Katherine Dunham

(WOMENSENEWS)–The practitioners and the esthetics of mainstream American modern dance were lily-white before Katherine Dunham came along.

Born in 1910 of mixed-race parents in Chicago, Ill., Dunham was a dancer who created a storefront company called “Ballet Negre” while simultaneously studying anthropology at the University of Chicago. In 1936, after earning a bachelor’s degree, a fellowship to do field research in her combined interests sent her to the West Indies. It changed her life.

Returning to the United States, Dunham created “L’Ag’Ya,” a dance piece based on a fighting dance she had learned in Martinique. Then, on February 18, 1939, “Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem” played at the Windsor Theatre in New York. What was meant to be a weekend presentation stayed much longer and catapulted Dunham into the limelight–as dancer, choreographer and innovator.

Eventually, Dunham became the first black choreographer to work with the Metropolitan Opera. Integrating Afro-Caribbean movement with the established vocabularies of ballet and modern dance, she pioneered a style carried on by dancer-choreographers Alvin Ailey and Bill T. Jones. So profound was Dunham’s connection to Haiti in particular that she began living in that country half the time and becoming a priestess in the “vodoun” religion, whose rituals are the basis of “Shango,” one of her most popular dances.

Being bold and courageous in the political arena as well, Dunham lived in the “ghetto” of East St. Louis during the turbulent 1960s, where she created The Katherine Dunham Performing Arts Training Center, seeking out gang members and militant black activists to whom she could teach African cultural history as well as performance skills. In 1992, after Haiti’s elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide had been overthrown by a military coup and escaping Haitians were being returned home by the United States government, Katharine Dunham began a hunger strike in protest. She was 82 years old. After 47 days, Aristide himself persuaded her to stop. Aristide returned to his presidency in 1994; Dunham is still going strong.

Louise Bernikow, author of seven books, takes her slide show: The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change to campuses and communities around the country.

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