Katherine Dunham was an African-American dancer, choreographer, creator of the Dunham Technique, author, educator, anthropologist, and social activist. Dunham had one of the most successful dance careers in African-American and European theater of the 20th century, and directed her own dance company for many years.
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Katherine Dunham was born on June 22, 1909 in Chicago, to an African American father and a French Canadian mother. She transitioned on May 21, 2006 in Manhattan, NY.
She sang in her local Methodist Church in Joliet; but for a financial crisis at her church, she might never have sung anything but gospel songs. At age eight, she amazed and scandalized the elders of her church by doing a performance of decidedly non-religious songs at a cabaret party, in order to raise money. We can only imagine what lessons she learned but her life’s work gives us a glimpse.
She never thought about a career in dance. Instead, she consented to her family’s wish that she become a teacher and followed her brother, Albert Dunham Jr. to the University of Chicago, where she became one of the first African American women to attend this University and earned bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology. While attending the University of Chicago, Ms. Dunham was a student Ludmilla Speranzeva, formerly of the Moscow Theater.
Following graduation, Ms. Dunham founded the Negro Dance Group. They performed at the Chicago Beaux Arts Theater in ‘A Negro Rhapsody’, dancing with the Chicago Opera Company, and one of the performances was attended by Mrs. Alfred Rosenwald Stern, who was sufficiently impressed to arrange an invitation for Dunham to appear before the Rosenwald Foundation, which offered to finance any study contributing toward her dance career that she cared to name.
Armed with foundation money, Ms. Dunham spent most of the next two years in the Caribbean studying all aspects of dance and the motivations behind dance. Although she traveled throughout the region, including Trinidad and Jamaica, it was in Haiti that she found special personal and artistic resonances. She wrote some scholarly essays during her trip and sold lighter magazine articles about the Caribbean under the name of K. Dunn.
Katherine Dunham revolutionized American dance in the 1930’s by going to the roots of black dance and rituals transforming them into significant artistic choreography that speaks to all. She was a pioneer in the use of folk and ethnic choreography and one of the founders of the anthropological dance movement. She showed the world that African American heritage is beautiful. She completed groundbreaking work on Caribbean and Brazilian dance anthropology as a new academic discipline. She is credited for bringing these Caribbean and African influences to a European-dominated dance world.
In 1931, Miss Dunham met one of America’s most highly regarded theatrical designers, John Pratt, forming a powerful personal and creative team that lasted until his death in the 1986. They married in 1949 to adopt their daughter, Marie-Christine, an 18 month-old French child.
Dunham’s big breakthrough to popular recognition took place after she moved to New York in 1939 where, in February, she opened at the Windsor Theater in a program called ‘Tropics’ and le ‘Jazz Hot’. It was supposed to be a one-night event but demand was such that Dunham ended up doing 13 weeks. She then founded the Katherine Dunham Dance group – which later developed into the famous Katherine Dunham Company – devoted to African-American and Afro-Caribbean dance.
Katherine Dunham is credited for developing one of the most important pedagogues for teaching dance that is still used throughout the world. Called the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” her groundbreaking repertoire combined innovative interpretations of Caribbean dances, traditional ballet, African rituals and African American rhythms to create the Dunham Technique. The Dunham Company toured for two decades, stirring audiences around the globe in 57 countries, with their dynamic and highly theatrical performances.
Katherine Dunham also appeared in several films: Carnaval of Rythms (1939), including Star Spangled Rhythm (1942), Stormy Weather (1943), Casbah (1948), Botta e Risposta 1950 Italy – Musica en la Noche 1955 Mexico – Liebes Sender (1954) Germany – Mambo, (1954), Italy – Karaibishe Rythmen (1960) Vienna. She also choreographed, without appearing: Pardon my Sarong, 1942, USA- Green Mansion, 1958, USA – The Bible, 1964 (by John Houston, shot in Rome). In 1962 Katherine Dunham and her company appeared in Bamboche, the three-act revue that first introduced to America the dancers of Morocco, who appeared with the consent of King Hassan II.
Most of Katherine Dunham’s awards were for her contribution to the arts, but whenever she was engaged in conversation, she used the opportunity to teach and strategize to solve the social problems created by poverty and racism. She used her talent and insight to re-direct the energy of violent street gangs through the performing arts. We can learn a lot from Ms. Dunham’s example.
Learn more about the extra-ordinary life of Katherine Dunham on website: http://kdcah.org/ Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities
Excerpts from the KDAH website were used to share this information.