

That same year she did something unheard of for someone of her stature. She moved to East St. Louis, Il. and opened the Katherine Dunham Dynamic Museum the Performing Arts Training Center and taught local Black kids until 1982. The effect she had on that poor community can never be overstated: she provided the city’s youth with wholesome and artistic pursuits that took them away from the streets. Olympic star Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of her graduates.

Even as an octogenarian, Ms. Dunham was an international force to be dealt with. When Haitians were turned away from American shores in 1992, she launched a successful hunger strike, which almost killed her, but succeeded in (temporarily) changing U.S. foreign policy in letting Haitians come to America.

Her life and works are recorded in her books and monographs which include Journey to Accompong, her study of Jamaica’s Maroon community, Dances of Haiti and Island Possessed, which both deal with her lifelong study of that country, and her childhood memoir, A Touch of Innocence. Excerpts from those books, along with her other writings, are compiled in Kaiso!: Writings By and About Katherine Dunham.

“I used to want the words ‘she tried’ on my tombstone,” she said. “Now I want ‘She did it.’”