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Dunham legacy stands at risk.

EAST ST. LOUIS, Illinois--The legacy of choreographer Katherine Dunham--which includes archives, costumes, musical instruments, and her dance technique--is in danger of perishing unless adequate funds are raised. The eighty-five-year-old founding mother of Afro-Caribbean dance in the United States, now wheelchair-bound, has few resources with which to continue and to preserve her work.

Many people assume that Dunham is being cared for because a dance center and a dance troupe sponsored by Southern Illinois University and supported by the Illinois Arts Council are named after her. However, the Katherine Dunham Center for the Performing Arts in East St. Louis has not given Dunham a cent since 1982.

Dunham says she gave the university permission to use her name solely in connection with teaching her technique: "I had no idea they would send a company out and advertise it as they have. They shouldn't call themselves the Katherine Dunham dance group."

Ralph Greene, director of the university's Dunham center, responds that the name was decreed by the Illinois State Legislature.

"It's exploitative," says Marta Vega, executive director of the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York City, which hosted a monthlong benefit salute to Dunham in October 1994. "It's benefiting from a historical legacy they have no claim to."

The Dunham legacy is as fragile these days as the choreographer's two-story home in East St. Louis. For two years the roof was in such bad condition that rain poured into parts of the house. Tubs had to be placed in Dunham's bedroom to catch the water, and boxes containing such archival materials as old choreographic scripts had to be moved to keep them from getting wet. Finally, the roof was fixed. But "the house is [still] in bad shape," Dunham reports. "The ceilings are black from stuff from the attic. I just try not to look up."

Dunham's museum, part of her independent Katherine Dunham Center for the Arts and Humanities in East St. Louis, has no climate control, leaving vulnerable to deterioration instruments and wood carvings from around the world, as well as costumes that once caused some audience members to faint. Her archives, including such gems as a tango written for her by lgor Stravinsky in 1939 (Dunham still hasn't used it), sit in boxes uncataloged.

She could also use money to continue to provide low-cost workshops to East St. Louis youth at her dance center, which does not pay her a salary. "Much of the time I have to help them meet their payroll," she says. There is no film or video record of the Dunham technique, and the choreographer has yet to complete the autobiography that she is writing.

This autobiography will chronicle the hazards Dunham faced (and usually faced down) as the black leader of a multiracial dance troupe touring segregated North and South America in the nineteen-forties, fifties, and sixties. Performing before a segregated house in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1944, she taped to the back of her dress a "For Blacks Only" sign picked up on a bus. After the show, she announced to the audience: "This is the last time we shall play Lexington, because the management refuses to let people like us sit by people like you."

Race remains a factor in the current financial neglect of Dunham, according to Vega, who says that if Dunham were white, this wouldn't be happening. "Anything that doesn't fall within the European artistic framework is seen as marginal," Vega comments.

Dunham has always striven to bridge the gap between the cultures of Africa and the African diaspora and that of the United States. Such understanding is needed today more than ever, as the U.S. Army learned last fall when it raided the artist's dance center in Haiti, believing it to be the site of terrorist activity. After surrounding the compound with tanks, dogs, and barbed wire, the soldiers discovered a group of Dunham dancers inside practicing a voudun dance in celebration of the yam harvest. "Sit down! Lie down!" the troops hollered at the dancers, according to the New York Times.

"I thought it was the funniest thing I ever heard of," says Dunham, who underwent the first of more than a half dozen voudun initiations in the nineteen-thirties, lying on her side for three days, her head wrapped in chicken feathers, almond syrup, and fruit.

Recently Dunham supported President Clinton's decision to send U.S. troops to Haiti, saying it was "the only thing to do." She is now confined to a wheelchair largely as a result of her courageous forty-seven-day fast in 1992 to protest the exclusionary U.S. Haitian refugee policy. "I always said that if Haiti got together, I'd get up and walk," she declares. "I look forward to deciding to walk sometime."

In the meantime, Dunham says, she still dances. "Somebody asked me once when I stopped dancing, and I said never, because you dance inside yourself, or your whole body can move, not just your knees."
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Title Annotation:choreographer Katherine Dunham
Author:Ben-Itzak, Paul
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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