The following article appeared in the June 5, 2006 issue of Jet Magazine


How Katherine Dunham Revealed Black Dance to the World

An Appreciation


Whatever else Katherine Dunham was in her long and productive life, which ended on Sunday at 96, she was a radiantly beautiful woman whose warmth and sense of self spread like honey on the paths before her.

How could anyone be stopped by the color of her skin after her invincibly lush sensuality and witty intelligence had seduced audiences on Broadway, in Hollywood films and in immensely popular dance shows that toured the world? And how could anyone cram black American dance into one or two conveniently narrow categories — or for that matter ignore the good strong roots that would one day grow green stems and leaves — with the vision of her company's lavishly theatrical African and Caribbean dance revues in mind?

Miss Dunham was one of the first American artists to focus on black dance and dancers as prime material for the stage. She burst into public consciousness in the 1940's, at a time when opportunities were increasing for black performers in mainstream theater and film, at least temporarily. But there was little middle ground there between the exotic and the demeaning everyday stereotypes.

Ms. Dunham's dance productions were certainly exotic, and sometimes fell into uncomfortable clichés. But a 1987 look at her work, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's "Magic of Katherine Dunham" program, confirmed that she also evoked ordinary lives that were lived with ordinary dignity.

Miss Dunham, as she was universally known, was by no means the only dance artist to push for the recognition of black dance in the 1940's, when Pearl Primus pushed, too, though a great deal less glamorously. But though Miss Dunham's academic credentials as an anthropologist were impeccable, including a doctorate from the University of Chicago, it was her gift for seduction that helped most to pave the way for choreographers like Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty and Alvin Ailey, who were the first wave of what is today an established and influential part of the larger world of American modern dance.

Ailey's first encounter with her, as a newly stage-struck boy in his mid-teens, says a great deal about Miss Dunham's appeal. Intrigued by handbills advertising her 1943 "Tropical Revue," he ventured into the Biltmore Theater in downtown Los Angeles, his hometown, where it was playing. There he was plunged into a world of color, light and heat that was populated by highly trained dancers with a gift for powerful immediacy, who were dressed in subtle, stylish costumes designed by John Pratt, Miss Dunham's husband. After the show, Ailey followed the crowd making its way backstage to her dressing room and was again stunned when the door opened on a vision of beautiful hanging fabrics and carpeting, paintings, books, flowers and baskets of fruit. And there was La Dunham, dressed in vividly colored silks and exuding irresistible gaiety and warmth.

Ailey returned to the show several times a week, let into the theater by the Dunham dancers who had looked so unapproachably exotic on that first backstage visit. And he was still more than a little in love with her when he invited her to create for his company "The Magic of Katherine Dunham," a program of pieces that had not been seen for a quarter-century. Miss Dunham's dancers, who remained close to her and to one another throughout her life, swarmed into the studios to help her work with the young performers.

Most of the Ailey dancers did not appreciate Miss Dunham's iron perfectionism or the unusual demands of her technique, a potent but challenging blend of Afro-Caribbean, ballet and modern dance. And she was not the easiest of women. I remember speaking with her before a public interview we were to do in April 1993. Addicted to CNN, she had just learned of the fiery, tragic end to the F.B.I.'s seige of the Branch Davidian compound in in Waco, Tex., that morning, and that was all that she could talk about, off and on the stage, despite her promises to discuss her work.

Her horror was real, as was her sense of social justice. She has been criticized for not denouncing the Duvaliers for their dictatorship in Haiti, where she owned a home. But she had also sponsored a medical clinic in Port-au-Prince, and she stayed on for many years in desolate, impoverished East St. Louis, Ill., where she established a museum of artifacts pertaining to her career and taught local children including Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Olympic long jumper, and the filmmakers Reginald and Warrington Hudlin.

"I was trying to steer them into something more constructive than genocide," she said of the children in a 1991 interview with me in The New York Times. "Everyone needs, if not a culture hero, a culturally heroic society. There is nothing stronger in a man than the need to grow."

That idealistic, eloquent self was infused with a streak of no-nonsense practicality.

"I don't like that 'accept,' " MissDunham, still a vibrant beauty at 91, said during a Times interview six years ago in response to a middle-aged visitor who insisted on talking to her about the acceptance and embrace of old age. "I would just let the whole thing go. Just be there for it, centimeter by centimeter." Then it was time for the photo session.

Her eyes seemed to widen even more invitingly and her gaze to grow even warmer as she looked into the eye of the camera and asked, "Did you ever see photographs of elderly divas trying to look sexy?"

Katherine Dunham, Dance Pioneer, Dies at 96


Katherine Dunham, the dancer, choreographer, teacher and anthropologist whose pioneering work introduced much of the black heritage in dance to the stage, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 96. Her death was confirmed by Dr. Glory Van Scott, a friend and former Dunham dancer. Miss Dunham also had homes in East St. Louis, Ill., where she ran inner-city cultural programs for decades, and in Port au Prince, Haiti.

By creating popular and glamorous revues based on African and Caribbean folklore, Miss Dunham acquainted audiences, both on Broadway and around the world, with the historical roots of black dance.

In the late 1930's she founded the nation's first self-supporting black modern dance group, one that visited more than 50 countries on six continents. Her achievements came at a time of widespread racial discrimination, which she fought against, refusing to perform at segregated theaters on tours of the South.

"We weren't pushing 'Black is Beautiful,' we just showed it," she once wrote. One of her works, "Southland," depicted a lynching.

Miss Dunham also became attached to Haiti and its culture, first arriving there as a young anthropologist. She later became a priestess of the Vaudun religion. In 1992, at the age of 82 and suffering from arthritis, she staged a much-publicized 47-day hunger strike to protest the United States's repatriation of Haitian refugees.

In East St. Louis, she found talented young people living in one of the nation's most destitute areas and turned them into dancers. Describing her work there, she said, "It is our aim here to socialize the young and old through 'culturization,' to make the individual aware of himself and his environment, to create a desire to be alive."

Miss Dunham was a recipient of some of the most prestigious awards in the arts, including the Presidential Medal of the Arts, the Albert Schweitzer prize (presented at a 1979 gala at Carnegie Hall), Kennedy Center Honors and membership in the French Legion of Honor.

In her dance technique, Miss Dunham emphasized the isolation of individual parts of the body. Some of her concepts continue to be taught at modern-dance schools across America. Her work was an important influence on Alvin Ailey, among other contemporary choreographers.

George Balanchine cast Miss Dunham in a major role in "Cabin in the Sky," a Broadway musical starring Ethel Waters that he staged and choreographed in 1940. She then went to Hollywood and danced in and choreographed the movies "Carnival of Rhythm" (1941), "Star-Spangled Rhythm" (1942) and "Stormy Weather" (1943), among others. It was in the 40's that Miss Dunham developed the fast-paced shows for which she was celebrated. "Tropical Revue," successfully produced on Broadway in 1943, later toured the nation to much acclaim. Its sensuality also drew complaints, and it was cut, and finally closed, in Boston. But as the dance historian Margaret Lloyd noted, the censors "ordered out not the silly vaudeville bits, not the occasional leer or calculated animality, but the solemn, sacred 'Rites de Passage' " — a coming-of-age ceremony that was one of Miss Dunham's most serious pieces.

Miss Dunham was born on June 22, 1909, in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Her father, Albert Millard Dunham, was a descendant of slaves from Madagascar and West Africa. Her French Canadian mother, Fanny June Taylor, died when Miss Dunham was young. Her father then married Annette Poindexter, a schoolteacher from Iowa, and moved his family to predominantly white Joliet, Ill., where he ran a dry-cleaning business.

Always interested in the theater, Miss Dunham shocked neighbors when, at 15, she announced she would stage a "cabaret party" to aid a Methodist Church. Later, she confessed that she had scarcely known what "cabaret" meant.

Miss Dunham attended Joliet Junior College and the University of Chicago, where she received bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in anthropology. She also studied dance in Chicago with Ludmilla Speranzeva and Mark Turbyfill, a choreographer and poet, with whom she established the short-lived Ballet Nègre in 1930. Ruth Page, a prominent Chicago choreographer, cast her in "La Guiablesse," a ballet based on Martinique folklore that was performed at the Chicago Civic Opera House in 1933. The following year, Miss Speranzeva helped Miss Dunham establish the Chicago Negro School of Ballet and a company, the Negro Dance Group, which evolved into the Katherine Dunham Dance Company.

She did her anthropological in the Caribbean as a graduate student in 1935, receiving a Rosenwald Fellowship to study traditional dances in Jamaica, Martinique, Trinidad and Haiti, where she became close to Haitians and took up the Vaudun religion. Over the years Miss Dunham spent much time in Haiti and in 1961 established a medical clinic there.

In the United States, she worked with the Federal Theater in Chicago, where she met John Pratt, an artist and designer to whom she was married from 1941 until his death in 1986. He also managed her career. They had a daughter, Marie Christine Dunham Pratt, of Rome, who survives Miss Dunham.

Miss Dunham took her Negro Dance Group to New York in 1937 but did not attract wide attention there until 1939, when she choreographed "Pins and Needles," a satirical revue produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Her popular appearance on Broadway as Georgia Brown in "Cabin in the Sky" at the Martin Beck Theater led to Hollywood and her celebrated revues of the early 40's. Later revues included "Carib Song" (1945), "Bal Nègre" (1946), "Caribbean Rhapsody" (1948) and "Bamboche" (1962). They consisted of brief, vivid numbers inspired by African, Caribbean or African-American dance forms.

In 1945, she founded the Dunham School of Dance and Theater in New York. Until it closed a decade later, it offered courses in dance, acting, psychology, philosophy, music, design and foreign languages.

After World War II, her dance company toured constantly, visiting more than 50 countries in 30 years. "Judging from reactions," she said at one point, "the dancing of my group is called anthropology in New Haven, sex in Boston and in Rome — art!"

She also continued to choreograph in New York. In 1963 she became the first African American to choreograph at the Metropolitan Opera since 1934, startling audiences with her lusty dances for a production of Verdi's "Aida." Writing in The Times, the critic Allen Hughes said: "There is 'modern' in it, belly-dancing, the foot-stamping and hip-and-shoulder shaking of primitive African dancing and much more. All pure Dunham."

Miss Dunham began an association with Southern Illinois University in 1964 when she choreographed Gounod's "Faust" at the university's Carbondale campus. In 1967, she moved to its Edwardsville campus and founded the Performing Arts Training Center in nearby East St. Louis.

She did more than offer courses there. Her collection of African and Haitian art became the basis for the community's Katherine Dunham Dynamic Museum, which opened there in the late-1970's. She also counseled disadvantaged young people, and her colleagues noted that she could calm the angriest of them through the sheer power of her presence, making her ordinarily soft voice even softer — yet always firm — as the counseling session proceeded.

Miss Dunham was also the author of many books, some published under the pseudonym Kaye Dunn. Her books including "Journey to Accompong" (1946), "A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood" (1959), "Island Possessed" (1969) and "Dances of Haiti" (1984).

Miss Dunham remained relatively active in her last years. On May 11, she appeared at the Morgan Library in Manhattan for a screening of "Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball," an ABC special, being broadcast tonight, celebrating Ms. Winfrey's personal heroes, Miss Dunham among them. She was resplendent in a robe that seemed a cross between moiré silk and kente cloth.

Earlier in the month she appeared at La Boule Blanche (the White Ball) at Riverside Church, an event organized by her friend Dr. Scott to celebrate the publication of an anthology of writings by and about Miss Dunham. The book, "Kaiso!," edited by VèV A. Clark and Sara E. Johnson, was recently released by University of Wisconsin Press. The title is a Calypso expression meaning bravo.


The following article appeared in the February 2006 issue of Ebony Magazine

Additional information about Katherine Dunham:

Katherine Dunham@Internet Movie Database
Great Performances: Free To Dance
Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts & Humanities
Spotlight on Katherine Dunham
Katherine Dunham@Wikipedia
Kennedy Center Honors
Katherine Dunham@The History Makers.com
Katherine Dunham@African American Registry