As I sit here in thought, in remembrance of Katherine Dunham, what can I add to the teeming accolades of praise and wonder of a life well lived. A life made glorious not just because of Miss Dunham’s way of knowing the power of dance but also because of her approach to life and humanity. Miss Dunham was a strong, extraordinary woman on par with Martha Graham for dance and Eleanor Roosevelt for social justice. I am enthralled by Miss Dunham’s life and feel blessed to have known and worked with her.
There is no denying the debt the anthropological field owes Miss Dunham as a pioneer in the use of dance as a window on the cultural and social practices of a people. Miss Dunham received a grant from Julius Rosenwald fund in 1935 to study dance in West Indies. She began with field research in mountain village of Accompong in Jamaica then travelled to Martinique and Trinidad. In 1936 Miss Dunham’s field work was in Haiti where she discovered within herself an empathy with the danced religion of Vodun. This research enabled her to receive Bachelor of Philosophy from University of Chicago. Miss Dunham’s fieldwork into secular and religious practices of Vodun and other varieties of sacred and secular dance practices in Caribbean, indeed her lived experience and embodied knowledge of American dance techniques in ballet, modern and jazz provided a formidable body of knowledge to draw from for her choreography.
Miss Dunham’s life experience as teacher, researcher, dancer and choreographer is also revealed through her numerous publications. Journey to Accompong (1971) recounts her experiences among the Maroon people of Jamaica in 1935-1936; Dances of Haiti (1937) is Dunham's thesis written for the University of Chicago translated into Spanish and French with a foreword by Claude Lévi-Strauss; A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood (1959; reprint, 1994); Island Possessed (1969; reprint, 1994) provided a series of vivid and detailed descriptions of the people and culture of Haiti, Kasamance: A Fantasy (1974) was an allegorical African tale for young people set in Senegal, illustrated by Bennie Arrington after original drawings by John Pratt and Kaiso! Katherine Dunham: An Anthology of Writings, (1978) edited by VèVè A. Clark and Margaret B. Wilkerson.
Miss Dunham’s dance company toured extensively in United States, British Columbia, Mexico, South America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand; in all 57 nations on six continents from the 1940’s till it was disbanded in 1960. With scant public funding and relying on proceeds from performances and appearances in films Miss Dunham augmented her company’s finances by teaching and lecturing. The Dunham School of Dance and Theatre which opened in 1944 operated along side the performing company. In 1946 The Dunham School became the Katherine Dunham School of Arts and Research. It had several components: the Dunham School of Dance and Theatre, the Department of Cultural Studies, and the Institute for Caribbean Research. Teachers in the Dance Division included Todd Bolender (ballet), Marie Bryant (tap and boogie), and José Limón (modern dance). Dunham Technique was taught by Tommy Gomez, Archie Savage, Lavinia Williams, and Syvilla Fort, who also taught ballet. Teachers in the Drama Division included Herbert Berghof (acting), John Pratt (visual design), and Karl Vollmoeller (history of drama, play writing). Among performers who studied at the school over the years were Arthur Mitchell, James Dean, Peter Gennaro, Marlon Brando, Chita Rivera, Eartha Kitt, and José Ferrer. The Dunham School closed in 1957 but was only one of the many operations Miss Dunham spearheaded during her long life that exemplifying her resourcefulness and penchant to use every once of her creativity and the creativity of those around her to accomplish numerous feats.
In 1937 Miss Dunham and her company appeared at 92th Street YMHA in New York City with African and African-American modern dancers Edna Guy, Alison Burroughs, Clarence Yates, and Asadata Dafora for A Negro Dance Evening. In 1938 Miss Dunham choreographed her first full-length ballet, L'Ag'Ya at Federal Theatre, Chicago while director of Negro Unit of the Chicago branch of the Federal Theatre Project. Miss Dunham staged many dances in several Chicago productions, including Run Li'l Chil'lun and The Emperor Jones. In 1939 Dunham choreographed for Broadway providing new material to the popular musical revue Pins and Needles, produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union Players. Also in 1939 appearances in films began with Carnival of Rhythm; a short film written by Stanley Martin, directed by Jean Negulesco, and produced by Warner Brothers which was utilised her company and her choreography. Miss Dunham, Archie Savage, and Talley Beatty were the stars. Released in 1941, it included Ciudad Maravillosa and early versions of Los Indios, Batucada and Adeus Terras, dances based on Brazilian themes that Miss Dunham choreographed.
In 1940 George Balanchine and Vernon Duke collaborated with Miss Dunham on choreography for dances in the musical play Cabin in the Sky. The show opened at the Martin Beck Theatre in October 1940 and ran until March 1941, playing 156 performances. Dunham and her company then toured Cabin in the Sky in America. In 1942 Dunham was the featured dancer in patriotic film Star Spangled Rhythm and then staged dances for film Pardon My Sarong but neither she nor her company members appeared in the film. In 1943 Impresario Sol Hurok presented Miss Dunham and company in Tropical Revue at New York’s Martin Beck Theatre; the movement language adorned with lavish costumes by Miss Dunham’s husband, set and costume designer John Pratt, offered Latin American and Caribbean dances along with dances set to Negro spirituals and American social dances. Miss Dunham and company also appeared in film Stormy Weather (1943).
Miss Dunham’s contribution to American pantheon of dance in the 1940’s and early 1950’s to the present is unquestionable with her choreographic works illustrating a viable synergy between performance practices found in the African Diaspora and Western dance theatre practice. Miss Dunham’s works though did not escape the ambivalence that dance of the African Diaspora attracted. Late 1940’s into 1950’s British audiences had little or no experience of seeing bare foot dance. The British context at this time regarded traditional Africanist dance expressions wild, lascivious, and uninhibited. Miss Dunham’s Caribbean Rhapsody was presented at Prince of Wales Theatre in London in 1948. It impressed British critics of The Times and Observer with the Dancing Times complimenting Dunham and her dancers’ particular use of traditional Africanist dance expressions. Miss Dunham’s particular use of Africanist expressions ruptured not only classical ballet tenets but also altered perspectives of American and European modern dance practices with her Africanist movements and revitalised compositional devices. Miss Dunham presented dance spectacles as well as emotional dramas that juxtaposed the popular plantation, minstrel, and revue presentations of the 1940’s and cabaret of the 1950’s most associated with Africanist expressions.
Miss Dunham wasn’t just vivifying the Africanist presence in Western dance theatre practice. Her particular kind of expressions were radical, an indication of new possibilities; alternative choices that countered the norm. Unfortunately with all Miss Dunham’s credentials and credibility her choreography did not escape the tag of “exotic” or escape association with the most demeaning stereotypes accorded Africanist dance of the time. It was in 1944 that Miss Dunham choreographed and premiered Choros (nos. 1-5) at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto set to music by Vidaco Gogliano. Choros is a stylized version of a nineteenth-century Brazilian quadrille. I had the pleasure of performing this work during my tenure with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in the early 1970’s. I enjoyed the layers of white cotton and lace holstered by blue patch, gold embroidered brick-a-brac apron and jacket with matching turban as I danced at break neck speed chaînés, brisé volé, and couru to percussive rhythms interspersed with pulsating hips and shoulders. Some of the other dancers though did not share my enthusiasm nor see the value or artistry in Dunham’s choreography. Mr Ailey though was enamoured of Miss Dunham’s work and devoted to preserving her legacy that future generations may savour this particular expression of African American dance. Some 15 years later the performance of Miss Dunham’s choreography particularly Choros, L'Ag'Ya, Shango, Flaming Youth, 1927, and Cakewalk were produced by The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre for their opening night of the 1987-1988 season. Under Dunham’s supervision The Magic of Katherine Dunham performances changed impressions and shifted perspectives.
Given her particular opportunities in life, Miss Dunham confronted invisible boundaries founded on the racial perplexities of her time. In 1944 Miss Dunham addressed an all-white audience at Memorial Auditorium in Louisville, Kentucky, in a curtain speech in which she spoke out against segregation. "It makes me very happy to know that you have liked us , but tonight our hearts are very sad because this is a farewell to Louisville. . . . I have discovered that your management will not allow people like you to sit next to people like us. I hope that time and the unhappiness of this war for tolerance and democracy . . . will change some of these things. Perhaps then we can return."
Miss Dunham’s Southland with music by Dino di Stefano, and sets and costumes designed by John Pratt premiered in the Teatro Municipal in Santiago de Chile in 1951. In the program notes Miss Dunham wrote: "This is the story of no actual lynching in the Southern states of America, and still it is the story of every one of them." Speaking to the audience before the performance Miss Dunham stated: "Though I have not smelled the smell of burning flesh, and have never seen a black body swaying from a Southern tree, I have felt these things in spirit . . . Through the creative artist comes the need . . . to show this thing to the world, hoping that by exposing the ill, the conscience of the many will protest. . . . This is not all of America, it is not all of the South, but it is a living, present part." Considered anti-American by the American embassy in Chile, Miss Dunham’s Southland received no reviews and after its performance and mixed reviews in Paris at the Palais de Chaillot in 1953 was never performed in the United States or elsewhere. Miss Dunham’s choreographic protest of the historical oppression of African Americans in the United States cost her political clout in a time, the early 1950’s at the height of the Cold War, when the U. S. State Department considered any negative portrayal of American society to foreign audiences extenuating and embarrassing. This tour was to be the last tour Miss Dunham’s Company would undertake with the backing of the U. S. State Department.
Miss Dunham’s seemingly privileged career did not veil her eyes from the predicament of others. In her efforts to use the arts to combat poverty and urban unrest, Miss Dunham believed in the power of education but in particular the power of dance in the face of depredation to suppress social ills. Strength in consciousness and forethought could convince all people to eradicate cultural ignorance, nihilism and hatred. Miss Dunham did not complete her doctorate studies, but received many honorary degrees, in all 48 including an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Harvard University in 2002 and many other awards for her life’s work to eradicate social injustices predicated through lack of opportunity while simultaneously illustrating how the practice of dance could fortify an individual’s spirit.
During her tenure as artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale from 1964 till 1982 Miss Dunham accomplished many great things. Choreography and writing were main stays but in 1966 Miss Dunham was invited by President Léopold Senghor to train the National Ballet of Senegal. In 1967 the Equal Opportunity Commission, as part of the Southern Illinois University's Experiment in Higher Education, funded Dunham's proposal for creating a Performing Arts Training Centre (PATC) in East Saint Louis, which eventually resulted in an educational centre, children's auxiliary company, and a semi-professional dance group that would tour the midwestern, southern, and eastern United States. In 1968 Dunham is named a grand officier of the Haitian Légion d'Honneur et Merite and receives the Professional Achievement Award from the University of Chicago Alumni Association. She was also appointed honouree on the President's Council on Youth Opportunity in Washington, D.C. and then received a Dance Magazine Award. In 1976 The Katherine Dunham Fund purchased for use as a museum an English Regency-style townhouse on Pennsylvania Avenue at Tenth Street in East Saint Louis on whose grounds a carriage house was converted into a studio for a Children’s Workshop. In 1979 Miss Dunham received The Albert Schweitzer Music Award "for her contributions to the performing arts and her dedication to humanitarian work."
Miss Dunham has been the recipient of other prestigious awards in the arts including the Kennedy Centre Honours in 1983 and the National Medal of Arts in 1989. Miss Dunham personal sacrifice for the plight of others was given in 1992 when she began a hunger strike to focus international attention on the plight of Haitian refugees seeking asylum in the United States who, under the orders of President George Bush, were being sent back to Haiti. After forty-seven days, Miss Dunham ended her fast after concerns for her health are voiced by exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and others.
In 2000 Katherine Dunham was named one of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition. The Library of Congress then began its process of collecting photographs, written text, videos, books, and various other materials for the Katherine Dunham Legacy Project. This legacy is being secured through a $1 million grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Also in 2000 the superintendent of School District 189 in East Saint Louis and other community leaders presented plans for the Katherine Dunham Academy of Performing, Visual, and Cultural Arts. This along aside initiatives for dance educators to consider pedagogy that incorporates Dunham's methods and ideas about dance and society. Cultural and economic development projects for East Saint Louis are being supported through a $57.4 million grant encouraged by Miss Dunham’s conversations with singer Harry Belafonte and actor Danny Glover. Wendy Perron then writes an article for Dance Magazine, August 2000 entitled "Katherine Dunham: One-Woman Revolution" quite a fitting title for a woman whose accomplishments revealed she was a titan on several fronts.
I have only recounted a few moments in this titan’s life and place in 20th century dance, indeed in history of the world. There are many, many more. Born in 1909 Miss Dunham’s parents were Albert Millard Dunham, descendant of slaves from Madagascar and West Africa and her mother, Fanny June Dunham, a woman of French-Canadian and American Indian heritage. Miss Dunham had one brother, Albert Jr. Miss Dunham had two husbands: Jordis McCoo, married 1931, divorced 1938; married to set and costume designer John Pratt in 1941 till his death in 1986 One adopted daughter, Marie-Christine Pratt-Dunham, lives in Rome.
Miss Dunham travelled the world and left her special way of knowing dance despite the hindrances she and other artists of similar heritage and prominence encountered. Miss Dunham would cause audiences’ to think about their place, respect and obligation to all peoples no matter what their heritage, make a nation take stock and reshape politicians’ agendas. Miss Dunham is quoted as saying in reference to the politics of her and her company’s performative acts: “We weren’t pushing ‘Black is Beautiful’, we just showed it”. That kind of regal confidence and tenacity, intelligence wrapped in elegance in the face of racial stupidity and ignorant arrogance is what I especially admired about Miss Dunham. The last time I saw Miss Dunham was at the International Blacks in Dance Conference 2003 held in Washington D.C. Miss Dunham was leading a class from a wheel chair. Clear and astute she gave directions for her demonstrators to follow, offered corrections to individual students and accompanied the drummers with claves.
Miss Dunham’s last years depended on grants and kindness of celebrities, artists and former students for her day to day expenses. Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Will Smith, and Harry Belafonte were among those who helped. Belafonte paid Miss Dunham’s medical bills and with the assistance of others found her a home in an assisted-living facility in Manhattan with a view of the Hudson River. Miss Dunham may have been close to property but with the help of friends, students and admirers she was comfortable; not in shame and certainly not without dignity.
There is a different sense of Miss Dunham’s accomplishments that comes with her death, a proud satisfaction when contemplating her life’s works coupled with a sadness that is resolute knowing that Miss Dunham’s power has joined other spirits that have touched my life in so many profound ways. My memories are transformed finding renewed inspiration that in death Miss Dunham’s life story will continue to enrich lives for generations to come. We can be awed and feel proud that she lived a long rich and astounding life that despite its tribulations was an enormous triumph.
THEA NERISSA BARNES