Katherine Dunham, a pioneer in the world of dance and a civil rights champion, died Sunday, May 21, at the age of 96. Dunham made her mark by blending African, Caribbean and American rhythms into a compelling and original choreography that had universal appeal.
Katherine Dunham always liked to say she was "born dancing." She grew up in Joliet, Illinois, the child of a black-American father and French-Canadian mother. At the age of eight, she organized her first dance concert in a local church.
By the time she entered the University of Chicago, she knew she wanted to be a choreographer. She taught dance classes to pay her college expenses and formed a small dance group with several other black dancers.
But dancing wasn't her only love; she was equally attracted to anthropology, earning a bachelor's and master's degree in the subject. In the early 1930s, she spent a year traveling and documenting the dances and ritual ceremonies of the peoples of the Caribbean. From this material, she developed a repertoire of dances.
With the exception of tap dancers and cabaret entertainers, there were few black dancers on the professional stage in the 1930s and early 1940s. Katherine Dunham broke that barrier. However, as the late renowned choreographer and writer Agnes De Mille once observed, the going was not always easy due to racial discrimination.
"Wherever she went in the United States, she found the going very rough because in her own country, she discovered that even on the one-night stands (performances in a different city every night), there was no decent, clean place for her dancers to stay," De Mille said. "She was constrained to rent whole empty houses. She put mattresses down on the floors (for her dancers to sleep). They cooked communally. In the corner stood the sewing machine where John Pratt, her husband and the designer of the costumes, fashioned the dresses that made theater history. She broke the trail."
In 1940, Katherine Dunham took her dance company and the dances she had choreographed from her Caribbean experience to New York city. At the debut concert, one dance critic wrote, "She has imagination and taste and a fine sense of the theater." Overnight, she was a success and found more work than she could manage both on stage and screen. In Hollywood, she choreographed the dance numbers for Carnival of Rhythm, Stormy Weather, and Green Mansions and made movies in France, Mexico, Argentina, and Italy.
Ms. Dunham's dances of primitive and folk origin included Shango, which dealt with voodoo, and Bahiana, a Brazilian seduction dance. L'Ag'ya culminated in a memorable fighting dance, and Rites du Passage dealt with the evocation of magical forces.
Between 1946 and 1967, Katherine Dunham spent most of her time outside of the United States performing with her company in 57 countries. When she returned to the United States, she formed several dance schools, which taught the Dunham dance techniques. One of the schools was the performing arts training center in East St. Louis, Illinois. East St. Louis was an inner-city ghetto, best known for crime and street violence. But Katherine Dunham was undaunted, and she soon won the trust of the community.
"My main reason for forming another Dunham school was to get people off the streets and see if it could be possible that the arts would interest them enough so that they would take their minds off what was then really genocide," she said. "And it worked. It worked quite well. And now the school, whatever there is here in terms of that sort of education, is not done through anger as it was then, it is a real curiosity and interest in the arts."
Dunham described her technique as "a way of life." "It is holistic," she said. "It is based on primitive rhythms, primitive rhythms in a sense of people without a written language, being primitive. But dance in that case becomes a major factor in communication and a major factor in history."
During the 1970s and 1980s, Katherine Dunham divided her time between the East St. Louis performing arts center and her work as an anthropologist on the faculty of Southern Illinois University. She won numerous honors including, in 1979, the Albert Schweitzer music award for "a life dedicated to music and devoted to humanity." In 1983 she won the Haitian government's highest award. She received the Kennedy Center tribute for "life achievement in the arts" in 1983.
Arthur Mitchell, a former Dunham student and famous in his own right as the director of the Dance Theater of Harlem, expressed his appreciation for Dunham's work at the Kennedy Center awards ceremony. "We who not only love dance but the arts and humanities, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for spreading the roots of American dance throughout the entire world. Thank you very much."
Katherine Dunham elevated black dance to an art form. She gave black artists and performers pride and confidence in their work. Reflecting on her career, Dunham said, "I wanted to give black dance students the courage to study and a reason to do so." And that was Katherine Dunham's gift to future generations.