Katherine Dunham (June 22, 1909 – May 21, 2006) was an American dancer, choreographer, and company director as well as an author, educator, and political activist. Dunham had one of the most successful dance careers in American and European theater of the twentieth century and has been called the “matriarch and queen mother of black dance.”
During her heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, Dunham was renowned throughout Europe and Latin America and was widely popular in the United States, where the Washington Post called her “dance’s Katherine the Great.” For almost thirty years she maintained the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the only self-supported American black dance troupe at that time, and over her long career she choreographed more than ninety individual dances. Dunham was an innovator in African-American modern dance as well as a leader in the field of dance anthropology, or ethnochoreology.
Katharine Mary Dunham was born in June 1909 in a Chicago hospital and taken as an infant to her parents’ home in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a village about fifteen miles west of Chicago. Her father, Albert Millard Dunham, was a descendant of slaves from West Africa and Madagascar. Her mother, Fanny June Dunham (née Taylor), who was of mixed French-Canadian and Native American heritage, died when Katherine was four years old. After her father’s remarriage a few years later, the family moved to a predominately white neighborhood in Joliet, Illinois, where Mr. Dunham ran a dry cleaning business.
Katharine became interested in both writing and dance at a young age, displaying talent in both fields. In high school she joined the Terpsichorean Club and began to learn a kind of modern dance based on ideas of Jaques-Dalcroze and Rudolf von Laban. At the age of 15, she organized the Blue Moon Café, a fund-raising cabaret for Brown’s Methodist Church in Joliet, where she gave her first public performance. While still a high-school student, she opened a private dance school for young black children.
Upon completing her studies at Joliet Junior College, Katharine Dunham moved to Chicago to join her brother Albert, who was attending the University of Chicago as as a student of philosophy. In a lecture by Robert Redford, a professor of anthropology, she learned that much of black culture in modern America had begun in Africa. She consequently decided to major in anthropology and to focus on dances of the African diaspora. Besides Redford, she studied under some of the great anthropologists of the day, including A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Edward Sapir, and Bronisław Malinowski. Under their tutelage, she showed great promise in her ethnographic studies of dance.
In 1935, Dunham was awarded travel fellowships from the Julius Rosenwald and Guggenheim foundations to conduct ethnographic study of the dance forms of the Caribbean, especially as manifested in the Vodun of Haiti, a path also followed by fellow anthropology student Zora Neale Hurston. She also received a grant to work with Professor Melville Herskovits of Northwestern University, whose ideas of African retention would serve as a platform for her research in the Caribbean. Herskovits provided her with invaluable information in preparation for her voyage.
Her stay in the Caribbean began in Jamaica, where she went to live several months in the remote Maroon village of Accompong, deep in the mountains of Cockpit Country. (She later wrote a book, Journey to Accompong, describing her experiences there.) Then she traveled on to Martinique and to Trinidad and Tobago for short stays, primarily to do an investigation of Shango, the African god who remained an important presence in West Indian heritage. Early in 1936 she arrived at last in Haiti, where she remained for several months, the first of her many extended stays in that country throughout the rest of her life.
While in Haiti, Dunham investigated Vodun rituals and made extensive notes on her research, particularly on the dance movements of the participants. Years later, after extensive studies and initiations, she became a mambo (priestess) in the Vodun religion. She also became friends with, among others, Dumarsais Estimé, then a high-level politician, who became president of Haiti in 1949. Somewhat later, she assisted him, at considerable risk to her life, when he was persecuted for his progressive policies and sent in exile to Jamaica after a coup d’état.
Dunham returned to Chicago in late spring of 1936 and in August was awarded a bachelor’s degree, a Ph.B. (bachelor of philosophy), with her principal area of study named as “social anthropology.” In 1938, using materials collected during her research tour of the Caribbean, Dunham submitted a thesis, “The Dances of Haiti: A Study of Their Material Aspect, Organization, Form, and Function,” to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a master’s degree, but she never completed her course work or took examinations to qualify for the degree. Devoted to dance performance as well as to anthropological research, she realized that she had to choose between them. Although she was offered another grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to pursue her academic studies, she chose dance, gave up her graduate studies, and departed for the bright lights of Broadway and Hollywood.
Dancer and choreographer
In 1928, while still an undergraduate, Dunham began to study ballet with Ludmilla Speranzeva, a Russian dancer who had settled in Chicago, having come to the United States with the Franco-Russian vaudeville troupe Le Théâtre de la Chauve-Souris directed by impresario Nikita Balieff. She also studied ballet with Mark Turbyfill and Ruth Page, who became prima ballerina of the Chicago Opera. Through her ballet teachers, she was also exposed to Spanish, East Indian, Javanese, and Balinese dance forms. In 1930, when she was only 21, Dunham formed a group called Ballets Nègres, one of the first black ballet companies in the United States. After a single, well-received performance in 1931, the group was disbanded. Encouraged by Speranzeva to focus on modern dance instead of ballet, Dunham opened her first real dance school in 1933. Called the Negro Dance Group, it was a venue for Dunham to teach young black dancers about their African heritage.
In 1934–36 Dunham performed as a guest artist with the ballet company of the Chicago Opera. Ruth Page had written a scenario and choreographed La Guiablesse (“The Devil Woman”), based on a Martinican folk tale in Lafcadio Hearne’s Two Years in the French West Indies. It opened in Chicago in 1933, with a black cast and with Page dancing the title role. The next year it was repeated with Katherine Dunham in the lead and with students from Dunham’s Negro Dance Group in the ensemble. Her dance career was then interupted by her anthropological research in the Caribbean.
Having completed her undergraduate work at the University of Chicago and having made the decision to pursue a career as a dancer and choreographer rather than as an academic, Dunham revived her dance ensemble and in 1937 journeyed with them to New York to take part in “A Negro Dance Evening” organized by Edna Guy at the 92nd Street YMHA. The troupe performed a suite of West Indian dances in the first half of the program and a ballet entitled Tropic Death, with Talley Beatty, in the second half. Upon returning to Chicago, the company performed at the Goodman Theater and at the Abraham Lincoln Center. Dunham’s well-known works Rara Tonga and Woman with a Cigar were created at this time. With choreography characterized by exotic sexuality, both became signature works in the Dunham repertory. After successful performances of her company, Dunham was named director of the Negro Unit of the Chicago branch of the Federal Theater Project. In this post, she choreographed the Chicago production of Run Li’l Chil’lun, performed at the Goodman Theater, and produced several other works of choreography including The Emperor Jones and Barrelhouse.
At this time Dunham first became associated with designer John Pratt, whom she later married. Together, they produced the first version of her dance composition L’Ag’Ya, which premiered on January 27, 1938, as a part of the Federal Theater Project in Chicago. Based on her research in Martinique, this three-part performance integrated elements of a Martinique fighting dance into American ballet to achieve a remarkable degree of syncretism. This blending of cultures also appeared in the way that Dunham skillfully and stylistically employed choreographic techniques to evoke images of Afro-Caribbean customs and art.
In 1939, after appearing in the Warner Brothers’ short film Carnival of Rhythm, Dunham’s company gave further performances in Chicago and Cincinnati and then went back to New York, where Dunham had been invited to stage a new number for the popular, long-running musical revue Pins and Needles 1940, produced by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. As this show continued its run at the Windsor Theater, Dunham booked her own company in the theater for a Sunday performance. This concert, billed as Tropics and Le Hot Jazz, included not only her favorite partners Archie Savage and Talley Beatty but her principal Haitian drummer, Papa Augustin. Initially scheduled for a single performance, the show was so popular that the troupe repeated it for another ten Sundays.
This success led to the entire company being engaged in the Broadway production Cabin in the Sky, staged by George Balanchine and starring Ethel Waters. With Dunham in the sultry role of temptress Georgia Brown, the show ran for twenty weeks in New York before moving to the West Coast for an extended run of performances there. The show created a minor controversy in the press over whether the torrid dance numbers with bare-midriffed and bare-torsoed performers represented “art” or “sex appeal.” Most critics called it a draw.
After the national tour of Cabin in the Sky, the Dunham company stayed in Los Angeles, where Dunham appeared in a specialty number, “Sharp as a Tack,” with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson in the Paramount musical film Star Spangled Rhythm (1942). Other movies she appeared in during this period included the Abbott and Costello comedy Pardon My Sarong (1942) and the famous break-through black musical Stormy Weather (1943).
Later that year, they returned to New York, and in September 1943, under the management of the renowned impresario Sol Hurok, her troupe opened in Tropical Review at the Martin Beck Theater. Featuring lively Latin American and Caribbean dances, plantation dances, and American social dances, the show was an immediate success. The original two-week engagement was extended by popular demand into a three-month run, after which the company embarked on an extensive tour of the United States and Canada. In Boston, the bastion of conservatism, the show was banned in 1944 after only one performance. Although it was well received by the audience, local censors feared that the revealing costumes and provocative dances might compromise public morals. After the tour, in 1945, the Dunham company appeared in the short-lived Blue Holiday at the Belasco Theater in New York and in the more successful Carib Song at the Adelphi Theatre. The finale to the first act of this show was Shango, a staged interpretation of a Vodun ritual that would become a permanent part of the company’s repertory.
In 1946 Dunham returned to Broadway for a revue entitled Bal Nègre, which received glowing notices from theater and dance critics. Early in 1947 Dunham choreographed the musical play Windy City, which premiered at the Great Northern Theater in Chicago, and later in the year she opened a cabaret show in Las Vegas, marking the first year that the city became a popular entertainment destination. Later that year she went with her troupe to Mexico, where their performances were so popular that they remained for more than two months. After Mexico, Dunham began touring in Europe, where she was an immediate sensation. In 1948 she opened A Caribbean Rhapsody first at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London, then swept on to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, where the company took the city by storm. She and her dancers were treated as members of the jet set, mixing with nobility and celebrities such as famous French actor Maurice Chevalier.
This was the beginning of more than twenty years of performing almost exclusively outside America. During these years, the Dunham company appeared in some fifty-seven countries in Europe, North Africa, South America, Australia, and East Asia. Dunham continued to develop dozens of new productions during this period, and the company met with enthusiastic audiences wherever they went. Despite these successes, the company frequently ran into periods of financial difficulties, as Dunham was required to support all of the thirty to forty dancers and musicians.
In 1948, Dunham and her company appeared in the Hollywood movie Casbah, with Tony Martin, Yvonne de Carlo, and Peter Lorre, and in the Italian film Botta e Risposta, produced by Dino de Laurentiis. Also that year they appeared in the first ever hour-long American spectacular televised by NBC when television was first beginning to spread across America. This was followed by television spectaculars filmed in London, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Sydney, and Mexico City.
In 1950, Sol Hurok presented Katherine Dunham and Her Company in a dance revue at the Broadway Theater in New York, with a program composed of some of Dunham’s best works. It closed after only thirty-eight performances, and the company soon thereafter embarked on a tour of venues in South America, Europe, and North Africa. They had particular success in Denmark and France. In the mid-1950s, Dunham and her company appeared in three films: Mambo (1954), made in Italy; Die Grosse Starparade (1954), made in Germany; and Música en la Noche (1955), made in Mexico City.
The Dunham company’s international tours ended in Vienna in 1960, when it was stranded without money because of bad management by their impresario. Dunham saved the day by arranging for the company to appear in a German television special, Karaibishe Rhythmen, after which they returned to America. Dunham’s last appearance on Broadway was in 1962 in Bamboche!, which included a few former Dunham dancers in the cast and a contingent of dancers and dummers from the Royal Troupe of Morocco. It was not a success, closing after only eight performances.
A highlight of Dunham’s later career was the invitation from New York’s Metropolitan Opera to stage dances for a new production of Aida starring Leontyne Price. Thus, in 1963, she became the first African-American to choreograph for the Met since Hemsley Winfield set the dances for The Emperor Jones in 1933. The critics acknowledged the historical research she did on dance in ancient Egypt but did not particularly care for the results they saw on the Met stage. Subsequently, Dunham undertook various choreographic commissions at several venues in the United States and in Europe. In 1967 she officially retired after presenting a final show at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. Even in retirement Dunham continued to choreograph: one of her major works was directing Scott Joplin‘s opera Treemonisha in 1972 at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
In 1978 Dunham was featured in the PBS special, Divine Drumbeats: Katherine Dunham and Her People, narrated by James Earl Jones, as part of the Dance in America series. Alvin Ailey later produced a tribute for her in 1987-8 with his American Dance Theater at Carnegie Hall entitled The Magic of Katherine Dunham.
Educator and writer
In 1945, Dunham opened and directed the Katherine Dunham School of Dance and Theatre near Times Square in New York City after her dance company was provided with rent-free studio space for three years by an admirer, Lee Shubert; it had an initial enrollment of 350 students.
The program included courses in dance, drama, performing arts, applied skills, humanities, cultural studies, and Caribbean research, and in 1947 it was expanded and granted a charter as the Katherine Dunham School of Cultural Arts. The school was managed in Dunham’s absence by one of her dancers, Syvilla Fort, thrived for about ten years, and was considered one of the best learning centers of its type at the time. Schools inspired by it later opened in Stockholm, Paris, and Rome by dancers trained by Dunham.
Her alumni included many future celebrities, such as Eartha Kitt, who, as a teenager, won a scholarship to her school and later became one of her dancers before moving on to a successful singing career. Others who attended her school included James Dean, Gregory Peck, Jose Ferrer, Jennifer Jones, Shelley Winters, Sidney Poitier, Shirley MacLaine, Doris Duke, and Warren Beatty. Marlon Brando frequently dropped in to play the bongo drums, and jazz musician Charles Mingus held regular jam sessions with the drummers. Known for her many innovations, Dunham developed a dance pedagogy, later named the Dunham Technique, that won international acclaim and that is now taught as a modern dance style in many dance schools.
By 1957, Dunham was under severe personal strain that was affecting her health, and she decided to live for a year in relative isolation in Kyoto, Japan, where she worked on writing autobiographies of her youth. The first work, entitled A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood, was published in 1959. A continuation based on her experiences in Haiti, Island Possessed, was published in 1969, and a fictional work based on her African experiences, Kasamance: A Fantasy, was published in 1974. Throughout her career, she occasionally published articles about her anthropological research (sometimes under the pseudonym of Kaye Dunn) and sometimes lectured on anthropological topics at universities and scholarly societies.
In 1964, Dunham settled in East St. Louis and took up the post of artist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University in nearby Edwardsville. There she was able to bring anthropologists, sociologists, educational specialists, scientists, writers, musicians, and theater people together to create a liberal arts curriculum that would be a foundation for further college work. One of her fellow professors with whom she collaborated was renowned architect Buckminister Fuller, who has been called the “planet’s friendly genius.”
The following year, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson nominated Dunham to be technical cultural adviser—that is, a sort of cultural ambassador—to the government of Senegal in West Africa. Her mission was to help train the Senegalese National Ballet and to assist President Leopold Senghor with arrangements for the First Pan-African World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar (1965–66). Later she established a second home in Senegal and occasionally returned there to scout for talented African musicians and dancers.
In 1967, Dunham opened the Performing Arts Training Center (PATC) in East St. Louis as an attempt to use the arts to combat poverty and urban unrest. It served as a catharsis after the 1968 riots, during which she encouraged gang members in the ghetto to vent their frustrations with drumming and dance. The PATC drew on former members of Dunham’s touring company as well as local residents for its teaching staff. While trying to help the young people in the community she was even jailed herself, making international headlines which quickly embarrassed local police officials to release her. She also continued refining and teaching the Dunham Technique to transmit that knowledge to succeeding generations of dance students, and lecturing at annual Masters’ Seminars in St. Louis that attracted dance students from around the world every summer until her death. She also established the [Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities] in East St. Louis to preserve Haitian and African instruments and artifacts from her own personal collection.
In 1976 Dunham was guest artist-in-residence and lecturer for Afro-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. A photographic exhibit honoring her achievements, entitled “Kaiso! Katherine Dunham,” was mounted a the Women’s Center on the campus. In 1978, an anthology of writings by and about her, also entitled Kaiso! Katherine Dunham, was published in a limited, numbered edition of 130 copies by the Institute for the Study of Social Change.
Political activist and humanitarian
The Katherine Dunham Company toured throughout North America in the mid-1940s, even performing in the then-segregated South, where Dunham once refused to hold a show after finding out that the city’s black residents had not been allowed to buy tickets for the performance. On another occasion, in October 1944, after getting a rousing standing ovation in Louisville, Kentucky, she told the all-white audience that she and her company would not return because “your management will not allow people like you to sit next to people like us,” and she expressed a hope that time and the “war for tolerance and democracy” would bring a change. One historian noted that “during the course of the tour, Dunham and the troupe had recurrent problems with racial discrimination, leading her to a posture of militancy which was to characterize her subsequent career.”
In Hollywood, Dunham refused to sign a lucrative studio contract when the producer said she would have to replace some of her darker-skinned company members. She and her company frequently had difficulties finding adequate accommodations while on tour because in many regions of the country, black Americans were not allowed to stay at hotels. This was also true elsewhere in the world.
While Dunham was recognized as “unofficially” representing American cultural life in her foreign tours, she was given very little assistance of any kind by the U.S. State Department. She had incurred the displeasure of departmental officials when her company performed Southland, a ballet whose theme dramatizing lynching of blacks in the racist American South, in Santiago, Chile, in 1951. The State Department was dismayed by the negative view of American society that the ballet presented to foreign audiences. As a result, Dunham would later experience some diplomatic “difficulties” on her tours. The State Department regularly subsidized other less well-known groups, but it consistently refused to support her company (even when it was entertaining U.S. Army troops), although at the same time it did not hesitate to take credit for them as “unofficial artistic and cultural representatives.”
The Afonso Arinos Law in Brazil
In 1950, while visiting Brazil, Dunham and her group were refused rooms at a first-class hotel in São Paulo, the Hotel Esplanada, frequented by many American businessmen. Understanding that the fact was due to racial discrimination, she made sure the incident was publicized. The incident was widely discussed in the Brazilian press and became a hot political issue. In response, the Afonso Arinos law was passed in 1951 that made racial discrimination in public places a felony in Brazil.
In 1992, at age 82, Dunham went on a highly publicized hunger strike to protest the discriminatory U.S. foreign policy against Haitian boat-people. Time reported that, “she went on a 47-day hunger strike to protest the U.S.’s forced repatriation of Haitian refugees. “My job”, she said, “is to create a useful legacy.” During her protest, Dick Gregory led a non-stop vigil at her home, where many disparate personalities came to show their respect, such Debbie Allen, Jonathan Demme, and Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam.
This initiative drew international publicity to the plight of the Haitian boat-people and U.S. discrimination against them. Dunham ended her fast only after exiled Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Jesse Jackson came to her and personally requested that she stop risking her life for this cause. After it ended, ABC News nominated her as Person of the Week. In recognition of her stance, President Aristide later awarded her a medal of Haiti’s highest honor and called her the “Spiritual Mother of Haiti”.
Medical Clinic in Haiti
After she became famous, Dunham and her husband John Pratt regularly returned to visit Haiti for extended stays, frequently bringing members of her dance company with them to recuperate and to work on developing new dance productions. On one of these visits during the late 1940s she purchased a large property of more than seven hectares in the Carrefours suburban area of Port-au-Prince that was initially used as a retreat area. This mini-tropical rain forest formerly belonged to General Charles Leclerc, brother-in-law of Napoleon Bonaparte who was married to Napoleon’s sister Pauline. General Leclerc had been sent by Napoleon to re-establish slavery in the formerly rich sugar and coffee producing French colony of Saint-Domingue. After the defeat of his army in November 1803, Haiti gained its independence.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the flowing spring, or “source,” that runs through the property was a major source for drinking water in Port-au-Prince and was considered sacred in the Vodun religion. As part of her many efforts to help the Haitian people, Dunham established a medical clinic on her property to provide free medical services to the impoverished residents of the surrounding neighborhood. Later, in 1959, President “Papa Doc” Duvalier made her Commander and Grand Officer of the Haitian Legion of Honor.
In the early 1970s a French entrepreneur named Olivier Coquelin leased most of the Habitation Leclerc property to develop a luxury hotel on it, including forty-four villas and eleven swimming pools. After its opening in 1974, Habitation Leclerc became renowned as one of the best international resorts in the world, catering particularly to the affluent jet set, including members of the Kennedy family, European nobility, and famous rock stars such as Mick Jagger. Jean-Claude Duvalier‘s wife worked in public relations at the hotel before her 1980 marriage to the dictator. The hotel flourished until 1983.
For many years the Habitation Leclerc property was one of the few places in the Haitian capital region where a thick urban mini-forest remained. Initial botanical surveys indicated that it had the potential to become the most beautiful botanical garden in the Caribbean region and that it could also become a center for addressing Haiti’s critical deforestation problems. There was talk of naming such a garden in Dunham’s honor. Plans for restoration of the property were never realized, owing to a lack of public funds. All such hopes and plans were dashed, however, by the devastation of the earthquake of 2011, which wreaked havoc in the capital region.
Dunham married Jordis McCoo, a black postal worker, in 1931, but he did not share her interests and they gradually drifted apart, finally divorcing in 1938. About that time Dunham met and began to work with John Thomas Pratt, one of America’s most renowned costume and theatrical set designers. Pratt, who was white, shared Dunham’s interests in African-Caribbean cultures and was happy to put his talents in her service. After he became her artistic collaborator, they became romantically involved, despite the difference in their races. They married on July 10, 1941, even though inter-racial marriages were controversial at the time. From the beginning of their association, around 1938, Pratt designed every costume Dunham ever wore. He continued as her artistic collaborator and manager of her career until his death in 1986. They had one adopted daughter, Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt.
In 1949 Dunham returned from international touring with her company for a brief stay in the United States, where she suffered a temporary nervous breakdown after the premature death of her beloved brother Albert. He had been a promising philosophy professor at Howard University and a protégé of Alfred North Whitehead. During this time, she developed a warm friendship with famous psychologist and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm, whom she had known in Europe.
In 1951, rumors persisted that romantically linked Dunham with Ismaili Muslim leader Prince Ali Khan, during marriage to Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth. Both denied an interracial romance, still considered controversial at the time; however, a photo of the two dancing in Paris at a private party Kahn hosted for Dunham appeared in major black magazines of the time.
Among Dunham’s closest friends and colleagues was Julie Robinson, formerly a performer with the Katherine Dunham Company, and her husband, singer and later political activist Harry Belafonte. Both remained close friends of Dunham for many years, until her death. Glory Van Scott was among other former Dunham dancers who remained a lifelong friend.
Katherine Dunham died in her sleep in New York City from old age on May 21, 2006, aged ninety-six.