“Katherine Dunham is one of the First African American recognized as an African American artist, choreographer, anthropologist civil activist and author”. She was a strong black powerful and influential woman who made her mark not only in the dance world but left her mark also in all the countries she travelled to, and impacted people’s lives. She showed people that were not familiar to her art that she believed in different cultures and people should not be separated, in their communities, and in dance, and should not be limited to just one style. She believed that dance was more than just art and had the ability to change people lives and in communities.
Modern Dance before Katherine Dunham was traditionally originated from the European and American centered ballet. Ballet in the 19th century was very strict and very different as we know it today and transformed in many ways such as clothing, movement, and even the women “dancers”. A woman in the ballet world was seen more as objects to men of their looks not their hard work in dancing. When modern dance arouse around the 20th century it was considered more “radical” and “iconoclastic” especially in the religious community. Women would wear loose clothing, and often were barefoot or wearing soft shoes. “Modern dance flourished in areas that lacked strong ballet traditions, such as the United States where ballet companies were imported from Europe”. Modern dance has emerged some say due to “rejection” of classical ballet. Dancers Isadora Duncan, Genevieve Stebbins and Loie Fuller were the first innovators and true revolutionaries of the women movements in the new forms of modern dance. These dancers disregarded the strict rules of Ballet, with restricted clothing and movement, for a greater feel, in their movement and enjoyment for dance.
Katherine Dunham has not only considerably contributed to the increase of modern dance world, however she is collectively a developer within the field of dance and anthropology; and a “devoted political and social activist”. Dunham was born on June 22nd 1909 in Chicago Illinois and was primarily raised in nearby Joliet Illinois; to Fanny June Dunham her mother who was French Canadian and her Father Albert Millard Dunham who was African American. Her mother Fanny passed away when Katherine was about three years of age, and her Father remarried and ran a dry cleaning business.
Dunham’s childhood was nothing different than most other young children. She had parents that wanted her to become something in life and that she did. Her parents wanted the best for her, her and her future. Katherine never really had her eyes set out to dance, instead she “consented” to her family’s wishes to become a teacher like her brother, and attend the University of Chicago, Which she did plan on doing as well and became one of the first African American women to attend the University and receive a bachelor, masters and doctoral degree in anthropology.
Dunham became interested in dance later in her teens when she was studying under Ludmilla Speranzeva, formerly of the Moscow Theater, Mark Turbyfill and Ruth Page. After she graduated from college she founded a Negro Dance group. “They performed at the Chicago Beaux Arts Theater in ‘A Negro Rhapsody’, dancing with the Chicago Opera company”. Dunham also being a student of anthropology at the University, she began to research how to use ethnographic research to improve her performances on stage. So in 1934 she applied for the first time to the Rosenwald foundation, to attend a school in NY to study Ballet. Unfortunately she ended up getting denied, but Dunham indeed was awarded a Julius Rosenwald fund but to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in the Caribbean. So she took the opportunity to travel around the region focusing on all aspects around African and Caribbean dances interested in their dances and motivations, and rituals. She visited many islands such as Jamaica, Trinidad but in Haiti is where she found an interconnection with their cultural dances, and changed her life, giving Dunham a new approach to her future chorography. In her time spent over in the Caribbean’s Dunham not only observed she also participated in the dances and rituals with the natives who gave her more of a connection and acceptance with the dances and the people of the islands.
Dunham particularly found a connection in Haiti and the dances of Voodoo. Voodoo religious in the Haitian community are filled with different spiritual meanings. “Usually in the religion it is believed Loa or Lwa the gods or goddess
inspired their own unique dance movements that lead to subtle to aggressive”. This dance is usually ends us being fast paced and is done with musical instruments such as the drums. Movements may include large movements of the arms and legs, kicks, and movements in the torso region, more hip movement.
Dunham began to “formulate a theory of the relation of form and function” when it came to dance, that dance wasn’t just an artistic form of expression; it also served for many purposes in people’s lives, that people from her community doesn’t know of. Such as social dances, may include rain dances, marriage, seeking a spouse or for example funeral dances which relived grief and bring all people together to grieve by celebrating the life of the deceased, this was new to Dunham and very interesting.
Katherine Dunham restructured American dance in 1930’s while still at the University of Chicago Dunham started her own private dance school called Ballet Negre, translated to ballet blacks, which she began to cultivate her own brilliant techniques that would change modern dance. It was one of America’s first African American Ballet companies. In 1933 she founded the Negro Dance group, a school for young black dancers. Dunham went by going to “the roots of Black Dance and rituals transforming them into artistic choreography that speaks to all”. She came back to the United States with a new perspective on dance. She is known for bringing the art of Caribbean and African influences into the dominated European dance world. After returning Dunham presented her findings while she was away that included “films, photos, writings and her own demonstration”, which lead her to come up with the Dunham Technique which changed, dance forever.
She would take what she learned and use it in her dances. Dunham’s choreographic approach was to choose certain movements and would adjust them in extend and find the moral of the story until the point that it turned into her own. She eschewed classical ballet and fused afro Caribbean styles in modern ballet. Her movements included Flexible spine and torso and “isolation” of the limbs. Miss Dunham major breakthrough was in January 1938, Dunham’s theatrical interpretation of the “ag’ya” (a fighting dance) she combined Afro beats ballet and modern dance together to fit movement that Chicago audiences would understand. While working on this Ballet she met her husband John Pratt, who together formed a powerful creative team.
Katherine Dunham moved to New York due to an invitation she received from Louis Schaeffer, to help create “new numbers for the Broadway revue”. In February 18, 1940 Dunham show cased entitled Tropics and Le Jazz “Hot”. John Martin “a new York Times critic” called Dunham a “revelation and her choreography hereabouts to the basis of true Negro dance art”. This performance sky rocketed Dunham’s career overnight, she was in high demand as a dancer and choreographer. She made many appearances after that in Broadway, also made movies such as Carnival of Rhythm (1941), Star spangled Rhythm (1942) and Stormy weather (1943). Katherine also wrote several books including Journey to Accompong (1946), Las Danzas de Haiti (1947).
The Dunham Company toured around the United States for about two decades, rousing audiences that have never seen this style of dance before around the world, including Europe which has rarely seen black dance, especially as an art form. She mastered smooth body movements and fluent choreography, while dominating the stage and having the audience fully engaged because it was so culturally different, and they have never seen that type of dance/ choreography before.
In modern dance today using different cultural dances as inspiration is not as surprising or unusual. “Dance is an ever evolving form of art,” Modern dance has had a big influence on the dance we see on Television, in music videos and in other performances today. It is a series of bodily expression, free flowing movement, and emotions.
Being a black woman in the 20th century was no easy time. In the mist of touring, racism and segregation followed Katherine in her day to day life, even as a well known dancer. Men and woman of all races would come to see either Mrs. Dunham’s work or to see her perform, but even in the same theatre to watch a black woman perform the audience was segregated in some places. This caused Dunham to become an activist due to her experiences on tour. She once almost sued a Hotel called Blackstone Hotel in her Home town Chicago for racial discrimination. In 1944 she ended up giving a speech to in Kentucky Louisville announcing she would not return to the city of Louisville until the theatre has been integrated between the two races. She continued to refuse to perform at segregated venues in the United States, Which was very bold because dance was her lively hood and we know when it comes to being a performer one day you can be in and one day you can be out. This didn’t scare Dunham to sticking to what she believed in. She continued to use her performances as a light to discrimination as well. Later Dunham continued this practice and demonstrating within her own dance schools, by integrating students and faculty of any race, or nationality. Not only did she advocate for integration she also made headlines “by staging a hunger strike of 47 days in 1993 at the age of 82, to protest the U.S. government repatriation policy for Haitian immigrants”. She tried to raise awareness of Haitian issues to the United States.
Katherine Dunham passed away in 2006 at the age of 96 years of age. Katherine lived a fulfilled and rich life not only as a great dancer and choreographer but someone who loved people and stood up for her community in what she believed in, an educated black woman and a force to be reckoned with an extensive resume. She brought new style and movement into modern dance that changed people’s artistic and cultural views forever. Katherine’s technique hasn’t much disappeared or used as much today. In today’s society a lot of dances that was done in the past, is being resurfaced in today’s culture. Especially in today societies it is not odd that different cultural society’s dances are brought in from all over the world.