Even in her late years, Katherine Dunham, dance legend, civic activist, and artistic pioneer, could stop traffic with her gaze. Flecks of light seemed to shoot out from each lid, communicating tenacity, humor, compassion, and insight. She wore a purple dress, with reams of beaded necklaces and in her arms were bouquets of roses. Her wheelchair seemed more like a throne. When she took the stage, her natural presence transformed the environment. For Ms. Dunham, the art form was constantly under investigation; she was always inquisitive. To come in contact with this majestic woman left the beholder star struck with a sense of enlightenment, possibility and wonderment.
It was a steamy summer day in East St. Louis, where the air hung heavily along the banks of the Mississippi River and the audience fanned themselves with folded programs. Ms. Dunham and 400 of her admirers had traveled to her adopted city for her 95th birthday celebration, on the Illinois side of the river. Her presence transformed dusty, forgotten streets, restoring dignity to proud residents, despite the painful imprint of poverty and racism. A museum in her name was not far from the auditorium where the 2004 celebration was held.
Dignitaries, politicians and teachers gathered to honor the legendary Dunham. Children leaped through the air, dancing their hearts out with glee. Troupes executed bits and pieces from hallmark Dunham choreography of Yanvalou and Shango. Guests gathered in a pilgrimage of sorts from 13 countries. Louis Farrakhan spoke in reverence. We traveled from Detroit with our Dunham teacher Penny Godboldo. We were among thousands of communities upon which Dunham had left her indelible mark. I had met her before, but each time I was humbled, inspired to do better, to be better. I would gush, in a long line of admirers, and felt the strength in her hands as she listened intently.
While some might bask in the glow of admiration Dunham was more focused on teaching the nuances of her technique throughout the two-week long workshop leading up to the birthday gala. By that time she was living in New York City, supported by her famous friends Harry and Julie Belafonte (a former Dunham dancer), Danny Glover and Bill Cosby. A lifetime devoted to activism and the arts had left her with meager means in her advanced years.
She spoke in a soft, gentle tone that required her audience to lean in with interest. Her dance classes were essentially life lessons, workshops for spreading awareness, requiring the utmost discipline, concentration and dedication. She used a young woman’s lean body to demonstrate the transference of energy through the chakras, further documenting the mind, body, spirit connection – a concept she believed originated in the African Diaspora and had fanned out to the far reaches of the world with the advancement of civilization. She was interested in deconstructing, in unlocking the mysteries of culture and passing those truths on to eager students of all ages, essentially bringing the Far East to the Midwest. The formal aspect of her technique broke down natural movements into a series of isolations. It didn’t matter that the seminar classes took place in an old high school gym; the artistry was on par with the teachings in the finest institutions.
Head held high despite advanced stages of hereditary arthritis, she braced herself on her wheelchair and demonstrated the movements of the pelvis essential to Dunham Technique. And then she commenced to teach class, where only a few of the strongest dancers were able to make it through two hours of grueling progressions with congas reverberating.
Katherine Dunham was born June 22, 1909 in Chicago to an African-American father and a French-Canadian mother. She studied ballet, but her primary focus was anthropology; she earned a doctorate from the University of Chicago. After graduating, she formed the Negro Dance Group in 1930. Over the next decade, she traveled throughout Caribbean to research where she unearthed the foundation for her work, creating the field of academic dance anthropology, writing several books and dozens of articles about her conclusions. She was especially struck by Haiti and immersed herself in the culture. In 1931, she met her life partner, American costume designer John Pratt, who would design the elaborate, authentic costumes for the Dunham Company. They married in 1949 and adopted French daughter Marie-Christine.
Katherine Dunham became a star in New York City, when she choreographed and performed “Tropic and “Le Jazz Hot” at the Windsor Theater in 1939. The following year she choreographed “Cabin in the Sky” with George Balanchine. She toured the country, with her multi-cultural troupe, despite the confines of segregation. In 1944 she opened the Dunham School in midtown Manhattan where Lena Horne, Marlon Brando and James Dean took classes. To study at this school was a rite of passage in show business.
The Dunham Company would go on to perform in 57 countries over two decades, transforming the dance landscape, inspiring thousands. Her work was rooted in exploring African rituals, tradition and rhythms in dance through the lens of European ballet. Her approach was codified as her technique, taught in her school and later throughout the world. She was the first to choreograph Black dance in film most famously “Stormy Weather” in 1943. Her refusal to dance before a segregated audience in Brazil led to 1951 legislation forbidding racial discrimination in public places. She choreographed “Aida” in 1963, making her the first African American to choreograph for the Metropolitan Opera. The final performance of the Dunham Company was at the Apollo theatre in 1965. Dunham’s contributions are countless and peppered throughout her long life with her company, as an activist and as a cultural leader.
By the late ‘60s she was a revered Broadway icon, but Dunham’s interests were turning outside the lens of fame and celebrity, which is one reason why she has long sailed under the radar. She returned to the Midwest commencing her research at Southern Illinois University and continued her international study and travel, honored as a spiritual leader in Senegal and Haiti. She continued to choreograph and pass her technique on to future generations of students and teachers who sought out the honor to study with her. Humanitarian acts guided much of her life. She drew headlines in 1993 when she staged a 47-day hunger strike at age 82 to protest American treatment of Haitian refugees. She owned a home, Habitation Le Clerc, in Haiti.
For her tremendous amount of accomplishments, Ms. Dunham was highly decorated in her lifetime. Jacobs Pillow gave a special Tribute to Katherine Dunham for her 93rd birthday and the Ailey Company brought Dunham in to direct the reconstruction of several of her works. “The Magic of Katherine Dunham” opened Ailey’s 1987-1988 season. The tribute was just –she had provided the foundation in African-based dance for pupil Alvin Ailey. Outside of her accolades, Dunham was a conduit in many careers. She brought master drummer Mor Thiam (father of Akon) to East St. Louis in 1966 from Senegal. Eartha Kitt danced in her company. In quieter, equally profound ways, she worked with youth in street gangs, turning around thousand of lives, providing guidance and hope.
The last time I saw Katherine Dunham she was in New York City for her 96th birthday in 2005. A tribute was organized at Riverside Baptist Church. Ms. Dunham was gradually fading but the magical gaze was there as the attendees sang happy birthday, she smiled sweetly. I wasn’t a professional dancer, but with over a decade of study, I considered myself a student of the Dunham way of life, a continuous application that provided a foundation. To be in the same room with Katherine Dunham was an honor.
Less than a year later, white doves were released on the streets of Manhattan at her memorial service. I heard later that she continued her research until her final days, an artist with a tremendous will. She was gone just short of her 97th birthday, but the birds carried her message into the wind as the drums played the ancient rhythms.
– Tamara Warren
Watch a clip from Stormy Weather, in which Katherine Dunham appears, also starring Lena Horne:
Here’s a clip of The Charles Moore Dance Company performing Dunham material from “Shango.”