The legendary dancer, anthropologist and choreographer Katherine Dunham was born on June, 22 1909 to a French Canadian mother and an African American father in Chicago, Illinois. Growing up, she never imagined that she would pursue a career in dancing (Katherine Dunham). She grew up singing and raising money through that talent and then following the path in which her parents had laid out for her, following in the footsteps of her older brother Albert Dunham Jr. to become a teacher (Katherine Dunham). However, in high school, Dunham joined the Terpsichocherean Club where she began to learn a free-style type of modern dance based on the ideas of musician Jaques-Dalcroze and dance artist Rudolf von Laban and was later the star, producer and director of a cabaret that she had organized (Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection). She attended the University of Chicago where she became one of the first African American women to attend that college as well as one of the first African American women to earn a bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology (Katherine Dunham).
In 1928, Dunham began studying ballet with her first ballet teacher; Ludmilla Speranzeva who had come to America with a Franco Russian vaudeville troupe, also formerly a dancer of Moscow Theater, to then become one of the first ballet teachers to accept black dance students such as Dunham(Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection). Dunham also worked alongside Mark Turbyfill, Ruth Page and Vera Mirova to experiences East Indian, Javanese and Balinese dance forms (Katherine Dunham’s Ballet...). Still attending the University of Chicago, she began teaching dance classes to young people and called her company “Ballet Négre” which she founded in 1931 (Sommer). After a performance at the Chicago Beaux Arts Theater that was attended by Mrs. Afred Rosenwald stern, she was extended an opportunity to visit the Rosenwald Foundation where she was given a grant towards any study helping her to further her dance career in studying West Indian dance. She used this new money to travel to Trinidad, Jamaica, Haiti and other Carribean islands to research and find inspiration even writing about her experiences and selling her essays to magazines under the name K. Dunn in 1935 and 1936 (Katherine Dunham). This trip to Haiti would forever impact Dunham’s life due to the great connection she felt with the people of Haiti as well as to the dance causing the birth of the dance movements she formed. “Modern dance was a coherent lexicon of African and Caribbean styles of movement,” describes the flexibility of the upper half of the body in rhythm with the limbs that then could be incorporated with ballet and modern dance techniques (Sommers).
After this experience, in 1937, Dunham returned to Chicago to found the Negro Dance Group which was a company of African American artists presenting African American and African American-Caribbean dance by adding the dances she had learned on her trip to her choreography (Sommers). In 1939, her company moved to New York City and she became the director of the New York Labor Stage and choreographed a musical called “Pins and Needles,” another production called, “Tropics and Le Jazz Hot: From Haiti to Harlem (her break out production),” “L’Ag’Ya,” and other works (Sommers). These works presented “the essence of “the Dunham touch/technique”” as a cross between Caribbean dance and American movement with early African American dances such as the strut and cake walk, as well as some Latino flavor from Cuban and Mexican inspirations (Sommers). In the 1940’s, the Katherine Dunham Dance Company took on Broadway, touring through the United States, Mexico and Europe where Dunham was given much admiration for her talents as both a dancer, choreographer, anthropologist and scholar (Sommers). She appeared in a few movies in order to maintain the necessary amount of funding for her dance company (Sommers). In 1944-1945, Dunham opened the Dunham school of Dance and Theater, also known as the Dunham School of Arts and Research where not only was dance taught, but also humanities, language, speech and other courses were taught (Katherine Dunham’s Ballet…). In these studios, next generation dancers such as James Dean and troupes such as the infamous Alvin Ailey would learn and pass on her techniques (Sommers).
In the 1950’s, Dunham showed her activist side suing and influencing the passing of a no discrimination law at a hotel in Brazil as well as refusing to sign a contract asking her to replace her darker skinned dancers an perfuming and creating a ballet about lynching in Chile and Paris called “Southland” (Sommers). She wanted others to appreciate such diverse cultures rather than degrade them which she showed through her choreography and productions.
In 1951-1955, the Dunham Company toured in North Africa, South America as well as in Europe (Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collection). The Dunham company traveled around to 57 countries over two decades presenting Europe with their first view of “black dance as an art form” (Katherine Dunham). This exposure to new culture and “unmitigated radiant force providing beauty with a feminine touch full of variety and nuance was a great change for Europe that they came to appreciate because they had no knowledge of its existence before (Katherine Dunham). In 1960, the company was disbanded and decided to only reform on special events. Katherine Dunham wrote several books such as ‘Journey to Accompong” in 1946, which describes her experiences with the Maroons, “Les Danses d’Haiti,” which was published in France in 1957, “The coffee table book of Dances of Haiti” in 1983, “A Touch of Innocence” in 1959, “Kasamance” in 1974, and an autobiography of her childhood called “Island Possessed” in 1969 (Katherine Dunham).
Dunham received numerous honorary doctorates from colleges and countless awards for her contributions to dance as well as life itself such as: the Kennedy Center Honor’s in 1987, the Dance Pioneer Award from Alvin Ailey in 1978, an induction into the Hall of Fame of the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1987, the Albert Schweitzer Music Award at Carnegie Hall in 1979 and the Heritage award from the National Dance Association in 1971 just to name a few (Selections from Katherine Dunham). She also directed the “reconstruction” of many of Alvin Ailey’s works in the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater for the 1987-1988 year opening (Somers). She begun an artist-in-residency at Southern Illinois University in 1964 and retired from the university in 1982 (Selections from Katherine Dunham). She began another artist-in-residency and a lecturer at University of Hawaii in 1994. Haiti awarded Dunham citizenship after she led a hunger strike to end the deportation of Haitian immigrants for forty-seven days until the Haitian president asked her to end it (Selections from Katherine Dunham). In 2000, Dunham was named “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasure” and in 2003 a three day tribute was held in New York City to honor her (Selections from Katherine Dunham).
Dunham married Jordis McCoo, in 1931, but they divorced in 1938. Dunham then met and began to work with John Thomas Pratt who was a Canadian that had become one of America's most renowned costume and theatrical set designer who was her husband and manager until his death from 1941 to 1986 (Selections from Katherine Dunham).
· "Katherine Dunham - Katherine Dunham Biography." Katherine Dunham - Katherine Dunham Biography. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.kdcah.org/katherine-dunham-biography/>.
· "Katherine Dunham's Ballet Teacher, Ludmilla Speranzeva. Photo Provided by Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Morris Library Special Collections Research Center.1928." Katherine Dunham. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.kdcah.org/katherine-dunham/>.
· "Selections from the Katherine Dunham Collectionat the Library of Congress." Timeline: The Katherine Dunham Collection at the Library of Congress (Performing Arts Encyclopedia, The Library of Congress). Web. 12 May 2012. <http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/html/dunham/dunham-timeline.html>.
· Sommer, Sally. PBS. PBS. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/freetodance/biographies/dunham.html>.