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The Great One: Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) Turning Anthropology Into Art.

At the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference, in 1997, Katherine Dunham was over 80 years old and using a wheelchair. Yet she held more than 200 aspiring young dancers and professionals spellbound as she graciously shared stories from her prolific career and answered questions during an informal gathering. It was the first time I met her, and she spoke in a soft yet powerful voice as we all sat quietly and as close to her as possible. One energetic young dancer blurted, "Ms. Dunham, I just want to dance. Why do I have to learn humanities, philosophy, languages and aesthetics as well as the Dunham Technique?"

Her response--one she made whenever her curriculum, a constant subject of debate, was questioned or criticized--was that the Katherine Dunham Technique is based on the integration of mind, body and spirit. She believed that knowledge and understanding of these subjects were necessary for the complete person and, thusly, the complete dancer. We all huddled at her feet, grateful for her pearls of wisdom: She impressed upon us how necessary it is to be tenacious and to persevere, as these characteristics are prerequisites for manifesting our designs for creative expression.

Katherine Dunham was a world-famous dancer, choreographer, author, anthropologist, social activist and humanitarian. She was widely known for creating popular and glamorous revues based on Latin American, African and Caribbean folklore, which acquainted audiences--both on Broadway and around the world--with the historical roots of black dance.

Born June 22, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois, Dunham became one of the world's first black dance anthropologists and one of Hollywood's first black choreographers. She was truly a pioneer. Dunham started a dance school and black dance troupe called the Chicago Negro School of Ballet in 1931, and she started the first internationally touring, predominantly black dance company with its own codified technique. She was the author of many scholarly and journalistic writings on the significance and techniques of various African and Caribbean dance forms.

Katherine Dunham's legacy is vast; her work as a dancer, choreographer and founding artistic director is fascinating and empowering. In the late 1930s, she founded the nation's first self-supporting, black modern-dance troupe, Ballet Negre, which visited more than 57 nations on six continents from 1938 to 1965. Her achievements came at a time of heated racial discrimination, and she fought against Jim Crow laws wherever she traveled, refusing to return to the segregated theaters in the South. One of her works, Southland, created in 1951, depicted a lynching and was a damning commentary on American race relations. It has been suggested that the U.S. State Department's official response effectively blacklisted the company, and withheld financial support, a development that ultimately led to the troupe's demise.

After all that she and others have contributed to the dance world, how is it that there are still barriers and we are still thwarted by the issues of access and equity in the arts?

The Dancer as Author

A prolific author, Dunham wrote several books, including Katherine Dunham's Journey to Accompong (Henry Holt, 1946) and A Touch of Innocence: Memoirs of Childhood (University of Chicago Press, 1959; reprinted in 1994); and she presented dance demonstrations, as well as lectures, at numerous universities. Her unpublished memoir Minefields documents her return from fieldwork in the Caribbean as an anthropologist and her reinsertion into the performance scenes in Chicago and New York during the 1930s and 1940s. Minefields is an archaeological treasure of African American dance scholarship that reveals the cross-pollination of music, theater and dance in collaborations that revolutionized the performing arts.

She collaborated with choreographer George Balanchine on the 1940 Broadway musical Cabin in the Sky, starring Dooley Wilson, Ethel Waters and Katherine Dunham and featuring an all-black cast. The production was staged by Balanchine, and the choreography for Dunham and her company was jointly created by both, although she was not credited in the program for her choreographic work.

Dunham choreographed Aida for the Metropolitan Opera in 1963, making her the first African American to choreograph for the prestigious institution. Her film career began in 1939 with Carnival of Rhythm, an 18-minute short film based on Brazilian themes, which was written by Stanley Martin, directed by Jean Negulesco and produced by Warner Brothers. The film is devoted entirely to Dunham, her company and her choreography, and it stars Archie Savage, Talley Beatty and Dunham. The most memorable full-length film she choreographed is Stormy Weather, the 1943 classic show-business story that starred Lena Horne and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

Dunham was the recipient of some of the art world's most prestigious awards, including the National Medal of Arts, the Albert Schweitzer Music Award (presented at Carnegie Hall), as well as decorations from the French and Haitian governments. In 1983, the Kennedy Center Honors were awarded to Dunham as well as Elia Kazan, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart and Virgil Thomson. In his review of the premiere evening at the Kennedy Center, Alan Kriegsman wrote, "She actually made a new dance language, embracing rhythms, shapes and degrees of bodily freedom until then unknown to American dance."

An Irreplaceable Treasure

In 1935, as an anthropology student attending the University of Chicago, Katherine Dunham was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship that enabled her to travel to the West Indies for the first of several field trips she would take there. After her return, she handed in a thesis for her master's degree entitled "Dances of Haiti: Their Social Organization, Classification, Form and Function." Later, in 1969, she produced a profound book about sacred dances in Haiti, Island Possessed (Doubleday, 1969), while continuing her professional career in the performing arts on the international stage. She was admired for her ability to parlay a year of fieldwork in anthropology into the launching of a successful stage career. She later received the coveted Guggenheim Fellowship.

Regrettably, I never had the chance to work with Katherine Dunham during my 22-year career as a ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. However, as my friends at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater rehearsed and prepared The Magic of Katherine Dunham, I lived vicariously through their precious opportunity to learn from one of "America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures," as the Dance Heritage Coalition declared Dunham in 2000. I remember Gary DeLoatch, a dancer who lived in my building, discussing the challenges of the rehearsals, mainly the versatility required to demonstrate the central idea of the program, which was cultural assimilation and transformation. Dunham distilled dance forms of the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa into a codified system of stage dancing.

Indeed, being in Katherine Dunham's presence was both magical and wondrous. The Great Ones radiate warmth and a sense of peace and self-assuredness as they move through the world, leaving their mark in a profoundly unique way. The legacy she leaves us all is inspiring and empowering. Katherine Dunham, a prolific artist, humanitarian, pioneer, a Great One.

Karen Brown is a former dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the former artistic director for the Oakland Ballet.
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Title Annotation:tribute
Author:Brown, Karen
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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